Do you differentiate memoir from autobiography? I do. For me, a memoir, such as Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, deals with a specific aspect of a person’s life, such as a sportsman writing about his career when he retires from it or a person writing about her growing up, like, say, Alice Pung‘s Unpolished gem. An autobiography, on the other hand, I see as something more holistic, something written near the end of one’s life and summing up its entirety. What do you think?
Gabrielle Gouch was born in Transylvania, Romania to parents who’d both fled anti-Semitic Hungary. She moved elsewhere in Romania with her family before they emigrated to Israel, without her older half-brother, when she was around 20. A few years later, she emigrated on her own to Australia which has remained her home ever since. This is the basic chronology of her life, but Gouch is not really interested in telling us this story chronologically – and in fact, she’s not really interested in telling us the story of her life. What interests her is the brother, Tom, left behind. She wants to know about his life during and post communism in Romania. She also wants to know about the gaps in her knowledge of the family.
Gouch therefore doesn’t tell the story in a simple chronology. While she clearly signposts where you are as you read, I found it a little disconcerting to start with, until I felt familiar with the places and people she was writing about. This, however, could be due to other things going on in my life as I started this book. The memoir starts in 1990 with her first return to Transylvania after “the collapse of communism. The eternal and invincible communism”. A return that took place 25 years after she had left. As the book progresses, she visits Cluj several times, catching up with her brother, learning about her family. It’s a sad story – not surprisingly. Tom’s mother, the much beloved, vivacious Hella, died in childbirth. His – and eventually Gabrielle’s – father, Stefan, married the nanny, refugee Roza, hired in to look after the physically handicapped Tom. (As far as I can tell, his condition is hemiplegia, probably caused by the forceps birth). Roza and Stefan went on to have two children – Gabrielle and, somewhat later, Yossi – but country girl Roza was never accepted by Stefan’s well-to-do family.
The book proper starts in 1962 with the family expecting permission to migrate to Israel to arrive any minute. Of course, it doesn’t – and it is not until some 40 or so pages and three years later that they are finally able to leave. They leave without Tom, now well into his twenties, but exactly why this is so is not understood by Gouch. During the course of the book she finds out why – and she finds out what Tom’s life was like under the communist regime. It’s a very interesting story, and once you master the time shifts across the book’s seven parts, it’s a very readable one. The very short Part 2, for example, returns to the opening of the book, her return in 1990. Then Part 3 jumps to 2002 and another trip of hers “home”. From then on the focus is her time with Tom and the stories she gradually pieces together.
Gouch is a good writer. Her language is expressive, but not over-done. That is, she has some lovely turns of phrase that capture moments and people well. Here, for example, she describes her family’s reaction when her mother says something surprising:
We looked at her as if she had made her way into our home by the back door somehow, a woman we had never met before.
And I like this simple description of children:
Well, children are like shares, you never know how they will turn out.
There are two main threads in the book, one being life under communism, as experienced by Tom, and the other being the life of the emigrant, as experienced by her family. The book is enlightening for people interested in either of these topics, but I’m going to highlight the second, the emigrant’s life, because she explains it beautifully – from the tough life her parents experienced in Israel to her own experience of dislocation from culture. She writes, as she starts to reconnect with her brother:
Noone ever told me that you cannot turn physical distance into emotional one, you cannot forget your native country, you cannot give up your mother tongue. It deadens you inside.
She gives one of the best descriptions of the relationship of language to culture that I have read. She meets an old professor who had chosen to stay living under the repressive regime because, he said, “This is my native land, my language. I belong here.” She writes:
His words lingered. ‘My native land, my language.’ For most people, the sound of Hungarian is awkward; for me it is poetry and delight. When I say ‘flower’ in English I refer to a plant with petals and colours. But the word in Hungarian, virág, sounds to me melodious and joyful. Yes, you can learn to speak a language, you can even learn to think in a language but will you feel the same joy and sadness at the sound of those words? Feel the black desperation or be uplifted by hope? Will the word love evoke the same tenderness and ardour? I don’t think so.
Gouch also writes about “history”, about the impact on people of living through some of history’s trickiest times, as her family had. Her description of her father’s life – a loving father who had worked hard – is heart-rending:
A man who was a Jew but not Jewish enough, an Israeli but not quite, a Hungarian Jew among Romanians and a Jew among Hungarians. Finally he left this world with its divisive nationalisms, ideologies and religions which had marred most of his life. He was just another man on whom history had inflicted its painful and murderous pursuits: Nazism, the Second World War, the communist dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli religiosity. History had match-made him, history had controlled his life. It was over. He joined the infinite Universe.
I’ve possibly quoted too much, but Gouch’s words are powerful and worth sharing.
“Knowledge”, Gouch’s father once told her, “is your only possession”. Once, only the swallows were free is a story of discovery for Gouch, but for us, it provides a window into a particular place, time and experience that most of us know little about. The knowledge, the understanding, we gain from reading it is a precious thing.
Once, only the swallows were free: A memoir
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2013
(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)
Last month the Australia Council announced this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Australian Literature. This award used to be called the Writer’s Emeritus Award, which I have written about before. Lifetime Achievement Award sounds better don’t you think? After all, “emeritus” implies retirement but most winners never really retire – at least as far as I can tell.
The award is worth $50,000 and it “acknowledges the achievements of eminent literary writers aged 60 years and over who have made an outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature”. The Australia Council defines this contribution pretty specifically: “Nominated writers must have provided a critically acclaimed body of work with at least five full-length literary works published or performed over their creative life”. Five full-length literary works? I presume that means that if you are a poet or a short story writer, they would expect five published collections?
This year’s winner, though, is a novelist so no worries on the criteria front. The winner is Frank Moorhouse. The Australia Council Literary Strategy Chair, author Sophie Cunningham, said that while it was hard to select a winner:
Frank’s highly influential, intelligent, timely and sparkling contributions to Australian literature over so many years was hard to beat
Frank Moorhouse has an extensive body of work including novels, short stories and memoirs, but he is probably best known for his Edith trilogy, the third of which, Cold light, I reviewed earlier this year. The President of the Australian Publishers Association Louise Adler, who nominated him for the award, said that
Frank’s Edith is one of the great characters of Australian literature, but his career covers a lot more ground than that extraordinary achievement.
His Edith trilogy is a magisterial work that takes Australia to the world and brings the world home to Australia in a hugely original literary endeavour.
Moorhouse is, I agree, a deserving winner. He’s one of the grand old men of Australian culture – and has been a strong advocate for writers and their rights, and for the book industry. He brought with the Australian Copyright Council, for example, a landmark copyright case against the University of New South Wales regarding the photocopying of pages from his work “The Americans, baby”. Controversy is, in fact, often not far from him, such as when in 1994, the Miles Franklin Award judges decided that his Grand days, the first Edith Trilogy book, was “insufficiently Australian” to be considered for the award. And then, there was even a little contretemps over the announcement of this very award. It was supposed to be announced at an event on November 21, but was pre-emptively announced much earlier on November 4. According to The Australian‘s Stephen Romei, in his blog A pair of ragged claws, this was due to Moorhouse who
said he didn’t want a media embargo in place until the announcement because he was opposed to the “cruel” trend towards treating literary awards “like the Oscars” and keeping shortlisted writers in the dark until the envelope was opened.
Clearly, at 75, Moorhouse is not going quietly!
Some past winners are pretty well-known, such as poet Bruce Dawe (200) and novelist Christopher Koch (2007), but others are not so well-known, including Dr Peter Kocan whose win I reported in 2010. Another lesser known winner is last year’s Herb Wharton, the indigenous Australian poet and novelist.
This is a significant award – and worth a decent amount of money – and yet it doesn’t receive a lot of publicity. That’s a shame, not only because the writers deserve recognition, but because better publicity could help inform Australians about their literary culture and about the work of the Australia Council which our taxes support. Anything that raises our literary consciousness would be a very good thing.
In this week’s Monday Musings about the Walkley Awards, I noted that Melissa Lucashenko had won the award for Long Feature Writing for her essay “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan” in the Griffith Review. I’ve now read the essay, and thought I’d share it with you. I’ve reviewed Lucashenko before, an essay and a short story. I really must get to one of her novels one day!
With her mixed European and indigenous Australian heritage, Lucashenko is well placed to tackle significant contemporary issues and see them from multiple perspectives. The last essay of hers that I reviewed, “How green is my valley”, dealt with stewardship of the land and the threat imposed by climate change. In “Sinking below sight” her subject is poverty. Lucashenko’s essays make engaging reading. Instead of dry reportage, she starts from the personal, and from that draws conclusions that make sense. And so, while “How green is my valley” drew from her experience on a farm in northern New South Wales, this essay draws from her return, after losing her farm through divorce, to the town of Logan, one of Australia’s ten poorest urban areas.
You’ve probably noticed that her subtitle alludes to Orwell’s autobiographical work Down and out in Paris and London which chronicles his experience of poverty. Similarly, Lucashenko writes that she’s been poor before, so “I had the skill set”. But, this essay is not about her. She starts by setting the scene, describing this “Black Belt” region as one in which
Welfare recipients and the working poor … don’t necessarily realise they are hard up. More accurately, many don’t realise just how poor they are, since everyone in their lives is battling.
She then moves on to the main topic of her essay, which is to find out “How do my Black Belt peers manage? How do single mums, in particular, get by on current levels of welfare? And what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013?” To answer this interviews three women currently living in poverty – Selma (27), Marie (38) and Charmaine (49) – and discusses their situations.
Selma, a Yugoslavian of Serbian and Croatian parents, has four children under ten and a partner who is in and out of jail. Having been a refugee and then involved with an abusive Aboriginal man, Selma has some clear views on her situation:
What I don’t like in society … is the judgments put on Indigenous and refugee and domestic violence people. I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up! From the age of seventeen ’til about two years ago, domestic violence was part of my everyday life.
She blames poverty for violence, saying that “poverty breeds hate”. Lucashenko suggests that the abuse she experienced “had roots also in the trauma and racism of the refugee experience.”
Marie is also a mother of four, with an “on-again, off-again partner”. She is a member of the “working poor” so not quite as poor as Selma. She grew up in a troubled home, had been sexually molested as a child, and was living independently by the time she was 14 years old. She, like Selma, had a history of “severe emotional and physical abuse from her previous partners, who were all, bar one, Anglo-Australian men”. Lucashenko writes:
Marie spoke to me of feeling enormous rage about the past abuses in her life, rage which sits constantly just beneath the surface.
The third woman is Charmaine, “blond, slim and still able to laugh despite a life that would crush most of us [and] the white Australian mother of four Aboriginal kids”. She too was raped and molested as a child, and ended up in a violent relationship in which she stayed too long.
- Underclass expectations, which see people who grow up with nothing, expecting little
- The importance of public housing in providing some “minimal prospect of safety”
- Loneliness and isolation, which drive single mums back to “untenable situations”
- Violence and mental illness in parents and partners, which entrench poverty for women
- Childhood molestation and/or rape, which all three women had experienced
- Women seeking relief in drugs, which of course can initiate new downward trajectories
Her three women, Lucashenko finds, have hopes for the future. Selma and Charmaine are studying, because, as Lucashenko writes
Realising that poverty is a creation of society and its choices, these two women also know that their lives might shift through higher education.
Pragmatic Marie has a saving plan. Their situations though are tenuous. To achieve their goals, they’ll need strength. Better still, though, would be if they got effective financial and other practical support.
Lucashenko opens the essay with the epigraph that “the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. It’s justice”. Her essay may not be statistically significant from an academic perspective, but anyone who reads contemporary social commentary knows that what she writes rings true – and this, clearly, is why she won the Walkley.
“Sinking below sight”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 41, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review
If you’d asked me to name an Australian artist when I was young, two names would have popped into my head – Russell Drysdale and the indigenous artist Albert Namatjira. As I grew up, other names came to the fore, such as William Dobell, Sidney Nolan, Margaret Olley, Margaret Preston, Jeffrey Smart, and Brett Whiteley, not to mention newer indigenous artists like Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye. Russell Drysdale, in fact, disappeared a little from view – at least, I stopped hearing him mentioned. So, when I discovered recently, via Lisa of ANZLitLovers, that the Tarra Warra Museum of Art in Victoria was having a Russell Drysdale exhibition on the theme Defining the Modern Australian Landscape, I knew I wanted to see it. Fortunately, we had a trip planned to Melbourne during the exhibition. Guess where I went this week!
The thing I have always liked about Drysdale (1912-1981) is that the paintings I knew were simple – in the stark sense, not in the meaning sense! This starkness equates, for me anyhow, with the spare in writing – and regular readers here know that I like the spare. I love the fact that paintings that look simple or easy to comprehend contain layers of feelings and ideas that only become evident if you spend time looking at them. But, of course, as usually happens with exhibitions of an artist’s oeuvre, I learnt things I hadn’t known in my simple (and here I mean simple in terms of understanding) youth. Here are some of those things* …
Drysdale’s early landscapes were rejected by the Modernists
Apparently, the Melbourne Modernists didn’t think landscape was a proper subject for art – despite the fact that Drysdale’s landscapes, particularly those from 1940-1941 when the criticisms were made, were not pretty or simplistically representational. One of his artistic influences was Modigliani, which is obvious in the elongated figures he painted into his landscapes in the 1940s, such as his 1941 “Man feeding his dogs”.
As time progressed, however, his images became redder, starker and darker – and yet, the exhibition tells us, he wrote in 1956:
The vast spaces of the north, endless and old. It’s very hard to reorient oneself. Outside the traffic rushes by as in every city. The hurrying crowd, dressed and neat, and rain splashing on the roads. Neon lights and no stars; but the loneliness of the desert plains seems friendly, and infinitely peaceful. (Drysdale’s journal, 13/10/56)
Friendliness and peacefulness are not, I think, the usual feelings you take from his outback paintings. There is certainly the loneliness, but alongside it is a sense of the hardness of the life, of resignation, and, more positively, of resilience. But, there is also, from the painter, a sense of respect and affection. I found, via Google, an oral history interview he did with Hazel de Berg in 1960, in which he said of the landscape:
It is an environment which I love and which I like to go back to, and for me it has a tremendous appeal, it is continually exciting, these curious and strange rhythms which one discovers in a vast landscape, the juxtaposition of figures, of objects, all these things are exciting. Add to that again the peculiarity of the particular land in which we live here, and you get a quality of strangeness that you do not find, I think, anywhere else. This is very ancient land, and its forms and its general psychology are so intriguing as compared to the other countries of the world that it in itself is surprising.
I wonder what Murray Bail would say about this?
Drysdale was rejected for war service
Drysdale had a detached retina from his teens, which left him essentially blind in one eye and hence unfit for war service, so he (unofficially) contributed to the war effort through his paintings. During the Sydney Harbour submarine scare of 1942 he moved to the safety of Albury. His paintings at this time included soldiers on the Albury station platform. I had not seen these paintings before and found them particularly moving – dark, somewhat disproportionate figures that look weary but resigned. There’s “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” sense about them. (See Soldiers, Albury Station, 1942.)
Drysdale was concerned about environmental degradation
In 1944 the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned Drysdale and a reporter to record the effects of the severe drought that was occurring in western New South Wales. His drawings of dead trees and animals, eroded landscapes, and tired people were printed in the newspaper, and brought him to wider public attention. The exhibition included reproductions of these newspapers. Newsprint is not the ideal medium for such works, but you could still see the power of his feelings about what was happening to the land and the people. The works (paintings and drawings) that came out of this time include somewhat Dali-like surreal but also grotesquely anthropomorphised trees.
He went on in the late 1940s to paint scenes from the old gold mining towns of Hill End and Sofala. The exhibition notes talk of his depicting the impact of “bad farming, reckless mining and unrestrained civic expansion”.
One of the most famous paintings which comes from his Hill End-Sofala period, The Cricketers (1948), is in the exhibition. Its depiction of cricket players dwarfed by stark buildings in a destitute landscape is not the usual way this subject is rendered.
Drysdale was one of the first modern Australian artists to paint indigenous Australians
The exhibition included a few paintings from the 1950s to 1970s which depict Aboriginal people. The exhibition notes describe his concern and empathy for Aboriginal people, for the way they’d been “relegated to the margins”. The notes explained that he first depicted them in the traditional “white settler view of forlorn people”, but then moved to showing them as “silent figures standing in their country” and finally onto a more “abstract representation of their mystic connection beyond the material world”.
One of the strongest paintings from this period in the exhibition, and one of my favourites, is “Bob and Maudie” (1972).
I’m going to finish on a quote that was not in the exhibition, but that I can’t resist. It comes from his longstanding friend, artist Donald Friend. Friend wrote:
He loved gaiety and wild talk and drink, laughter, companionship. Everything, in fact, that was unlike those superb sad empty pictures he made in which a town was an empty street, a pub was one bored man leaning against a verandah post.
Well, he was, like me, the Aquarian – the escapist who could disappear into other shapes…
It’s interesting – the notion of escaping into darker reaches – but Drysdale isn’t the only person to do that, is he.
* Unfortunately, because Drysdale died in 1981, his paintings are still in copyright and so I can’t include any here. However, a Google Images search on his name will retrieve many examples.
The Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism are Australia’s premier awards for journalists. Last week the winners of the 58th awards were announced.
According to the Walkley Foundation website, the awards were established in 1956 by Ampol Petroleum founder Sir William Gaston Walkley. Apparently, according to the website, William Walkley appreciated the media’s support for his oil exploration efforts. That’s rather telling of a different time isn’t it? Anyhow, as a result, he wanted to recognise and encourage emerging talent in the Australian media.
Back then the award categories – of which there were five – were all for print, even though radio had been around for a few decades. Television, on the other hand, had only just started – that year in fact – in Australia. Over the years the awards have changed, particularly with new categories added. In 2013, however, more changes were added, in categories and criteria, after a review was conducted of the awards, led by Walkley Advisory Board Chair and well-known Australian journalist, Laurie Oakes. The review recognised that modern journalism “draws on a broad range of interactive tools and multi-media platforms”. It’s interesting that they needed a review to recognise this, that they hadn’t learnt the lessons from the past when new technologies like radio and television appeared. Anyhow, the aim of the awards is still to maintain and strengthen “commitment to the fundamentals of ‘quality, independent journalism’” but appreciates that quality journalism can appear in many different places.
Here’s what the website says:
For the first time, entry was open to Australian journalists who have self-published, including bloggers and independent operators of online news sites. So too, journalism was invited under the sections of text/print; audio/radio and audio-visual/television to better reflect journalism’s digital evolution as well as specialist All Media categories.
In other words, as Oakes said, “if it looks like journalism and feels like journalism it will be treated as journalism.” According to Oakes, the Walkleys are unique in the world for recognising “excellence across all areas of journalism”.
There are now over 30 categories in which awards are made – and as far as I can see there are no specific categories for blogging journalists. I guess it’s more that blog articles will now be considered in the relevant categories. Anyhow, I’m not going to list all the categories and this year’s winners here. There are some, though that particularly interest me.
- All Media Coverage of Indigenous Affairs was won by Kathy Marks, Griffith Review, “Channelling Mannalargenna”. I don’t recollect having read Kathy Marks before, but apparently she won a Ned Kelly Award for her book Pitcairn: Paradise Lost and has written a few pieces for Griffith Review. This winning piece is about Aboriginal Tasmania, about “a people who were pronounced extinct in 1896, but a century later re-emerged to proclaim their Tasmanian Aboriginal identity, demand land rights and revive traditional cultural practices”.
- Print/Text Feature Writing Long (Over 4000 words) was won by Melissa Lucashenko, Griffith Review, “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan”. Lucashenko has been a regular contributor to the Griffith Review pretty much since it was established. I have reviewed stories and articles by Lucashenko, and have now read this winning essay about poverty in Australia and some of its identifying features. The research is local and, as she says, not statistical but it is powerful nonetheless. I shall write it up separately.
- Walkley Book Award was won by Pamela Williams for her book Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch and the ultimate revenge, which is, rather ironically I suppose, about the decline of one of Australia’s oldest and most respected media organisations. It’s a book I’d like to read. Anna Krein’s Night games: Sex, power and sport (which I reviewed here a few months ago) was one of the three books shortlisted for this award from a long list of nine.
As a fan of the Griffith Review, I’m thrilled to see that it picked up two awards. It has won Walkleys before. It’s good to see that this Griffith University initiative which, in each issue, tackles in some depth and from multiple angles a contemporary issue or concern, is being recognised for the quality of its writers and output.
I was rather hoping that one of the new quality on-line sites would win an award but, as far as I can tell from the list of winners I’ve seen, that doesn’t seem to have happened. However, there is an interesting article at The Conversation on the changes to the Walkleys and in regards to changes in journalism. It looks at the old digital versus analogue debate, the role of user-generated content, and our ongoing need for professional journalists to sift through the available information and present it to us in an intelligent way – because, in the end, it’s not the platform that matters, is it, but the content.
At a time when investigative and long-form journalism is being threatened and when the reputation of journalists for ethical reporting seems pretty low, it’s good to see the Walkley Foundation doing its best to support and encourage the best. I think that’s worth celebrating.
In Diego Marani’s The last of the Vostyachs, which I have just reviewed, the two linguists argue about language. The Russian, Olga, sees language as key to communication across cultures and to conveying plural meanings. She says to the Finnish Jarmo:
Your language has never known the dizzying heights of universality. No one studies it and all you can do is repeat it among yourselves, because it tells of a tiny country no one knows … our language is translated into a hundred others. A hundred other peoples want to understand us, and invent words in their own language which express our truths.
And hopefully, I presume, to then discuss respective truths heading towards mutual understanding!
For Jarmo though:
Translation causes a language to become solider; like blood in a transfusion, which is gradually tainted by impurities … By being translated, a language picks up meanings which are not its own, which infect it and poison it, and against which it has no defences.
Jarmo clearly has no interest in a global world! He’s not interested in change. In fact, at another point in the novel he says “change implies mistakes”. I’ve had many thoughts about change over my life-time but I must say this idea has not been uppermost.
In the next few weeks, I plan to review the current Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation: In praise of a plural world. Having just read Marani, I think I am going to find this even more interesting than I had expected!
Italian writer Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs was originally published in 2002, but the English translation was not published until 10 years later in 2012. How lucky we are that it was, because this book is unlikely to have been written by an English-language writer. Its focus on the relationship between language, culture and place and on darker issues like ethnic nationalism comes from a different – and particularly European – sensibility. We speakers of the world’s dominant language can, I think, be a bit oblivious to the linguistic issues faced by speakers of other languages, particularly in Europe where multiple languages live cheek by jowl. The challenge of communication is an important issue for Marani who works in Brussels for the European Union. His roles have included interpreter, translator, and policy adviser on multilingualism. Marani knows as well as anyone that language is both a cultural and political issue – and this is what he explores in this, his second novel.
However, The last of the Vostyachs is no dry tome explicating the role and value of language. Instead it is a surprising and often funny novel that weaves myth and saga, melodrama and irony through the warp of a crime thriller. It incorporates a number of literary traditions and archetypes: the wild (innocent) man set loose in the city, the spurned wife, the spirit guide, the corrupt obsessive, and the remote cottage in the woods where dastardly things happen. On the night the crimes (murders, in fact) take place, nature runs amok. Zoo animals roam the city and the temperature drops to its coldest in fifty years.
The plot centres on Ivan, who is the last of the Vostyachs, an ancient Siberian shamanic tribe. He is the only one who can speak the language, though at the novel’s opening he had not spoken it (or anything else) for twenty years, not since, as a young boy in the gulag, he’d seen his father killed. When the gulag is suddenly freed, he returns to the Byrranga Mountains but all he finds are wolves. He believes them to be his people who, to flee the soldiers, had hidden deep in caves and turned into wolves. He cannot bring them back to human form but they shadow and protect him.
Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive
Into this mix appears the plain, ethical, Russian linguist Olga who is excited to find a speaker of a language thought to have been extinct and who sees in this language an exciting connection between Europeans and the native Americans. Her old colleague, the womanising, unethical, Finnish linguist Jarmo Aurtova is not so pleased with this threat to his theory of Finnish as the “Latin of the Baltic”, as, in effect, the master language of Europe. Jarmo sounds scarily like Hitler in his desire to prove the supremacy of a pure Finnish language:
In ancient times we were the civilised ones and they were the barbarians. We were the masters, they were the slaves. Not for nothing is the word aryan so similar to the Finnic orja, which means slave.
But now ‘someone’ was trying to throw Finland into the dustbin of history, together with the other conquered peoples who have no future. Aurtova was not having that …
Jarmo cares not if a language or two disappears and dies in the service of his theory. He believes that the fewer the languages the more “we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language”, while for Olga “with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it”. Marani, the creator of the flexible inclusive language Europanto, is on Olga’s side, on the side of plurality. She says
The true meaning of things is hidden from us; it lies beyond the bounds of any one language, and everyone tries to arrive at it with their own imperfect words. But no language can do this on its own. Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive.
The last of the Vostyachs is a ripping yarn that takes us from the tundra to Helsinki, through city streets, down country roads, across ice and onto the sea, as the various characters pursue their passions. But it’s the irony that conveys its main messages – and much of this irony revolves around our arch-villain and misogynst, Jarmo. His guilt as a murderer is revealed through a clue that is gorgeously ironic. In his final speech to the linguistic congress he, an academic for heaven’s sake, exhorts people to “cherish ignorance”, to not learn other people’s languages but “force” them to learn yours. And, most ironic of all, not only is the Vostyach language not destroyed, but by the end of the book, without giving too much away, “it could truly be said to be alive and flourishing” – albeit in a rather odd place.
Partway through the novel, Olga says to Jarmo of Finns that “to communicate with the rest of the world you have to learn another one, you have to venture out among words which are not your own, which you have borrowed from others”. In The last of the Vostyachs, Marani has ventured out and written something wild and rather risky. In doing so, he has produced a novel that’s not only fun to read but also gives the mind much to think about.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers read and enjoyed this book earlier this year.
The last of the Vostyachs
Translated by Judith Landry
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978192196885 (Kindle ed.)