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‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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1975, 240p.

I cannot tell a lie: I don’t think that I’ve ever been as glad to finish a book as this one.  It was a difficult book anyway, and my choice of reading platform was disastrous.  I was reading it on an e-reader and then had to swap to a tablet when the e-reader kept crashing (I suspect that the size of the file is too big for it).

Why so difficult- apart from the technology? Because it is the same story told six times, with variations between each telling, and because there are very, very few full stops.  You could go pages and pages without a pause.  In this regard, it is similar to the short story ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ that I read earlier this year. But a technique that was quirky and interesting in a short story became suffocating in a full-length novel.  I found myself thrashing through the text, as if I were drowning, waiting for somewhere to take another gasp of air. Because I was reading it electronically and the table of contents in such a large omnibus edition did not go down to chapter level, it was not easy to flip through to find where the chapter ended, for fear of losing my place – I’d never find it again.  In fact, I didn’t know where the book itself ended, and as the next chapter started up with the same story again, I began to despair lest I never reach the end of this book.

But I think that that’s how Garcia Marquez wanted you to feel. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die.  In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again.

His country is submerging into debt and decay, and he is kept in power by his debtors, after they have pillaged the nation, causing him to even sell them the sea. He is uneducated and he forces the church and the people to deify his mother after she dies. Although impotent against his international debtors, he has absolute power within his own country, ordering mass deaths at will.  But he is fearful of losing his power, which is why this lonely figure wanders the house at night.

I read this story as part of a course that I am doing through Coursera called Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Between Power, History and Love, delivered in Spanish. Of course, I read the book in English: my mind just boggles at the thought of translating such complex sentences! After hours of translating, I worked out what the lecturers were saying, and their comments certainly added to my enjoyment of the story, but also highlighted to me how much is lost when reading an author who makes so many references to other (Spanish) texts.  I would never have picked it up, but the book pays homage to and subverts at least two other texts: Christopher Columbus’ account of the discovery of the Americas, and a poem ‘The Triumphal March’ by twentieth-century Nicaraguan poet Rubio Dario.  Well- both of those would have just slipped right past me!

The other point made by the lecturers was that this book, one of three ‘historical’ novels by Garcia Marquez, was published during the 1970s. The Patriarch is not named, but he could be any one of the dictators who have emerged from Latin America, and continued to do so when the book was published ( Pinochet in Chile, the Dirty War in Argentina etc).  It is part of a genre of Latin American ‘dictator novels’, but Garcia Marquez’s Patriarch is none of them and all of them.

Worth reading?  Yes – but be prepared for a really difficult read. And buy or borrow it as a real book. It’s just too hard to read electronically.

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‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein

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2017, 257 p

After I finished reading this remarkable book, I tried to think of other biographies (as distinct from memoirs) I had read of living people. I found myself rather stumped.  There’s Bernadette Brennan’s recent literary biography of Helen Garner Helen Garner and her Work but at that point, I came to a dead end. I don’t read celebrity biographies. I suppose that the political biographies issued under the Quarterly Essay imprint (e.g. on Turnbull, Abbott, Gillard) might qualify, although I tend to think of them more as commentary than biography.

But The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of a living, breathing woman, of whom you would have known nothing had not Sarah Krasnostein written this book.  Sandra Pankhurst is a cleaner, based in Melbourne, engaged in cleaning the places you would not want to be.  The rooms in which people have died unnoticed for months; the apartments where young people have died abruptly of a drug overdose; the homes where filth exudes out from under the doors into the unkempt front yards; the homes with a veneer of order on the outside that harbour an interior palimpsest of hoarded squalor that the owner cannot control.

Sandra , who owns and manages Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services, is a hands-on worker. Not only does she know all the tricks in the trade of stain removal, but she knows the limits that timber, carpet and plaster can bear: that sometimes a built structure just cannot be salvaged from the human misery it has contained. She handles people with professional skill, particularly hoarders who have either self-referred or been referred by agencies, but she gets her own hands dirty too.  She disguises her judgment of people’s weaknesses and trauma well; or perhaps she genuinely doesn’t judge.  Because she has had her own trauma too.

Told in alternating chapters, we learn that Sandra was born Peter. She had a terrible childhood in Footscray – and just as the houses that STC deals with are surrounded by normality, so too a childhood of abuse and emotional deprivation was surrounded by neighbours, other kids, street kerbs and suburban disinterestedness.  She had been a husband and father before her sex reassignment surgery; she had also been a drag queen, sex-worker, hardware store owner and wife.

Krasnostein accompanies Sandra as she is at work, flinching at the stench and drawn by the same fascinated horror that I felt as I read about the different jobs.  That same fascinated horror pulls the reader through Sandra’s story too.  Krasnostein talks with Sandra, who admits that there are whole chunks of her story and chronology that are missing through drug use or psychological blockage. She also talks with Sandra’s associates, tracks down people who have known Sandra over her life, trawls through documentary evidence. She clearly likes Sandra, and admires her, but at one point in particular, she is very angry with her. She knows that her relationship with Sandra is as brittle and contingent on acceptance as every other relationship that Sandra has had.

This is a beautifully written book. As it goes on, Krasnostein reveals herself as well, although I found this less satisfying, almost as if as author she was bumping her subject out of the spotlight, with a ‘look at me too- I’ve suffered’. Perhaps that’s unfair.

I commend Text Publishing for the photographs.  They’re colour photographs and well placed in the text, tethered in the chronology of the surrounding pages instead of pre-empting the story. They come in three groups, oddly spaced throughout the narrative. You see Peter and Sandra right at the point you’re reading about.  I found myself turning back to these photographs often.

I have been asking everyone I know ‘Have you read The Trauma Cleaner??’ and urging them to do so. I found it absolutely compelling and disturbing, and literally stayed up all night to finish it.  It won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018, and it fully deserves its success.

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I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.

Strange things from the box of photos No 4

You might remember that we were going through a box of photos, looking for images that could be used in Dad’s memorial service. Ever the historian, I was attracted to things that my brother wasn’t.

Oh dear. My maternal grandmother was an anti-vaxxer.

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‘Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life’ by Jenny Hocking

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2005,  258 P & notes

I don’t particularly remember Frank Hardy.  If asked off the top of my head, I would have said that he died in the 1970s. I’m like the former premier of New South Wales Barry Unsworth who said in 1986, “I thought Frank Hardy was dead. I really did.” In fact, Frank Hardy didn’t die until 1994, but for me he somehow seems always to be of the  black-and-white TV decades, always associated with the races and cigarette smoke. I don’t remember the television program “Would You Believe?” (1970 -1974) which seems to have been a forerunner to “Would I Lie To You?”, on which he appeared as a regular panelist. But I do remember the Channel 2 miniseries ‘Power Without Glory’, for which Frank Hardy was notorious when it was published in 1950 and feted when it was televised in 1976.  It tells the story of John Wren of Collingwood, fictionalized as John West of Carringbush, and the corruption of the local ALP.

Melburnites of a certain age (and older) will be familiar with the underworld figure John Wren and it seems that many Melbourne families have their own John Wren stories.  For myself, my first husband’s family’s foundry was in Johnston St Collingwood, just up the road from John Wren’s tote.  On my side of the family, my own great-grandfather joined in the Sunday morning horse races along Sydney Rd to the Sarah Sands Hotel  ( a turn of the century version of drag racing maybe?) where he ended up beating a horse owned by John Wren, who was keen to purchase the victorious horse. My great-grandfather was not keen to sell. Wren came up to my great-grandfather, assured him that every man had his price, and left his card with him.  I don’t know how the story ended.

The first word in the subtitle of Hocking’s book is ‘politics’, and it was politics that drove Frank Hardy’s life. Hardy, as a member of the Communist Party, was financially supported by the Party for four years to write Power Without Glory. I had naively forgotten that the Communist Party hated the Labor Party as much – if not more- than the Nationalists/Liberals. The book was a way of smearing the Labor party by publicizing links between Labor politicians and the underworld ‘entrepreneur’ John Wren.

In her biography of Frank Hardy Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life, Jenny Hocking describes the writing of Power Without Glory and its effect on the rest of Frank Hardy’s literary work.  It was a big book that Hardy mapped out carefully, researching real-life figures and very  loosely fictionalizing them by giving them pseudonyms with the same initials.  The book’s Wikipedia entry has a long list of the real-life and fictional characters, and the renaming is all rather obvious.  It was an unwieldy book, and it was to solve a narrative problem that Hardy took up a rumour that he’d heard about an extramarital affair and a resulting illegitimate daughter.  As Hocking tells it, Hardy agonized over the inclusion of this illegitimate daughter and so he changed her identity into a son. He was to continue to agonize over this decision in his own reflections on the writing process for the rest of his career.

Power Without Glory was published in 1950 within the context of the Menzies government’s Communist Party Dissolution Act.  It was printed surreptitiously, as seen in a  fascinating article by Des Crowley about the State Library of Victoria’s four-volume copy of the book ‘Proof Copy or Clandestine Version‘.  Almost immediately Hardy was brought before the court by the Wren children for criminal libel of their mother Ellen Wren (Nellie West). Hardy was found not guilty, on the basis that John West was a synthesized fictional character, not a real person.  He had escaped the clutches of the law through the decision that Power Without Glory was fiction but he and his readers knew that, at its core, it was not. The questions of fact, fiction, truth, reality and memory lay at the heart of many of his later works, most particularly The Hard Way and Who Killed George Kirkland?  It was like a weeping sore.

But as Hocking shows, there was more to Hardy’s career than Power Without Glory. Hardy was a member of the Communist Party from youth. Hocking describes the Australian literary scene at the time, when ASIO agents eyed literary figures and organizations with suspicion, and when the Party itself fractured after Kruschev’s revelations about Stalin, and the rise of Communist China.  Hardy was an outsider to academia, he was very much a contemporary of the other realist writers at the time: Jean Devanny,  Dorothy Hewett, Katherine Susannah Pritchard.  Hocking captures well the jealousies and enmities within the various branches of the Society of Realist Writers, and the politics behind the editorship of the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group’s publication Realist Writer as it metamorphized into Overland.  Hardy railed against the “Patrick White Australia Policy” which lionized White but starved Hardy of Commonwealth grants because of his politics. In many ways, he received more recognition overseas that he did in Australia, even though he affected a quintessentially ‘Australian’ identity and stage presence.

Hardy was often impecunious, often because of his gambling, in which he followed his father. He was a difficult husband, conducting multiple affairs, leaving his wife Ross [sic] to cover the family expenses, and in effect doing exactly what he wanted to with little thought of his obligations or responsibilities. He was a loving brother to his sister Mary, who compered that weird Channel 7 trotting show Penthouse Club, which I loathed.

[As an aside, Marieke Hardy who appeared on the late, lamented First Tuesday Book Club, followed her grand-father and great-aunt into screen-writing and television]

He was also heavily involved with the Wave Hill Walk Off, acting as scribe and reporter for Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji land rights struggle.  It was an involvement that drew the enmity of business, the Liberal government and the Communist Party, which dominated the indifferent North Australian Workers’ Union.  It was through this involvement that he became a close friend of Fred Hollows.

I really enjoyed this book, which took me to many events and places that I didn’t anticipate.  Hocking draws heavily on Frank Hardy’s own papers, but also Hardy’s autobiographical writing, newspapers spanning some 40 years, correspondence and papers of a slew of contacts and interviews.  You don’t need to have read Hardy’s works (I’ve only read Power without Glory) because Hocking gives a good taste of their flavour, and her list of Hardy’s works at the end of the book highlights how prolific he was as a playwright, journalist and writer of both short stories and full length novels.  The book is painstakingly researched but easy to read.

But -oh- he was a slippery character.  He was a great ‘yarner’ and gave the appearance of being open, while boiling inside with secrets. His carefreeness barely cloaked carelessness and irresponsibility.

Near the end of the book, Hocking sums up his life:

In Hardy’s fragmented character, the committed political activist, tireless Party worker and determined writer coalesced with the man who shamelessly abandoned himself to the lure of racing, gambling and debt.  It was this divided character, with its alternating obsessions that had enabled Hardy to withstand decades of official disinterest, denial and derision, sustained by a political cultural milieu that he had himself helped create. But the uneasy juxtaposition of literary revelation, political action and personal secrecy within him always threatened to fracture, held together through continuing self-examination and by the unmet promise of eventual disclosure. Although he wrote extensively about himself, presenting each new work as the opportunity for self-reflection and revelation previously denied him, in each retelling Hardy revealed little that was new. (p 256)

Source: La Trobe University Library

Read because: My interest was piqued after reading Paul Strangio’s book about the Victorian Labor Party Neither Power nor Glory

My rating:  9/10

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I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2018.

A couple of days in Marysville

It’s been a rough month or so, and we decided to head away for a couple of days. I’m keen to head back to Tasmania this year but Steve’s U3A commitments preclude going away for more than a week. So instead we decided to head up to one of my favourite places, Marysville.  When I was a child, we used to stay there for a week each September at Marylands Guest House.  We went up there again in about 2005, by which time Marylands was somewhat out of our price league, having been rebadged as Marylands Country House.

Marysville was almost obliterated during the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, along with all its guesthouses.  Although there has been a lot of rebuilding, there is now only one Guest House as such, complete with tennis court, billiard table, table tennis table, lounge, library etc.  That’s what I wanted: not a B&B, not a motel room, but a proper guest house.

El Kanah was originally one of the ‘Mary’ chain of fake-Tudor guesthouses, called Mary Meadows. There’s a picture of it in its Mary Meadows form here.  During the 1970s it was taken over as a Christian enterprise and renamed El Kanah. In fact, my best friend Micheline and I stayed there after end-of-year exams one year.  You can see the pre-fire El Kanah here and some interior shots of the guesthouse here.  You can see photos of El Kanah in the aftermath of the fires here.

The present-day El Kanah is still a Christian undertaking, but no questions are asked about your religious affiliations when you book in.  I don’t know how they would have reacted if we declared our  Unitarian and an agnostic leanings, but they were very pleasant and friendly people. The Billy Graham video, the wafting sound of hymns and ‘blessings’ didn’t bother us. It’s certainly a large undertaking, and I wonder quite frankly how they can afford to run the place.  It’s not cutting-edge in its architecture, but it’s very comfortable, and I’m glad they kept the curved windows at the front to reference the old El Kanah (Mary Mount). It’s a patchwork bed cover sort of place and it only has instant coffee.  If it’s real coffee and modern decor you want, go down to the Vibe instead.

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From the front

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View from our balcony

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Our room

Anyway we had a lovely few days, ambling down to the town for our real coffee and a read of the newspapers, kicking back and reading a whole book in one day in either their very comfortable library or out in the garden, and driving around to the various forest walks.

We drove past where Marylands used to be. When we visited on Cup Day a few years back, there were plans to subdivide the site.  I’m rather pleased that the driveway  lined with oak trees is still the same as it used to be, with no sign of building yet.

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We drove up to Lake Mountain, a popular cross-country ski-ing location. Of course, there was no sign of snow at all on a 25 degree day. We were interested by the Bjarne K Dahl memorial boardwalk which was constructed before the trees all began growing back.  This image on the information board from October 2013 shows the outlook at that time, with the surrounding mountains clearly visible.  There’s been so much growth in the intervening five years that it is unrecognizable.

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That’s not to say that there’s no evidence of the bushfire.  Particularly on the tops of the mountains, there is little regrowth yet.

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I was interested to learn that the reason that Lake Mountain has large grassed expanses is because the mountain ash trees did not have a chance to regenerate after the 1926 fires before they were burned again in 1939. The rapid succession of bushfires disrupted the usual seed-dropping cycle that allows mountain ash forests to recover from fire.

We visited Cambarville, which had been a timber town during the 1940s, following the 1939 bushfires.  It is now an empty site, with a few interpretative signs laying out the school, mill and ‘main’ street.

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It, too, was burnt out during the Black Saturday fires, although it was long gone by then.  It must have been a pretty bleak place to live, with no electricity, mud and inhospitable terrain.

The waterfall walks were beautiful.

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Even though there has been lots of money poured into Marysville to ‘save’ it, there’s still something ghostly about it. I know that we went up mid-week during summer, but it feels as if the rebuilt town is too big for itself.  The Vibe hotel and convention centre dominates the main street, and the rebuilt bowling greens do not have a bowling club to use them. There are very few ruins any more, but many footpath crossings lead only to empty blocks.

The autumn leaves will turn soon.  All of the oak trees in Murchison Street are flourishing, and Marysville will be just as beautiful in autumn as it was before the fires. And it does have a real guest house.

Hardcore History podcast: Blueprint for Armageddon

I’ve taken to trying to walk a bit more for fitness, and so I kit myself up with my smartphone and wireless headphones, turn on a podcast and off I go.  For the past 23 hours I’ve been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History opus, ‘Blueprint for Armageddon’, which runs for six episodes ranging in length from 3 hours and 7 minutes to a massive 4 hours and 29 minutes.  It’s about World War I, told chronologically and based largely on primary sources and a survey of secondary sources.

Dan Carlin is not a historian, but a broadcaster who loves history. He spends too much comparing people and events for my liking, and at times I felt as if the series was descending into trench-porn as he tried to capture the experience of fighting on the western front.  He cited frequently from primary sources from soldiers fighting on different sides, read in a harsh tone to distinguish it from his commentary.

So why did I persist for 23 hours? Well, he did a really good job particularly in the first episode on laying out the groundwork for the war that was to follow, drawing heavily on Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Even though he confessed his frustration at what he left out (even at 23 hours!), I thought that he did a good job of ranging across the different theatres of war, even picking up on the Australians and New Zealanders although his main focus is the western front. He does go on and on about things, but I didn’t mind that as my mind could go off on a little wander of its own, then I could refocus and catch up with what he was saying (indeed, by the time I tuned in again, he was often still making the same point!)  And although he does labour some ideas, at heart they’re often insightful, original and interesting points that he’s making.

Still, that’s enough military history for me for now.

Movie: Wonder

Dad thought I’d probably enjoy this. Then he thought again.  As someone with a cleft lip and palate, I’ve had my own share of stares and cruelties as a child.  I’ve also felt the pain of being the parent of an affected child.  Perhaps it might be too close to the bone? he wondered.

He need not have feared.  I was not uplifted.  I was not cast down. My main response to this movie was nausea at its unrelenting saccharine-ness.

The little boy who starred in the movie does not have Treacher-Collins syndrome. His appearance was created through prosthetics and makeup. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I acknowledge that it would be an exceptional child who could both act and live a life of being stared at and shunned.  I don’t know if anyone would want to play in a kid’s head that way.

On the other hand, there’s something inauthentic about a movie with the message of “you are beautiful no matter what” and “be kind” choosing a non-affected child to pretend to have Treacher-Collins.  Something a little too easy about being able to wipe off the prosthetic and then go on to the next movie.  I’m uneasy about it.