The world changed on 11 September 2001, but did the Australian novel? After 9/11, fundamentalism provoked a significant reaction in the West. The often marginalised topic of religion—particularly as it pertained to Islamic beliefs— was suddenly on the front pew. Moderate Muslim voices were sought, fundamentalist religion was analysed (including the Bush administration’s connections to fundamentalist Christianity and end-time prophecies), and God, long presumed dead (or at least sleeping soundly), became a factor in global conflict.
God, or at least those who believed in a particular version of him, had gone too far. In the West, nonfiction scribes were the loudest and most publicised crusaders. ‘New atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, unwilling to enter a dialogue with religious moderates, impressed upon us the need to stamp out God altogether. As expected, theist authors Karen Armstrong, Charles Taylor, Francis S. Collins and others weighed in with counter-theses. For the past eight years, the war on terror has run parallel with a Western war of words about God’s place in global culture.
But what part have novelists taken in this war? Airports post-9/11 were well stocked with Dan Brown’s take on religion, notably The Da Vinci Code, a novel that questioned the divinity of Christ. At a time when Dawkins and others were calling for the Godhead’s head, The Da Vinci Code saw that readers of popular fiction didn’t escape, to quote the title of a Karen Armstrong tome, the ‘battle for God’.
I’m not sure if there have been more Western literary novels with religion
as a central theme published in the last eight years than in the previous eight, but a number come to mind. Among them is British author A.N. Wilson’s My Name is Legion, published in 2004. A believer-cum-atheist-cum-believer, in this book Wilson both satirised Fleet Street and addressed the role of faith and churches in developing a civil society. Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson published Gilead and Home, novels that dealt with Congregationalist pastor John Ames’ theological struggles. The late Norman Mailer’s last novel, The Castle in the Forest, looked at a potential demonic influence on Adolf Hitler, and the dramatic tension in Zadie Smith’s 2005 work On Beauty was largely achieved via a conflict between atheists and conservative Christians. Finally, the late John Updike’s 2006 novel Terrorist explored the religious underpinnings of an American-born Muslim’s terrorist activities.
Rather than focusing on fundamentalism more generally, Australian novelists have dealt mainly with the specifics of terrorism: Richard Flanagan gave us The Unknown Terrorist, Andrew McGahan published Underground, Australian-born Canadian Janette Turner Hospital wrote Due Preparations for the Plague.1 It is harder to find novels by Australians published in the past eight years that feature religion more generally. In the young adult novel The Gospel According to Luke by Emily Maguire (2006), the drama unfolds as a result of the conflict between a Christian fundamentalist pastor and an atheist abortion clinic worker. In a number of other literary novels, however, religion is present, but reviewers have not much commented on it: Tim Winton’s Breath, Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe, Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus Lost, Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, Ali Alizedah’s The New Angel, Sophie Cunningham’s Bird and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria all come to mind. It could be argued that any novels that address Aboriginal culture have religion as a theme: as David Tacey pointed out in Edge of the Sacred (1995), in ‘Aboriginal cosmology, landscape is a living field of spirits and metaphysical forces’ and humans are seen as intimately linked with this sacralised landscape. Certainly Carpentaria presents mythology and views of the sacred as a point of connection for indigenous political and ecological concerns.2
A marginalisation of religious themes in contemporary Australian novels should, on one level, come as no surprise. ‘Spirituality’, a sense of encounter with otherness beyond everyday life, comfortably forms part of the novelist’s palette, especially in a postmodern West where the search for enchantment has shifted from the depths of the cosmos to the depths of the psyche.3 Furthermore, novelists who deal specifically with religion, especially in Australia, risk alienating their potential readership.
It has become a truism to say Australians don’t like to talk about religion: the dogma ‘People can believe what they want so long as they don’t force it on me’ has for decades formed part of an unwritten secular catechism on religion. Our convict ancestors’ testy relationship with the many churchmen who functioned as hardline moral police for the British Empire is well known, as is our distaste for the triumphalism of American evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and our high scepticism of any creed that makes claims on (or critiques of) our right to idolise sporting heroes, perpetuate the Anzac myth, enjoy one too many at the pub, have a flutter or shop till we drop.
It’s little wonder then that Australian novelists who give religion a central place often do so within a limited either/or, good versus evil framework. Little wonder also that a number of the novels by Australians listed earlier have strong international associations: Turner Hospital (Orpheus Lost) and Brooks (People of the Book) are, in part, North American-based and their books feature overseas settings and characters as well as Australian ones; Tsiolkas (Dead Europe) deals with European approaches to religion from the point of view of an Australian travelling in Europe, and Alizedah (The New Angel) scopes a Middle Eastern family’s concerns about Islamic fundamentalism. In addition, Amy Espeseth, whose ‘Sufficient Grace’ deals with a closed religious community and won the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript by an Emerging Victorian Writer, was born and raised in the United States. Perhaps it’s only when a people or group has publically confronted the reality and outcomes of its religious beliefs, whether fundamentalist, liberal or atheist, that its writers are better able to produce more subtle renderings of theological themes.
Religious themes in novels by Australians, however, haven’t always been polemic or marginal. Arguably our greatest writer, Nobel Prize winner Patrick White, wrote that all his books were concerned with religion, and that what he was most interested in was ‘the blundering human being and God’.4 Echoing Gary Bouma’s sense that Australians had appropriated Manning Clark’s Anzac description, ‘a shy hope in the heart’, in regard to their understanding of religion, White wrote that he believed most people had ‘a religious factor, but are afraid that by admitting it they will forfeit their right to be considered intellectuals’.5
In the 1960s, the decade that followed White’s most religious works, atheist critic Thomas J.J. Altizer instigated the ‘death of God’ movement. Altizer was one of a number of erasers rubbing God and religion from the Australia literary whiteboard. Tim Winton said that when he released That Eye, the Sky (1986), a book Helen Garner dubbed Australia’s first ‘Christian novel’, he expected it to be ‘kicked to death’, adding that ‘the academy and publishing/media were virulently anti-religious. Somehow they let this skinny little novel about a 12-year-old Blake-in-the-making slip through the fence. Maybe the book came at a turning point in the culture . . . the ’90s brought a softening toward the spiritual’.6
The immensely popular and critically acclaimed Winton has a religious affiliation perhaps not as well known to his audience as it is to the Australian literary community. But despite the baggage the label carries in twenty-first-century Australia, Winton said in an interview, ‘I am a Christian and I write novels. My books are coloured by the way I see the world, but that’s not likely to be shared by all Christians, let alone all people . . . You offer your little scraps . . . with respect, with few expectations. For humans, not types of humans.’7
Winton’s Dirt Music was written before the attack on the Twin Towers but published soon after. He has written two works for adults since 9/11: The Turning, a linked collection of short stories, and the Miles Franklin Award winning Breath. In his books written before 2001, Winton’s Christianity was more obvious in his approach (to story, character and setting) rather than its explicit subject matter. Those works have a compassion for characters (Cloudstreet and others), concern for the natural world and nature mysticism (Shallows) and, often, narratives that turn on the occurrence of accidents, which become the root for characters’ suffering and later redemption (Scission, Dirt Music, That Eye, the Sky).8 As Lisa Jacobson pointed out, trauma and transformation, evidenced in the Crucifixion, are central to the Christian faith and often to Winton’s fiction. ‘Dirt Music is a study of human grief in the character of Luther Fox,’ Jacobson wrote of the novel’s main character, mourning the car-accident deaths of family members. ‘To erase [Fox’s] suffering would be to cancel out his redemption: Take away the cross and Christ’s apotheosis is impossible.’9
The Turning (2004) represents one of the few occasions—That Eye, the Sky is the other notable one—in which it seems Winton directly shapes a story by drawing heavily on his religious past. ‘I come from a background of fundamentalism,’ Winton has said. ‘The Bible was everything in the fundamentalist, evangelical tradition I was brought up in, the sole source of revelation, education, reflection.’10 The Turning is also alive with a specifically post-9/11 religious concern: the use of faith as a weapon. Raelene lives with her abusive husband Max in a coastal caravan park. In a strange and disturbing sense, this interaction between the two characters epitomises so much religious violence: an infidel (Max) taunted by the faithful (Raelene); a non-believer doing violence, Stalin against the religious. Raelene meets Sherry, a newly converted evangelical Christian who lives in town with her husband Dan, a Christian and former alcoholic. Raelene wants to have the faith she sees in Sherry, wants to experience what the Bible appears to give Sherry and her husband, but becomes annoyed by their pat answers and unswerving belief. Can’t these people have any doubt? And what about her own experience of God? Why isn’t God talking to Raelene when he seems only too happy to talk to her friends?
When Raelene’s husband rapes, bashes and, we’re led to assume, kills her, as she is gazing on a mini Christ in a snow dome, it’s as if Raelene becomes Christ at the moment she experiences faith in him. The story’s conclusion compresses into a few minutes the Christian journey: conversion (often referred to as a ‘turning’), suffering and the eventual union of the soul with Christ, a process that in normal circumstances takes a lifetime.
Critic James Ley saw in the story an attempt to show that there can be redemption in the worst of circumstances. But he added that Raelene’s passivity in the face of aggression—and his own opinion that Winton hadn’t achieved the transcendence for which he was aiming—provided confirmation for anyone who thought Christianity was a sexist and masochistic faith.11
That critique, however, does not take into account Jesus’ passivity in the face
of his own death, a commitment to non-violence that is, at least for the Christian who takes Jesus’ teaching seriously, a non-negotiable part of their faith. If we also accept Christianity’s idea that Christ mystically inhabits the person who experiences faith in him, Raelene, in the moment of her epiphany and torture, is imbued with the spirit of non-violence that flows from Christ. Raelene’s faith in Christ—and Christ’s inhabitation of her—is stronger than the violence she experiences. Even if a reader can’t ultimately accept these ideas, Winton’s story can be seen as a powerful—and uncomfortable— retelling of the violence-meets-faith motif present in the Gospel story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Winton has been quoted as saying that the early drafts of The Turning were a challenge—‘I found it pretty tough and scary. . .To some extent I was writing about a world I knew, the sorts of people I’d known and observed over many years’—and he was nervous about how it would be received: ‘The violence of it, the fact that I was writing it from the woman’s point of view, the anticipation of being simultaneously labelled blasphemous and politically incorrect (which is sometimes my lot).’ Yet he stayed with the story due to its parabolic nature and the way he saw Raelene enlarged and empowered by her faith.12
Winton’s most recent novel, Breath, immediately refers the reader to something mammals can’t live without; but, knowing Winton’s Christian framework, the title resonates also with the breath God gave humanity in the Genesis creation myth, and Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit into his disciples.13 At first glance it seems Breath takes Winton back to the territory for which he is most renowned: nature mysticism. Numerous critics (and Winton) have pointed to this theme in his work: ‘If we don’t see meaning in the constant making and remaking and refreshing of the very matter we live by, if we don’t see something sacramental in it, we’re doomed fools with contempt for the source of all life,’ Winton has said.14 This is most evident in Breath’s surfing scenes, humans harmonising with nature on the waves, albeit pushing themselves to their limits in this quest for unity. At the same time his descriptions of landscape make Breath quintessential Winton: the environment becomes almost a conscious character, pointing to its own sacredness and our need for intimate connection with it in order to be truly ourselves.
A call for connectedness with the natural world is one of the ‘safest’ points of religious dialogue. Religious moderates and environmentalists are linked by a desire to preserve and respect the environment. Winton offers his Christian-inspired nature mysticism to a readership open to the spiritually transformative power of nature, even if that reader is ambivalent about the origins of Winton’s commitment.
It is interesting to look at Breath’s treatment of sexuality given Winton’s professed Christian faith. Conservative Christianity is linked with a negative attitude towards sex, such that ‘sinfulness’ and sexuality appear intertwined. For that reason, when even a liberal Christian such as Winton writes about fringe sexual activity, it’s necessary to consider his motivations.
Not for the first time in Winton’s fiction, Breath features a predatory woman enacting sexual control over a younger man, in this case a teenager. Eva (the Bible’s ‘Eve’?) tempts Pikelet into sexual misadventure that involves him physically restricting her breath to heighten her sexual pleasure. The experience casts a pall over the rest of Pikelet’s life; it dulls his normal range of emotional and sexual experience and he suffers the consequences of this sexual ‘sin’. Along with the symbolism of Eve tempting man to sin in the Garden of Eden (Pikelet, like Adam, loses his innocence through this experience), we are left with the sense that women—and their sexuality—are dangerous and best approached with caution. It would be almost impossible to come through a fundamentalist upbringing without being imbued with a negative, sterile understanding of sexuality. We can’t know, but perhaps something of Winton’s background asserts itself in Breath.
That said, the sexual behaviour in Breath is also an exploration of risk-taking. All the main characters engage in risky behaviour, whether it be sexual, big-wave surfing, dangerous skiing, diving and holding their breath, or treacherous occupations. Descriptions of addictive sex, whether between an older man and a younger woman or consenting gay characters, would still only have pointed to the larger religious point that Breath appears to make: many of us in the West are addicted to increasing highs, whether via casinos, sex, travel, extreme sports, shopping or house renovation. Pikelet, who spends his life judging ‘every joyous moment . . . and revelation against those few seconds of living’ he experienced during extreme surfing, relates the time he encountered this truth during an adult stint in a mental institution. A fellow resident tells him he is a ‘classical addictive personality’ and then throws a cup of water in his face:
Staff appeared around us crisp and silent as ghosts.
When I was born, I said, I took a breath and wanted more. I found my
mother’s nipple and sucked. I liked that. I wanted more. That’s called being human. I know what you are, the woman murmured.
Yes, I said. You’re the expert.
They led her away to dinner and I sat there alone with my sneer as the tears leaked out of me.
Our desire for ‘more’, Breath says, is symptomatic of being human, but we can find the holism we’re seeking in our endless search for more; when we understand the truth that getting more is actually gaining less, we make a first step towards that holism.
One of Winton’s competitors for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award, Christos Tsiolkas, has mainly been considered a political writer. His novels The Slap and Loaded and the co-written plays Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? (recently adapted for film as Blessed), Fever and Non Parlo di Salo all have politics at their core. Even his 1999 novel The Jesus Man, which features theological themes, was understood more for its political focus.
After 9/11, however, Tsiolkas published Dead Europe (2005). Imagine a trip to Europe, avoiding the tourist destinations and seeking out the rotting parts of each country’s culture, and you’ll have an idea of the novel’s tone. Photographer Isaac’s haunted search for understanding of his past is interwoven with an exposé of contemporary European politics and society. At the same time, the novel offers a view of Australia, and its politics, from the sewer of Europe’s violent past.
Religion and violence have long been interlinked in Europe and Dead Europe as a consequence can’t avoid religious themes: characters want to believe in God, question each other about God, blame God, worship God, spit at God, rape and kill in the name of God, visit and redefine hell, and are possessed. From the Czeslaw Milosz poem quoted at the beginning to Isaac’s eventual understanding of the spiritual nature of his illness, Dead Europe appears, to revisit Patrick White, mostly concerned with ‘the blundering human being and God’. This, from the first page: ‘The first thing I was ever told about the Jews was that every Christmas they would take a Christian toddler, put it screaming in a barrel, run knives between the slats, and drain the child of its blood. . .’
A great deal of White’s fiction, as mentioned, was written when God was still ‘alive’, albeit having his pulse checked. White dealt with the blundering human and God, with characters engaged in religion and seeking redemption, meaning or engagement with a sacred presence.15 Dead Europe, however, is relentless in its depiction of dogmatic characters high on religion, who kill, maim, imprison, rape or lambast each other in the name of it. And, whether contemporary or historical, these characters’ religion is usually medieval: God ‘up there’ with a big stick or the Devil ‘down there’ with a flamethrower (God and the Devil are often interchangeable for Dead Europe’s characters) is out to get them, and if enough blood is spilt in these tyrants’ names they might be appeased. Whether these depictions of religious violence are placed in the past or present, they are, however, in tune with a post-9/11 secular mood about religion.
Dead Europe is also a criticism of the way people offer lip service to God without transforming the way they live. But the theological understandings by which these characters are possessed (in some cases literally) wouldn’t make anyone want to live a virtuous life. Their God is vengeful and the characters, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic, are like ancient humans, believing in a God who demands blood sacrifice. In typical Tsiolkas fashion, Dead Europe deals ‘head on’ with religion, but mainly with the phenomenon in its basest form. The impression is that religion is a force to be reckoned with, but one that remains the province of the opiated and superstitious masses, living out their meaningless existences trying to dodge lightning bolts from heaven.
Dead Europe was viewed as a work that interpreted Australian immigrant culture through the lens of Europe’s past. If the novel had been set in Australia, however, perhaps the religious themes would have been offered greater scrutiny.
While Dead Europe positions religion, like the other issues it addresses (race, politics and sexuality), as just another divisive force, Australian Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book evokes art’s capacity to form a bridge for those divided by religion, even if not all her characters decide to cross it. Like Dead Europe, People of the Book sees an Australian author—albeit one living in the United States—setting a novel overseas, but in this case Brooks deals with both European and American understandings of religion. Da Vinci Code–style, old-book restorer and scholar Hanna Heath flies from Australia to Europe in 1996 to help solve the mystery wrapped in the Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient Jewish prayer book, made in the fifteenth century in Spain. With its beautifully rendered illustrations, the document appears to violate Jewish injunctions against creating images of the divine realm. The book went missing in a 1992 siege in Bosnia, but has been rescued, symbolically, by a Muslim librarian, Ozren Karaman.
Based on a true story, People of the Book traces the history of the Haggadah and those associated with it, from late fifteenth-century Seville to early seventeenth-century Venice; from late nineteenth-century Vienna to Sarajevo in the 1940s, and on to its disputed present in the same city. Each historical section almost functions as a self-contained story and religion is a key force in each, driving the Haggadah’s destiny.
Unlike Dead Europe’s excursions into religious subject matter, People of the Book’s historical characters, while still often imbued by the same medieval understandings of God, are nonetheless more carefully drawn. They also find themselves at theological loggerheads as a result of their connection to the Haggadah, a text that is a strange hybrid of Jewish and Islamic approaches to divine representation.
One of the best examples of this is the relationship between Grand Inquisitor
Giovanni Domenico Vistorini and Rabbi Judah Aryeh in early seventeenth-century Venice. The chapter in which it unfolds, ‘Wine Stains’, is full of both religious subject matter and symbolism (the aforementioned stains on the Haggadah are mixed with blood, creating an eerie echo of the Eucharist), tracking a period in the Haggadah’s history when, as a result of its pages, the three monotheistic religions effectively meet at a holy crossroads.
It is Vistorini’s job to decide which infidel texts must be burnt for contradicting church doctrine. Over a period of ten years, Vistorini forms a close association with Aryeh, a rabbi known for his wit, charm and outstanding exegetical and preaching skills. Vistorini is also renowned for his intellectual capability and in Aryeh finds an intellectual equal and, despite the religious gulf between them, compatriot. Through their mutual love of books, the pair—who both have serious failings (alcoholism for the Christian, and gambling/theft for the Jew)—create an interfaith dialogue that enriches both of them. Despite the conflict inherent in their relationship—and the boiling point it reaches—their mutual love of the Muslim-inspired illuminations in the Haggadah at last sees the book unharmed, despite its apparent support for the infidel Galileo.
People of the Book comments on the survival of religious identity, a survival only possible through an interreligious commitment to respect and a shared appreciation of artistic beauty. The fact that the Haggadah is both a religious text and a work of art, supported and encouraged in its survival by the major monotheistic faiths, provides a symbolic template for religious dialogue through art, an alternative narrative to the one of hatred and terrorism exemplified in Dead Europe.
It is because Hanna Heath, the novel’s protagonist, is an Australian that she is chosen to unpick the Haggadah’s mystery. Others in Europe and America can match her for skill, but none can match the political and religious neutrality provided by her nationality. Yet the assumption of that neutrality is questionable. If statistics are anything to go by, we are not as neutral on religion as the protectors of the Haggadah may believe: according to the latest available data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 85 per cent of Australians describe themselves as affiliated with at least one Christian denomination or recognised world religion. While debate rages about how many of us are what might be called ‘practising’ or ‘attending’ religious devotees, one thing is clear: we might not talk about religion but we generally associate ourselves with it. Even those who mark ‘no religion’ on the census have been shown in the past to pray or place the importance of God high in their lives.16
At the same time, the Australian religious profile is changing; our approach to church life is moving away from denominationalism and attendance as a marker of commitment; we are valuing more highly the spiritual component of those religious commitments, and our embrace of world faiths is growing.17 As these factors begin to leave their mark on our culture, perhaps we will soon see more novels by Australians that leave behind the neat conflicts offered by fundamentalists of both religious and secular persuasion, and delve more deeply into the shy hope that exists in the Australian heart.
- A recent review of Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman’s After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007 suggested we might have a new literary mode on our shelves: the ‘terrorist novel’. Jean-Francois Vernay, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, vol. 9, 2009 <https://www.nla.gov.au/ openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/viewFile/9.R5/1656>, accessed 5 October 2009.
- Frances Devlin-Glass, Antipodes, June 2007, review at <http://www. australianliterature.org/Carpentaria%20review.pdf>, accessed 6 October 2009.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 539–40.
- Patrick White, Patrick White Speaks, Primavera Press, Sydney, 1989, pp. 19–23.
- Patrick White, ‘Letter to Dr. Clem Semmler dated 10 May, 1970’, quoted in Peter
Beatson, The Eye in the Mandala, Patrick White: A Vision of Man and God, Elek
Books, London, 1976, p. 167.
- Jennifer Sinclair, ‘Tim Winton’s Holy Lands’, interview with Tim Winton, Zadok
Perspectives, no. 74, Autumn 2002, p. 8.
- Sinclair, ‘Tim Winton’s Holy Lands’, p. 8.
- Lisa Jacobson, ‘Surprised by Grace: Mourning and Redemption in Tim Winton’s
Dirt Music’, Zadok Perspectives, no. 99, Winter 2009, p. 10.
- Lisa Jacobson, in a paper presented to a 2008 ASAL conference, quoted in Paul
Mitchell, ‘Not Real but True’, an interview with Tim Winton, Breakpoint World
View Magazine, November 2006, online version accessed 8 October 2009.
- Sinclair, ‘Tim Winton’s Holy Lands’, p. 8.
- James Ley, ‘A Job Lot’, review of The Turning, Australian Book Review, October
2004, p. 47.
- Quoted in Mitchell, ‘Not Real but True’.
- New International Version of the Bible, John 20:22.
- Quoted in Mitchell, ‘Not Real but True’.
- Bill Ashcroft, ‘The Sacred in Australia Culture’, in Makarand Paranjape (ed.),
Sacred Australia, Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2009, p. 37.
- Gary Bouma, Australian Soul, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2006, p. 54.
- Bouma, Australian Soul, pp. 52–6, 85.