Arnold Zable, Sea of many returns

He leaps through centuries, tears apart myths, and reassembles them in his own way.

Sea of Many Returns cover

Cover image courtesy Text Publishing

These words that are said of one of the characters in Arnold Zable’s Sea of many returns could just as easily be said of Zable himself – not only of this book, but of his earlier ones such as Cafe Sheherazade. Zable loves telling stories, stories that weave between each other in an attempt to understand the impact of dislocation and exile on the human psyche – well, on his characters’ psyches but it is not hard to universalise this.

Sea of many returns is, essentially, a dual point-of-view novel:

  • the first person narrator, Xanthe, who was born in Melbourne to an Ithacan father and who tells her story; and
  • the third person story of Mentor, her paternal (also Ithacan) grandfather whose journals she is translating.

The story roams, backwards and forwards, from 1895 to present time as Xanthe and Mentor tell of the lives of their family members in Greece and Australia…about all their leavings and returnings, for work or adventure, or more terribly for war or, simply, to find a better life:

The stories I have heard, and am yet to hear, are echoes of one refrain: Is there somewhere on earth where I can find peace and prosper? Once the question is posed, the agony begins, the eternal dilemma: to stay or leave? To retreat behind fortifications, or cast our fate to the winds? (Xanthe, p. 203)

Underpinning this dilemma is the yearning for Ithaca – which translates, really, to the yearning for place, for home. Towards the end of the novel Mentor discusses the notion of “nostalgia” or “the pain of longing for the return”. Put this together with “the Ithacan phobia, the fear that I may never return” and the result is a melancholic – but not depressing – tone, since it is mostly accompanied by, if not always strength of mind, a resilience of spirit.

Not surprisingly, it’s the men who travel, at least in the earlier times of the book. As Xanthe’s aunt says, resignedly, “Let your men roam distant lands. Let them do what they must. What choice do we have? Bend your back to the mountain. Sow and reap”. And so, while Xanthe talks to some of the women in her Greek family, it is the men whose stories she seeks as she tries to understand her father, the angry Manoli, and her grandfather, Mentor. However, the book’s final section, titled “Epilogue: The resident tiller of the soil”, focuses on 90-something year old Irini who, quite paradoxically Xanthe realises, has not left Ithaca since her arrival there 90 years before and yet “is both voyager and teller, Odysseus and Homer”. This is perhaps a little elliptical but it has a certain resonance nonetheless! And Andreas does mutter in the previous section, “To know one place is to know all places”.

While the novel takes on a mythic overtone, it is “history” which provides its backbone and puts flesh on its characters: there are, for example, the way-too-many wars (to which many men go and from which some return), the 1916 anti-Greek riots in Kalgoorlie, the 1953 earthquakes in Ithaca, and the building in Melbourne of Cafe Australia and the Capitol by the Chicago architects, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin. This last one seems a bit odd in terms of the overall thrust of the book but is interesting to one who lives in the city they planned!

I have only touched on a little of what this novel contains – there are the references to the Homeric quest and the story of Odysseus, there is the drunk but wise Niko, there is the beauty of the language in its rhythms and descriptions, and there is music – but if I go on, I might, like its storytellers, never stop. As Andreas says to Xanthe near the end

I have told you one version of the story and tomorrow I may tell it with a different slant. Each word I utter is true and false at the same time …

Paradoxical? Yes! But that is the essence of this lyrical and mesmerising but also rather mystifying – or, is that mythifying – book!

Arnold Zable
Sea of many returns
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 9781921351532

2 thoughts on “Arnold Zable, Sea of many returns

  1. Hi Tony, he was actually born in 1947 (in New Zealand of Polish refugee parents) but came to Australia in his childhood and is based here. He’s a little under the radar really but his first book, a memoir, won several awards (not all top awards admittedly); and his second book and first novel, Cafe Sheherazade sold really well (and I loved it) in the literary fiction market. This book has been longlisted for the 2010 Dublin Impac award. This review of his third book might give you a sense of him:

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