Reviewed: Provocations: New and Selected Writing, Jeff Sparrow, NewSouth Publishing
Jeff Sparrow’s collection of essays, Provocations, shows every era contains more possibilities that the tropes many lean on to tell its stories. The former editor of Overland shows dexterity across a range of arguments about Australian history, politics and culture, which are thought-provoking without being arbitrarily contrarian. Hot on the heels of Crimes Against Nature (2021), Sparrow’s strident contribution to the climate debate, this collection is a compendium of his writing from the past two decades. Sparrow’s talent is in giving a précis as much as being a provocateur: whether he’s writing about the Australian slavery industry (‘A Slave State’) or rewriting history though the lens of a contemporary preoccupation (‘Queer Bushranger.’), Sparrow can take the actual, the factual, and find a hook that sustains readerly attention.
Sparrow’s work on Australian culture shows a sensibility in a way that does not exceptionalise circumstances, nor make himself seem like a purveyor of disenfranchised experience. This perceptiveness can produce classic writing when turned to issues close to home. We can see this this in ‘A Place for Punishment’, which can be considered the definitive review of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But The Mountains. It captures both the book’s ruminative departures from realism as well as the parallels the refugee detention system shares with the German concentration camp. In his close reading, Sparrow places Boochani’s narrative-essay-in-a-book in the tradition of both Kurdish and Australian literatures, championing a pluralist approach to literature that sees endangered languages and cultures alongside dominant ones.
Sparrow writes again with pathos and skill about the death of Sisto Malestpina, the Melbournian restaurateur who intervened to stop a terrorist in 2018 and was killed in the process. This event captured the nation’s imagination and has been evoked in discussions from terrorism to inner-city Melbourne hospitality history. As with the writing Boochani, Sparrow is able to bring something new to the discourse. His potted history of Australian immigration and Sicilian culture’s place in nineteenth-century race science again illuminates a culture-within-a-culture and shows how the narrative of the multicultural left can represent a multitude of stories. Indeed, with an eye always to the past and another towards the future, Sparrow always manages to show journalism’s true purpose: recording the first draft of history.
But Sparrow at his best doesn’t only draw on history. One of the best things he does is to deconstruct hype. This is nowhere clearer than ’Unholy Enthusiasm’, his essay on the Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas—he gives a nuanced summary of some of Christopher Hitchens’s later provocations while directing some of his own towards the atheist Sam Harris. I would have liked to see what Sparrow would make about the debate Harris had with Noam Chomsky—which Harris lost and then published on his website, to the political scientist’s bemusement—but Sparrow sees no need to stoop to dismissive witticisms. He meets Harris on his own terms with some clarifying and critical close readings of Harris’s arguments that suggest Harris lapses into the contrarianism Sparrow himself avoids.
Sparrow also has the gift of being able to zero in on what issues resonate with a public hungry for ideas. His oeuvre include an exploration of pornography and censorship and how they are reconfiguring the political spectrum, to the haunted realism of Melbourne hipster communists and their sense of loss as communism betrays its principles. Sparrow has a way of bringing out the pulse of the present in his writings about history, which correctly identifies trends and multiplicities of historical moments as belonging to every era.
Sparrow writes Australian history in a way that reminds us that, even if it should go without saying, Australia was always more than the barbecue and the beer. His devotion to writing about the novelist and Communist Party of Australia co-founder Katharine Susannah Pritchard across several books is a reminder that Sparrow sees the past as alive, speaking to present dilemmas. Throughout this collection and his work, it’s evident that his positions are sincerely held and based on a view of ‘Australia’ steeped in cosmopolitan values, transatlantic solidarities and liberal hopes that reclaim many ways to tell an Australian story, and argues that Australian stories have worldly preoccupations.