The Commandant (1975) by Jessica Anderson
Charlotte Brontë was 12 and Charles Dickens 18 in October 1830 when Captain Patrick Logan, third commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement, was murdered by a person or persons unknown, his decomposing body discovered in hilly country behind Brisbane Town more than a week after his disappearance. All the signs were of ambush and desperate flight, and Logan’s body showed the marks of Aboriginal weapons.
Over his four years at Moreton Bay, Logan had made the convicts hate him for the extreme severity of his punishments, sometimes a life-threatening 150 lashes. The official report of his death stated that he was killed by Aborigines but rumours began that one or more of the convicts who had escaped into the bush had been behind the Aboriginal attack, and probably ringleaders in it. Jessica Anderson based The Commandant on these facts and on a number of historical figures including Logan himself and his wife, Letty.
Australia has been a sovereign nation for only five years longer than it was a ragbag collection of colonies with their eyes turned to Britain, rather than to each other, and their fates in the hands of the British government under a succession of monarchs. The Commandant is a reminder of the international context in which Australian colonies existed in the nineteenth century chiefly in order to serve British interests under British rule. After the vicious flogging—100 lashes—of a convict called Martin when Logan’s clever, virginal, sexually-awakening and confused young sister-in-law Frances reports, with truth, that he has touched her, the officer who takes over as Commandant after Logan’s death reminds Frances that he is now the representative of the King:
‘I know you blame me, sir, for what happened to [Martin].’
‘You must take part of the blame, Miss O’Beirne.’
‘I do. I shall. But what of the rest?’
‘It is his. I admit it.’
‘Then let me take mine, and let him take his. But let King George take his share, too.’
‘Miss O’Beirne, on this settlement, I am King George.’
Anderson’s novel is a study in character, or rather of character embroiled in politics, set in a remote colony against a violent, unstable and panoramic historical background, and her version of Patrick Logan is fleshed out to become a far more complex figure than is suggested either by his official legacy as a tireless explorer or by his cursed name in popular culture, in such places as the folk ballad ‘Moreton Bay’:
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay.
This may have been the song at the back of Anderson’s mind when she wrote the most chilling scene in this chilling novel, in which the intractable, unbreakable convict Lewis Lazarus, flogged more than once by Logan, goes with the search party to find Logan’s body and when none of the other convicts will touch it, much less wrap it in blankets and bear it back to the settlement, undertakes to deal with it alone: ‘I will bring ’im in alone. I will do it all. Will stitch ’im up, bear ’im to the Limestone, and row the boat … and if ee thinks to defeat me at this stage by stinkin’, why, ee is wrong again.’
He wraps the body and stitches it up, hauls it onto a litter and follows the party back towards the settlement:
Lazarus had gained on them, and was pulling easily, with both ropes over one shoulder, instead of one over each as before. And his face was raised to the sky, and he was singing.
… Henry now understood that while Lazarus’s song might not be cheerful, it was certainly outrageous. Indeed, he heard it now as exultant … But perhaps it was not exactly exultant either, unless there was such an emotion as funereal exultance. It was wordless, harsh, and full of hate, and yet was not debased, for while exulting in one man’s death, it paid tribute to death, and acknowledged the coming death of the singer.
The reaction of Logan’s sister-in-law Frances is briefer and calmer but equally brutal: ‘When she had heard Lucy cry that her father was dead, one cool plain word had formed in her mind: “Good.”’
But against this hatred of Logan in various quarters, Anderson balances a number of positive yet wholly believable traits. Logan is physically strong, energetic and fearless. At least one of his military underlings is grieved by his death. He is tender and affectionate towards his small children, who love and trust him. And his aesthetic and sexual passion for his wife, and hers for him, is evoked by a series of hints that leave the reader in no doubt.
Most intriguingly of all, Anderson hints that Logan’s behaviour is at least partly a result of psychological damage suffered in a long military career that included fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. The term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ was not yet in use in 1975 when this novel was written, but Anderson clearly thinks that some such disorder affected the real-life Logan. This is a book about the terrible damage done to everyone who experienced the convict system: not just the convicts but also the doctors, the military and their families and servants. The Aboriginal people are a presence in this novel of colonialism, but they are represented as mysterious and unknowable.
Anderson made a living writing radio plays for some years, and her experience and skill in this demanding form are on display in The Commandant, which I think is one of the most underrated novels in the history of Australian literature. She is a master not only of dialogue but also of silence, which she uses in the way that a photographer or an architect uses negative space. The novel is intensely cinematic both structurally and visually. Why someone has not yet made a movie of it remains a mystery.
Come in Spinner (1951) by Dymphna Cusack and Florence James
I own two copies of the classic Australian wartime novel Come in Spinner. One is the unabridged version, published for the first time in 1988. The other is an even more battered cloth-bound reprint of the original publication, a heavily cut (let’s not use the harsh word ‘censored’) version of the original manuscript, as Florence James recalls in her introduction to the unabridged text. There is an inscription written diagonally across the corner of the flyleaf, in my mother’s handwriting. It says:
Christine, Kerryn and Wendy.
The fourth of September 1955 was Father’s Day; Christine was six, I was two, and Wendy was 15 days old. My 28-year-old mother had somehow managed—while heavily pregnant, running two small children and a farmhouse in the bush with all the amenities that 1955 could provide there, including electricity supplied by the temperamental generator in the garage—to organise a copy of the book as a gift for my father.
It’s set in Sydney over a hot week in October 1944, the year during which both of my parents turned 17, and it is full of soldiers, sailors, airforce personnel, struggling women, and wartime romances and marriages. Most of it takes place in the Sydney CBD and Kings Cross. By June 1945 both of my parents were in uniform themselves. They met at a dance in Sydney held for members of the armed forces: he was sea, she was air. They were officially engaged when they were both 18, and after my father was demobbed they were reunited, early in 1946, at my aunt Claire’s flat in the Cross. They were married the following year and stayed that way until my mother’s death in 1999.
So Come in Spinner is one of my personal myths of origin. It’s as though my parents walked out of its pages. Naturally I don’t regard this as a reason why it might stand for ‘Australia’; that’s more to do with the astonishing amount of ground covered by this book. In the wake of Pearl Harbor and then Singapore, there is a new and terrifying theatre of war: Australia is fighting less for England and more for itself, allied less with England and more with the United States. There are wartime shortages and hardships, war profiteers and black marketeers, the heartless machinations of the hated Manpower, corruption in high places, brothels, horrible socialites, parasitic rent-collectors, hard-working pastoralists, tired abortionists, fear, hope, realism, delusion, and most of all the physical, emotional and material struggles of women in wartime, as they keep the home fires burning. Or not.
The book is written in a slangy colloquial style you wouldn’t expect from these two highly educated and politically sophisticated writers, but it’s told mainly in internal monologue and dialogue, faithfully reflecting the thoughts and conversations of its subjects. The three main characters—Guinea, Deb and Claire—work in a beauty salon in downtown Sydney’s Hotel South-Pacific, a grand edifice where deals are done behind closed doors, the rich occupy suites on their holidays while Deb the masseuse is lucky to get a hot, small, smelly room next to the service lift-well; the six o’clock closing law means a disgusting drunken crush in the bars; and the management tries to squeeze as much hard work, money, and influence out of everyone as they possibly can. There is a secondary cast consisting mainly of husbands, boyfriends, suitors and seducers, and a minor cast of hundreds, all of which allows Cusack and James to cover their bewildering array of concerns for ordinary people in wartime. In her introduction to the 1988 edition, James writes:
Now that we had time in the Blue Mountains, why not tell the Sydney war story? Why not write about the women’s world we knew, where men’s labour was in short supply and women were ‘man-powered’? We would keep within the range of our own and our friends’ experiences. We would tell the Sydney story as we knew it.
Carpentaria (2006) by Alexis Wright
One day in the winter of 1990 I found myself at an exhibition in Melbourne entitled Urban Koori Art. One of the works hung there for sale was a small mixed-media piece by the young Yorta Yorta artist Treahna Hamm, and I had never seen anything so magical and beautiful in my life. It seemed to me to be using Aboriginal ways of seeing, with its fertile, suggestive natural forms and symbols, while at the same time somehow allowing Western eyes access to its meanings and shapes. It has moved house with me twice since then and even after all this time it still looks uncanny and enchanting.
Ngarrindjeri artist and activist Sandra Saunders, a major player in the long-running controversy over the building of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge that bitterly divided South Australians for more than a decade, later produced a series of mixed-media works on the subject that included a wide-angle view of the mainland, the bridge and the island, taken from the strange and slanted aerial perspective of some imagined high-flying seabird and painted in rich dark jewel colours. Incorporating the bridge that Saunders had resisted for so long into a harmonious vision of the scene, the image radiates a generous spirit of collaboration and conciliation, again giving non-Aboriginal people a kind of window into her vision of that landscape and relationship to country.
It seems strange to find myself thinking about a novel so inventively skilful and playful with language in terms of visual art, but the comparisons persist. Both of these artworks were on my mind by about 30 pages into the Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria; the novel gave me the same sense of awe at such a different way of seeing things I thought I knew. Again, I felt lucky and privileged to be so generously given a glimpse of Aboriginal ways of feeling and thinking, by an artist using some of the Western techniques available to her and to her art in such a sophisticated and imaginative way. Reading her evocation of the coastal country around the Gulf of Carpentaria, it feels as though Wright has gently scraped away the top layer of European settlement and notions of the landscape to reveal the timeless Aboriginal vision beneath and before it:
Picture the creative serpent, scoring deep into—scouring down through—the slippery underground of the mudflats, leaving in its wake the thunder of tunnels collapsing to form deep sunken valleys. The sea water following in the serpent’s wake, swarming in a frenzy of tidal waves, soon changed colour from ocean blue to the yellow of mud … When it finished creating the many rivers in its wake, it created one last river, no larger or smaller than the others, a river which offers no apologies for its discontent with people who do not know it. This is where the giant serpent continues to live deep down under the ground … They say its being is porous; it permeates everything. It is all around in the atmosphere and is attached to the lives of the river people like skin.
In the imagined coastal town of Desperance—Wright loves punning and twinning names; ‘Desperance’ suggests both despair and hope—there are two fringe-dwelling Aboriginal groups who have suddenly gone to war with each other and have become the Westend and Eastend mobs, there is the white population of Uptown, and there is the new invasion of a giant multinational mining company. Perhaps because this is so much a novel of mourning, for the invasion and dispossession of Aboriginal Australians, it’s not mentioned as often as it should be that this book is also hilarious. The narrator has a yarning, gossipy, storyteller’s voice, full of invention and poetry but also given to conversational exclamations: Well! Oh! Goodness!
What Carpentaria does for Indigenous Australians is not for me to say, even if I had any real idea. But what it does for non-Indigenous readers is to provide an eye-opening take on the history of race relations, as well as a new and richer way of looking at Australia’s landscape and geography: a glimpse of how Aboriginal people think of time, and how they see the idea of ‘country’ as a breathing, sentient entity with an ancient mind and soul of its own, incorporating all of its creatures, constantly and endlessly renewed, and the novel ends on this note with a flourish:
Neither spoke, because neither would have heard the other. It was much better to listen to the mass choir of frogs—green, grey, speckled, striped, big and small, dozens of species all assembled around the two seafarers, as they walked.
It was a mystery, but there was so much song wafting off the watery land, singing the country afresh as they walked hand in hand out of town, down the road, Westside, to home.