Partly in jest, the British Marxist writer and urban theorist Andy Merrifield commented, during one of the panels at last year’s Brisbane Writers’ Festival: ‘People who read a lot of Dostoyevsky, end up looking like Dostoyevsky.’ I didn’t need to check the mirror to feel suddenly self-conscious; the great Russian has been a constant reference point and companion throughout my reading life. I find time every few years to re-read his major novels, and my enjoyment shows no signs of weakening.
By the time he came to write The Devils (Penguin Classics), his tragic tale of bumbling political revolutionaries, Dostoyevsky was in the late, reactionary pahase of his life: a thundering old conservative putting too much faith in Russian orthodox spirituality as the path to national salvation. Yet his skill as a novelist and polemicist was undimmed; just as they say the Devil has the best tunes, so Dostoyevsky gave the best lines to those who represented the opposite views to his own. How refreshing, in these times of inflexible, social media-driven narrowing of political perspectives, to witness a writer constructing opposing viewpoints with such verve and profound human insight. I found The Devils echoing 2016’s strange year in politics again and again. It’s comedic too, like much of Dostoyevsky (despite his reputation), with its surreal, hilarious drawing-room set pieces where stately Russian nobility is disrupted not by revolution and nihilist ideology so much as by farce, eccentricity and borderline madness.
Pity the Russians. They’ve been accused of rigging a US election, but that’s the least of it: in just 150 years they’ve come through serfdom, imperial decline, revolution, civil war, collectivisation, famine, show trials, Nazi invasion, legendary sieges, Stalin, gulags, Communism, the Cold War, perestroika, Yeltsin and now the age of Putin. Taking the pulse of this wild history ride at the everyday, micro and personal level is Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time (Text), one of the finest non-fiction works I have read in many years. In their own words, ordinary Russians recount how they have survived the past few decades, and express their opinions on yet another age of turmoil. Truth, in this case, far exceeds fiction; the book is utterly compelling, managing to be both uplifting and harrowing by turns.
From the darkly real to the fantastic: I have also been exploring a range of alternate universes. Much too late to the party, I have at last enjoyed Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (Transit Lounge). I’ve always loved books that riff on maps and mapping, exploring the ways we construct artificial worlds by way of understanding and coping with the real. Rawson offers a vision of a future Melbourne as blasted (and flooded) heath, wasted by climate change and disease. At the same time it’s a light and hopeful read—clearly Rawson had great fun writing this.
Staying with alternate universes, I am just completing Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (Picador). The hallucinatory layering of detail, the acute observations of the everyday, and the utter disregard for conventional notions of narrative make reading Bolaño an otherworldly gift. I have spent a year or two digesting his earlier masterpiece The Savage Detectives and thinking about the dialogue of influences that runs between two Spanish literatures—the European and the South American. Also in the spirit of searching for ‘other worlds’ I sought out Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a book that begins in terrific fashion, flying out of the blocks with a wild and eerie fascination. Unfortunately its last section becomes limp and directionless; what began so fiercely burns out, ending up a squib as damp as the forests wherein the mental asylum is placed. Also patchy—but brilliant when on song, and whose occasional failings might be the result of the translation—is Cristina Sanchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings (Scribe), an extravagantly written story of odd sisters returning from England to their remote mountain village in northern Spain after the civil war, a province wracked by deprivation and suspicion, and still steeped in the rituals of magic and witchcraft.
One always walks the borderline between the real and the imaginary with Nicolas Rothwell, whose recently published Quicksilver (Text) is a work of great dignity and beauty. When I picked up Rothwell’s Wings of the Kite-Hawk (Picador) at an airport way back in 2003, my idea of what was possible in Australian literature was transformed and expanded. In any format—creative writing, reportage or book reviewing – Rothwell brings such rich, encyclopedic knowledge of other worlds to his readers, walking us through labyrinths, drawing unsuspected parallels. Quite apart from the insights from his extensive immersion in Indigenous Australia, his prose is daring and superb, his sentences as beautifully meandering as inland rivers, his observations on art and literature as profound as any Australian writer. He emerges from a fine tradition of ‘outback’ and ‘outsider’ writing in Australian letters, yet is at the same time without precedent: he has created his own school, and deserves much more than his present ‘cult’ status. For anyone interested in the resurgence of landscape and nature writing in Australia, Rothwell is good a place to start: he has set the bar dizzyingly high.
I recently enjoyed Earth’s Breath by Susan Hawthorne (Spinifex), a collection of poems celebrating the cyclones, wildlife and climatic fluctuations of North Queensland—an appropriate read with the storm season well upon us. As the title suggests, there is a heaving of lungs throughout the small collection, a creation cycle of life given and destroyed. This life force breathes through every poem: calm, inhalation and exhalation, each with their corresponding states of nature and of mind.
Lastly, the weighty but wonderful Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II, by Geoffrey Parker (Yale). Sixteenth century monarch Philip II of Spain was the first person to rule over a truly global empire, the first on which the sun never set. Indeed, Phillip’s motto, borrowed from Juvenal, says it all: Non sufficit orbis (‘The world is not enough’). Here four hundred years ago are all the plagues of modern politics and corporate life: the plotting, scheming, jealousy and factionalism; obsessive micromanagers, sycophants, ladder climbing careerists and incompetent time servers; international spy wars, with secrets always uncovered or betrayed; financial malfeasance; government agencies going into bureaucratic meltdown, and justice as slow as treacle. Philip and his court would have felt right at home in the modern world. Over a reign of forty years, Philip spent only six months not at war with someone, but perhaps his most lasting legacy was the consolidation of Spanish rule in the Americas.
Parker’s work is yet another reminder that reading history is all too often the best means by which to know the present; the book has also served as an unconventional yet perfect stepping stone into the much-anticipated Latin American book club, each month this year on RN Books & Arts.
Luke Stegemann is a writer, editor, Hispanist and boxing referee. He is the author of The Beautiful Obscure (Transmission Press, 2017) and is currently working on Blue Corner Redneck, a study of class, politics and amateur boxing in regional Australia.