The Convenient Untruth: Reading Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

As a child in Wales, I walked to church three times every Sunday.

St Michael’s church – Llanfihangel Genau’r Glyn – had stood at the top of the village since Norman times, nestled beside an ancient forest. A yew tree in the graveyard was said to be two thousand years old. Mattins was at 9.30 am. Sunday school in the afternoon, and Evensong at six. Dressed in cassock, surplice, and ruff, I sang in the choir, then sat quietly while the vicar recited the prayers and gave his sermon. Perhaps it was here that I discovered the pleasures of boredom, gazing around and imagining stories about the colourful figures in the stained-glass windows (the saint skewering a poor dragon with his lance; the handsome young captain who had died in the Great War). It was here that I fell in love with the sounds and cadences of English through the language of the King James Book of Common Prayer.

For the Lord is a great God: and a great King above all gods.
In his hands are all the corners of the earth: and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands prepared the dry land.
O come, let us worship and fall down: and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is the Lord our God: and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

At Christmas time, I walked with the choir through falling snow, carrying a lantern on a staff, to sing carols at local farmhouses before being ushered into the bright kitchens for hot drinks and mince pies. In summertime, the long evenings were often spent at the vicarage (eighteenth-century, ivy-covered) playing tennis with the vicar’s four, equally adorable, teenaged daughters.

By the age of fourteen, though, a stern voice within me brought all this to an end. Religion was superstitious nonsense, I told my mother in a curt, patronising tone. The idea of an all-powerful creator was no more than a pathetic delusion. I attended church no longer. Coincidentally, the vicar and his family moved to another parish around this time. There were no more summer evenings flirting on the vicarage tennis court.

My views on religion were unchanged when I recently came to read Chris Tsiolkas’ 2019 novel, Damascus. (I let books rest for a few years after publication, so my reading isn’t polluted by reviews or dinner-table conversation). Having written about early Christian history, I was interested in how Tsiolkas (a non-believer like me) would approach the story of St Paul. The Apostle is renowned for his influential epistles, for shaping early Christianity, and taking it beyond the Jewish world. He is also known for his emphasis on Original Sin and his views on women and sexuality which jar with contemporary attitudes.

Tsiolkas is interested in exploring the conflict within Paul rather than making simplistic judgments. The novel begins with a young Christian woman being stoned to death by religious Zealots for the crime of having sex outside marriage. The scene is brutal and painful to read. Only when the smashed body of the woman lies dead do we discover that Paul has been watching. It was he who exposed her ‘crime’. Paul’s actions, we begin to learn, are an externalisation of guilt and hatred of himself for his homosexuality and lust (a possibility much discussed in theological writings). The tale unfolds with Tsiolkas’ customary skill and economy of detail. It leaps across decades, locales, and protagonists, to present a rounded portrait of Paul at different stages of life: transformed by his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus; travelling the Roman Empire to spread the word that a Second Coming is imminent, and that becoming a Christian brings eternal salvation. In the novel, Paul surrenders to Christ’s message of universal love, and is prepared for his imminent return, the ‘end time’. At the story’s end, Paul has died, and his companion, Timothy, is an old man approaching his own end. They have done their task well, however, with the seeds of Christianity planted over half the Roman Empire. At the same time, factionalism and differences within the Church hint at troubled times to come.

Tsiolkas is masterful and empathetic in conveying the conflict in Paul’s mind, and the power of his impact as an evangelist. Yet I could not help being revulsed at observing the birth of the Church – not only because it infused natural instincts with guilt and shame and became such an oppressive instrument of the powerful (from the Emperor Constantine to Putin in the present day), but because belief in an all-powerful creator is simply irrational nonsense, a cruel delusion foisted on the vulnerable, alienating them from power over their own lives. At the same time, we can understand its appeal to people struggling in poverty or distress of any kind, especially slaves in ancient Rome or antebellum America. The message is essentially, ‘Yes, your life is miserable and that won’t change. But obey the Church’s laws and you will be reborn and live eternally after you die’. For people in difficult physical or mental straits, this is a seductive offer. In Nietzsche’s acerbic words, ‘Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in “another” or “better” life.’ Nietzsche, by the way, was always careful to distinguish between the Christianity of the Church and the actual message of Jesus Christ, of loving kindness to all humanity (a kindness so lacking in my own brutal words to my mother).

There’s more to it than this, however. Whatever their circumstances, humans have always needed to understand existence within some overall framework that seems to make sense of their experience, a schema into which they snugly fit. It’s their place in the world. Our sense of self turns out to be a fragile thing. This has become evident in recent years as large numbers of people have become unmoored from reality, coping with the stress of a global pandemic by clinging to risible conspiracy theories and even taking violent action inspired by them. Religion is mocked with cheap jibes by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, but as a scientist shouldn’t he recognise that people indisputably have a need for such an epistemological framework?

This need does not evaporate for people who are fortunate to live in a society like ours which is democratic, rational, and educated. Instead we become invested with a confidence in science (as happened overwhelmingly in Australia during the pandemic) and a framework of liberal values (including human rights) which begin to assume the infallible ‘natural’ authority of Mosaic laws.

It takes a further leap, perhaps, to face the fact that there is no objective, universal framework to our lives. The universe has no purpose. Life is merely an accident which seeks to perpetuate itself. Death is certain. As Camus wrote:

All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world.

For Camus, accepting the senselessness of the world is the first step; the next is to take responsibility for making our own sense of it. But do we have the courage to do this, to forego the comforting fantasies of religion and other absolutist schema? Would St Paul have embraced the Christian message if faced with the knowledge that there is no God and that death is final? How much more impressive that would be – to do good for its own sake, not as a transaction, as a down-payment for eternal life.

Image: Caravaggio. The Conversion of St Paul (1601).

Noise to signal

I never read books when they appear. I prefer to let them sit and marinate on a shelf for a few years before picking them up.

There is always a book of the moment. You’ll remember them all . . . Tsiolkas’ own Barracuda and The Slap, of course. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. They are the novels which everyone seem to be reading or asking if you have read yet (oh happy author). For a few months, it seems, it is everyone’s book club pick and the subject of dinner-table chatter. There are special stands in bookshops and interviews and author profiles in the weekend papers. Even the person next to you on the tram is reading it.

For me, the noise to signal ratio is too high. It’s impossible to read a book and separate my response from influence by the blizzard of others’ opinions about it. Reading is an intensely intimate, personal experience, as much today as when I was a ten year-old curled up on a sofa with the story of Black Beauty. Whatever the book, I read every page twice, fast then slow: once for the story and again for the poetry of it. We rarely pay as much close attention to another person’s words as we do to the those black marks on the page before us.

I let books marinate after I buy them, then. After a few years the noise dies down and I can read them at last, can be alone with them. And so, at last, to Damascus.

Speak, Library

Review of Telltale by Carmel Bird (Transit Lounge, 2022)

In 1790, French aristocrat and soldier of fortune, Xavier de Maistre, unwisely fought a duel in Turin, in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Whether this was over a lover, a gambling debt, or some obscure eighteeenth century slight we do not know. Duelling being illegal at that time, de Maistre was sentenced to house arrest for six weeks. With only his dog and butler for company, the young Frenchman passed the time writing Voyage autour de ma Chambre, a ‘travel book’ in which he explored his room, regarding the furniture and decoration as though they were strange flora and fauna in a distant, exotic land. The book became a cult classic, light-hearted but also a testimony to how the familiar can be rendered new and strange through the imagination.

Without the support of a dog or even a butler, Carmel Bird – along with the rest of us – found herself confined to home for over a year during the COVID lockdown. Like de Maistre, she set out to make a book from this experience – drawing on the contents of her library, her memories, and her thoughts about writing. Carmel Bird has been a solid presence in Australian letters for many years – author of 11 novels, short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award three times, and winner of the Patrick White Literary Award in 2016. Bird is also widely respected as an essayist, editor, and mentor. She is especially proud of The Stolen Children: Their Stories, published in 1988. Her new work, Telltale, she says,’ is not simply an incomplete examination of the books I have read, but also an incomplete examination of myself. I suppose one can open a door upon the other. Self-examination involves, in my case anyway, an examination of my practice as a writer, bringing in many reflections on the working of the imagination, the behaviour of the unconscious mind’.

Bird begins this journey around her library with some precious volumes from her childhood, Brer RabbitAlice in WonderlandColes Funny Picture Book, and others. We are what we read, and she wonders at her different reactions to some of the stories now, perceiving the imperialist and racist assumptions which lie within them. In describing these and later favourites (Proust, Nabokov, Salinger, and WG Sebald among many others), Bird displays her love of books as objects as well as containers for words. She describes their smell and bindings, and the texture of the pages in books of different eras, noting how popular nineteenth century works are often more foxed and friable (due to the invention of wood pulp-based paper). Each book, she recognises, is a sensory experience freighted with different memories and emotions. Another realisation, as Bird voyages along her bookshelves, is how prevalent pandemics are in the background – for example, The Decameron (bubonic plague); Jane Eyre (typhus); Bleak House (smallpox), and The Secret Garden (cholera). We try not to think of them (as we are doing now with COVID) but disease and death are always with us. Bird also makes a bibliographic confession that she says her friends find ‘shocking and repellent’: when an outsize paperback is unwieldy to read (like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature), she simply attacks the spine with an electric carving knife, slicing it into manageable sections, later tied up with a ribbon. I have no words . . .

Writing about the Grimm Brothers’ folk tales, Bird confesses to fascination from an early age with horror, especially in proximity to comfort and sentiment in the tales. ‘It’s a matter of looking death in the face, really,’ she writes, ‘reading and re-reading for the music of the telling of stories of life and death. Ever after, forever and ever.’ This juxtaposition is evident in her own works, including Telltale. Along with Elizabeth Jolley in WA and Gerald Murnane in Melbourne, Bird was one of the earliest teachers of creative writing in Australia in the 1980s. Stories ‘dramatise the traces of the terrors of the human heart, and the heart picks up the traces as it registers the stories. Narrative is nerves and blood,’ she insists. Bird writes as she reads – in ‘a sort of trance’. She ponders on the necessity of solitude to writers. Quoting Robert Hughes in his memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, she notes, ‘Solitude is, beyond question, one of the world’s great gifts and an indispensable aid to creativity, no matter what level that creation may be hatched at.’ But not everyone yearns for a silent cork-lined room like Proust’s. Others can write in the midst of confusion, chaos, and worse. Some are happy to work in a busy cafe, and Bird reminds us that Behrouz Boochani laboriously tapped out his prize-winning No Friend but the Mountains on a phone while behind the wire of the infamous Manus Island detention centre.

Telltale is not a voyage in a straight line. One thing reminds Bird of another, then another, as she veers off in different directions to recount a further memory, book, or anecdote. This feels disconcerting at first. As becomes clear, however, it is deliberate. Bird wears her tangents with pride. She acknowledges this, confessing it is a way of weaving together different periods and aspects of her life regardless of chronology: ‘Telltale is composed of two different kinds of narrative. One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface?’ As she points out, while the physical details of a memory may be clear, ‘ the principal element that has been retained is the feeling. Perhaps the feeling is the meaning’. Memory does not possess a clock. Incidents which happened decades ago may feel as fresh as something that happened this morning. What binds this warp and weft of life is imagination – the books in her library – where, as Bird writes, ‘Strange magic is a given, and it has its own potent, mysterious logic – an ability to take a reader to the far side of time’.

Telltale opens with one of Bird’s earliest memories, of being a five year-old standing on a bridge over the Cataract Gorge in Tasmania, on the way to a family picnic. Below her was the terrifying spectacle of the thundering Tamar River. Ahead was a park with her family spreading out a tartan rug and peacocks calling to each other among the rhododendrons. She felt suspended between the past and future, between passivity and action, between one moment and the next: ‘I am so small, high up above those waters, transfixed and terrified, suddenly snapped out of everyday consciousness and into a brief flash of truth. A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep. I am alone in time and place.’ This moment has stayed with Carmel Bird all her life, gathering more and more meaning. She later discovers that this was the very day the allies fire-bombed Tokyo, killing over 100,000 civilians – the deadliest air raid in history. She wonders if a little Japanese girl there was dressed just like her in neat grey socks. In Telltale‘s final lines, she recalls being a child again back on a bridge over the abyss, full of horror and fascination. The memory is outside time. Bird still stands there, suspended, and – thanks to this moving and enchanting book – she always will be.


My new novel, The Winter Palace, will be published by Penguin Random House in February 2024.

The Winter Palace is a tale of love and war spanning a lifetime, from pre-war Poland, to Siberia, Palestine, and Australia. It explores the mystery of how love endures despite all which conspires to destroy it; despite the passing of time which exiles us relentlessly from our own past.

Strangers on a train

Review of Travelling Companions by Antoni Jach (Transit Lounge, 2021)

Travelling Companions is a book made to read in lockdown. We Australians are renowned travellers. The year spent backpacking after university is a rite of passage, and we think nothing of flying 1,000 km and back for a lunch meeting in Sydney or Melbourne. Being locked in ‘Fortress Australia’ for a second year is especially frustrating, therefore (though trivial compared to the impact of COVID-19 on many other countries, of course). The next best thing to a Qantas ticket, then, is a vicarious journey through Europe is the company of a master storyteller.

This is the plot of Antoni Jach’s new work, describing a journey which starts in Barcelona and curves across Europe to end in Rome where the narrator flies home to Melbourne again. He meets various other travellers from around the world who tell stories to each other, especially Nina, an alluring Milanese whose tales are ever more extraordinary and captivating. Any reader expecting an easy ride on a travelogue is soon disappointed. The intial train journey to Avignon is delayed, then postponed; the travellers are turned back to their starting point before setting out a second time by bus, only to be held up yet again by French farmers who have blockaded the autoroute. The bus turns back . . . it feels like there are more delays and digressions here than in chapter one of Tristram Shandy. What can the passengers do but pass the time by telling stories?

We hear from a Dutch commercial traveller haunted by his ancestors’ wealth being built on colonial exploitation in Java. A postman in Poland steals and opens love letters, making ‘improvements’  before re-sealing and sending them on their way. There is a stockbroker who moonlights as a courtesan offering the expensive SGE (Superior Girfriend Experience). A philosopher who turns to the family business of art forgery. We also learn about the travellers’ lives, the story of the historical sites they visit, and much more besides. It soon becomes clear, though, that something odd is happening. Set in 1999, it’s remarkable how the journey feels like another epoch when the characters cannot stay in touch by mobile phone, before they can use a single currency throughout Europe, or make flight and accommodation bookings via apps instead of queuing at a travel agency or struggling through a telephone conversation in another language to a distant hotel. It’s more than this though . . .

 As well as acutely observed characters and situations, there is something delightfully artful going on. The same details crop up in different tales told by different people. A reference to Pinoccio. Clairefontaine notebooks. In Venice, the narrator dreams of a ring and finds one on a footpath the following morning . . . he gives it to an Australian girl who returns it to him in another city . . . an American companion plans to give his girlfriend a ring in the hope she will marry him, but she refuses to accept it and walks onto her plane and out of his life. The recurring details, circling stories, and performance of departures and returns, make Travelling Companions more reminscent of oral storytelling than a compact modern novel. The narrator carries Bocaccio’s Decameron with him, but his tale hints at a far older, pre-literate tradition, when travelling storytellers would recite a long chain of stories linked by a subtle thread, such as Scheherazade, for example. The need for story is deeply ingrained in human cultures, whether narratives around millenia-old rock art or the latest must-see TV serial such as Mare of Eastwick. Stories make sense of the random data of everyday life. They place us in space and time. We recognise the characters and situations and feel that, perhaps, we are not alone in the solitary confinement of our skulls after all.

Travel itself is a kind of story. On the road, we are living a narrative with an intense awareness of having been somewhere different yesterday, and that we’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. Everything is new. Away from our usual habitat, there is a heightened sense of existence as Jach’s narrator recognises. We give ourselves permission to be someone a little different if we want, and permission to watch others and our surroundings more closely. ‘I’m like blotting paper’ soaking up impressions, Jach writes, and ‘I’m just a solitary traveller looking for people to talk to, so I don’t fall off the edge of the flat earth’.

Reading Travelling Companions began to remind me of watching a Fellini movie, so it was no surprise when one of Jach’s characters exclaimed, ‘my life feels like  or La Dolce Vita . . .’ In unfamiliar surroundings, his characters undergo metamorphoses like Fellini’s, transformed by the tales they hear and of which they are a part. ‘We hold our personalities together with paperclips,’ Jach writes, ‘and those paperclips are the stories we tell each other.’

At one point, the travellers stand in a Venetian art gallery before Gorgione’s The Tempest, famously one of the most mysterious paintings ever created.  In the foreground, a woman on the right suckles a child at her breast. She is nude, with her pubic area visible, yet the impression is of innocence and trusting vulnerability, not sexual display. On the left stands a young man with a pike, well dressed and looking pleased with himself. They do not look at each other; in fact, each seems to inhabit their own space. In the background a storm looms over a city which might be Padua as lightning crackles across the sky. Jan Morris called it ‘a haunted picture’. The Tempest is an enigma which viewers must construct their own stories to explain. For the characters and readers of Travelling Companions too, it is stories which make sense of our lives – the lies that tell the truth.


Giorgione, The Tempest (c.1508). Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

Maigret and the crime of being alive

Maigret is one the great fictional detectives, yet he is also unique, quite unlike all others. Why are stories about the Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire of Paris so different?

There’s no denying his popularity; the numbers tell the story. Agatha Christie wrote a dozen books about Miss Marple and 33 on Poirot. Georges Simenon published a whopping 75 Maigret mysteries, which have sold over 600 million copies. These aren’t potboilers either. Each is a gem of a novella at around 40,000 words. John Banville calls the Maigret books, ‘extraordinary masterpieces’ and André Gide’s praise was even higher: ‘The greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature’. What is more extraordinary is that he wrote each book in little more than a week. For anyone who has spent agonising years writing a novel, it’s enough to make you weep. Simenon would prepare himself like an athlete – as obsessive about writing as he was about money, sex, and every aspect of his life – then shut himself away in his study, barely eating or sleeping until the job was done.

There are three principal aspects of a successful detective novel: the plot, the atmosphere, and the hero’s character. Without all three parts of this machinery working smoothly together, a book is unlikely to succeed or satisfy the reader.

The Maigret plots follow the model established by Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: an inexplicable crime surrounded by a veritable shoal of red herrings, which by observation of details and a process of abduction, the hero solves the mystery, identifying the guilty party. However, this is probably the aspect of the story which interested Simenon least. In his Intimate Memoirs, he confessed that his writing method was to list the characters and their background, plan the house where the action takes place, and then not write a plot, but only find some incident to trigger the story, before making it up as he went along from there. The plot performs a necessary but essentially mechanical role: it provides a skeleton on which the flesh of the story can be built up.

Like other fictional detectives, Maigret operates in a distinctive setting which creates an atmosphere for the books. As 1930s LA is for Philip Marlowe, the foggy streets of Victorian London for Holmes, and the country houses of England for Poirot . . . Paris is Maigret’s manor. From the fashionable apartments of the sixteenth arrondissement to the night clubs of Montmartre, he is at home everywhere, with everyone. The city becomes a character in the novels, infusing each with a particular atmosphere, drawing in all our associations from memory, music, and movies.

It is the character of Police Commissioner Jules Maigret which differs so much from the familiar tropes of the genre. Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, Poirot, Rebus, Wallander or Vera . . . they share common characteristics. Most are loners, solitary figures often operating as private investigators. Maigret, however, is a career police officer who works with a loyal team of detectives. They live alone, often in a run-down or eccentric apartment. Maigret, however, shares a comfortable bourgeois home with his wife, Louise. They generally have something dark and unresolved in their past which haunts them (broken relationships, grief, wartime trauma). Maigret seems fundamentally happy, free of guilt or worry. They often drink excessively or take drugs (starting with Sherlock Holmes and his infamous coke habit.) Maigret likes a drink, but probably no more than the average Parisian. They have an obsessive personality, making relationships with others difficult. Maigret has none of this friction, is happily married, and enjoys nothing more than a quiet dinner with Louise before an evening walk holding hands. Finally, there’s often a signature habit (a verbal tic such as Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’, or Rebus’ regrettable for fondness British ’80s rock music, for example). Here, at least, Maigret conforms to type with the immovable pipe in his mouth as an aid to cogitation.

Maigret’s unique character and approach to criminals are the source of his charm and fascination for readers, rather than the plots or crimes themselves. Simenon described this attitude in Maigret in Society:  ‘He did not take himself for a superman, did not consider himself infallible. On the contrary, it was with a certain humility that he began his investigations, including the simplest of them. He mistrusted evidence, hasty judgements. Patiently, he strove to understand, aware that the most apparent motives are not always the deepest ones.’

The Maigret novels are not so much who-dunnit or how-dunnit, but rather why-dunnit. The Commissioner certainly uses evidence, but the most compelling proof for him is that of the motivations and emotional lives of his suspects. His motto is ‘understand and do not judge’. All people are the same to Maigret. He is comfortable with anyone – whether duchess, surgeon, prostitute, or dock worker –  and treats them equally and empathetically as interesting subjects who will help him to understand humanity better. His perspective is closer to that of a priest or anthropologist, rather than the hero of a traditional detective novel. The focus of Simenon’s real interest may not even be the criminal, but an informer or witness whose character is exposed by Maigret’s attention after the crime.

Detective novels are primarily for entertainment, of course, but also satisfy an unconscious need for confirmation that the world of crime, disorder, and violence can ultimately be subdued by rationality, by logic and reason. They reassure middle class readers that they and their way of life are ultimately safe. Simenon did not see things this way. For him, the chaos of humanity and its frailties is a permanent state of affairs. The best we can do is to recognise this with humility, to strive to understand it with compassion, and to ameliorate it as best we can. It is simultaneously a bleaker and yet warmer perspective on humanity.

Reviewing a TV crime series, JG Ballard mused that, behind every fictional murder, the real crime being investigated is ‘the crime of being alive. I fear that we watch, entranced, because we feel an almost holy pity for ourselves and the oblivion patiently waiting for us.’ Simenon would have nodded in agreement. What Maigret investigates is the human condition itself. There is no escaping our nature or our mortality, but Maigret is like a parent who never disappoints: the stout, dependable figure of the Commissioner is always there, pipe in hand: understanding, forgiving, and kindly as he delivers us to justice.

Image: Rowan Atkinson as Commissioner Maigret in the 2016 ITV series.

The school of pain

Total eclipse of the Sun, Turkey, 29 March 2006.

It’s not easy to write about pain . . .

After all, there’s something humiliating about it, isn’t there? Whoever you are, there inevitably comes a time in life to bow down and submit to this physical torture your body is suffering which knows no mercy. Pain feels almost shameful. It advertises our vulnerability and mortality. Even animals seem to know this, creeping away to suffer alone. A fox licking a crushed and bloody paw beneath some bush where it cannot be seen.

By middle age, most of us know a little about pain. For women, there’s childbirth, of course, and then there are accidents and injuries, surgery, disease and chronic conditions, and trauma too. All pain feels personal, like a torture technique designed with you alone in mind. I once asked a surgeon how a wound would feel after that day’s procedure. ‘Imagine there’s a long strand of barbed wire inside you,’ he said, ‘and someone is slowly pulling it out through your skin.’ He was remarkably accurate. Pain comes in many colours: aching, acute, referred, grumbling, and everyone’s favourite – breakout pain, the sudden stab that make you gasp and cry out for mercy.

‘No one needs to feel pain these days,’ doctors reassure us. Somehow, though, medication and other measures can struggle to keep up with that jagged line in our bodies screaming out for relief. It is not only the pain which hurts, but the awful awareness that we cannot do anything about it. Like you, perhaps, I have had my moments. Kept awake all night long, turning constantly from side to side, trying to fool myself that one position hurts less than another. Days spent in hospital on a morphine drip, greedily watching the clock until I can press the pump again for another blessed spurt into my bloodstream. These are the times when we crash into the cruel, sharp edges of life at last.  How we respond becomes a part of who we are, learning hard lessons in the school of pain.

This is pain, then. Imagine being in utter darkness apart from a point of sharp, bright light in front of you. It hurts intensely, even with eyes closed, yet there is nowhere else to look. It might as well be the spotlight trained on your face by a torturer, or the fierce glow of the blowtorch he is holding. Like nothing else in life, except the sexual climax, pain totally drains awareness of anything else and focuses you exclusively on that one bright and savage point where you hurt. Unlike an orgasm, though, it goes mercilessly on and on. It has a single all-consuming effect – a desperate desire for it to stop.

Pain is personal. It feels like being beaten up by invisible thugs every day. Wherever the hurt is, it shows on your face. Humiliated by the experience, you curl up internally. It becomes difficult to give attention to anything beyond what you are feeling. The world beyond ceases to exist, or at least it hardly seems to matter. You are unresponsive when someone tells you about their day – there’s little sympathy left over for anyone apart from yourself – and then follows the inevitable guilt, making you feel even more cut off from the world, with only your pain for company.

But pain also teaches us that we are embodied beings. Our body and mind suffer as one entity; they are not separate. This at least is a positive discovery, if we can manage to be philosophical and stoic about it. We learn another important and terrible lesson, too: that sometimes we are powerless and have to surrender to what seems unendurable. You must train yourself to let it pass through you, like a wave through water. To do this with as much grace as we can muster seems the most important thing in the world. And then we can wait for that far-off hour when the pain fades away – when it becomes, at last, merely something to write about.

On reading Ghost Species

Ghost Species

Why do we read novels? Why are we the only species which has such an ability (and compulsion) to create and hear stories – these ‘untrue’ tales, like memories of things that never happened? We know they are not real, yet they clearly matter to us in some profound way.

Many works of fiction appeal because they provide a form of comfort. They relay parables which reassure readers that their way of seeing the world is correct. We may agree with many of these perspectives, but what’s the point of reading answers with which we already agree? On relationships, on politics, on environmental issues or the ‘unfairness’ of society, there is a danger of complacency – of simply congratulating ourselves on ‘thinking right’. Rather, as James Baldwin wrote, the aim of fiction is surely ‘to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers’. Good novels do this by creating alternative worlds. They shimmer alongside our own, similar but strangely different. It is a kind of magic. They offer new ways of seeing the world, of seeing people and relationships from other perspectives. After reading a good book, you are never quite the same person.

These thoughts were in my mind when I picked up James Bradley’s new novel, Ghost Species. I was taken aback. There in the prologue, these very thoughts were laid out on the page:

Are we the only animals that tell stories? Do the birds? Do the fish? The elephants? The whales and dolphins? And if they do, what shape do those stories take? For surely story is as much a way of being in the world as a way of describing it? A means of comprehending the way all that surrounds us hums through us as we live?

This story begins with Kate, a renowned genetic engineer, flying into a remote research facility owned by Davis, a tech billionaire who seems an unnerving blend of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. He asks her to work on a project to revive extinct species (she has already spotted a pack of thylacine in the grounds). These are part of Davis’s mission to restore a healthier, pre-human ecology in response to the impact of the climate emergency. So far, so sci-fi, I thought, immediately reminded of the opening scenes of Alex Garlands’s Ex Machina. Davis asks her to join a secret team to create and bring to birth a Neanderthal baby. Kate says yes, and here the story take off. An embryo is developed from surviving neanderthal DNA, a surrogate mother found, and at last a baby is born.

For Kate, the thought of the little creature being brought up in a lab as a ‘proof of concept’, without affection or an emotional bond, is unbearable. (Her response brings to mind the pity evoked by the famous Harlow monkey experiment, in which newborn rhesus monkey clung to a wire-and-cloth ‘mother’ in a pathetic bid for affection.) Kate kidnaps the baby Neanderthal, named Eve, and spends several years hiding out with her before being recaptured. By now they have developed a loving relationship and stay together as a family. When Eve is a teenager, though, Kate develops an inoperable tumour and soon dies. Eve is alone in the world as well as the only one of her species, just at a time when changes to the climate and ecosystem are accelerating and society begins to collapse.

James Bradley has developed into a master storyteller. His prose is ‘frictionless’ in the best sense. Any more detail would be too much; any less would be too little. The unnamed Tasmanian setting is evident to an Australian reader, but is sufficiently evocative to satisfy an overseas reader. Climate change and ecological disruption rumble in the background and increasingly play a significant part in the novel, but Bradley does not strain for effect here as some might – the reality speaks for itself. Similarly, technology hints that the action is set a little into the future, but not far enough to be intrusive or evoke a more distanced response.

Eve, the Neanderthal, is an impressive creation. Writers have attempted this before, notably William Golding in The Inheritors. Bradley has an advantage, however, in that the genome of Homo neanderthalensis was fully sequenced in 2013, and subsequent DNA analysis as well as archeology is allowing us to learn more about their lives. This is not essential for a work of imagination, but it makes for a fascinating read, and must have been an exhilarating challenge to write. Eve is a rounded, convincing character who just happens to be from a different species. Without being an identikit construction, she has enough Neanderthal characteristics to remind the reader (and herself) that she is different. Eve’s appearance is noticed by others (bulkier, broader nose, and larger eyes). She is slower to develop theory of mind when young (struggling at first to imagine how others think and feel). The centre of her consciousness is more embedded in her body than her mind, and at first she instinctively communicates through gesture rather than words, though she learns language and comes to speak as well as any Homo sapiens. When Kate, her adopted mother dies, it is Eve who moves to the centre of the novel.

Since the publication of Clade in 2017, Bradley has been recognised as a leading author of eco fiction, as a sort of spin-off from science fiction. Genre is a necessary evil for writers, placing books into a reductionist category which nevertheless gives the hapless bookseller some idea of where to place them. Bryan Aldiss regarded Frankenstein as the foundation of all science fiction, and we can recognise the story as one that has been told over and over again until the present day, in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, for example. Mary Shelley’s masterpiece transcends genre and is far more than a scientific horror story, of course. Like any good novel, it takes on new meanings for each generation, for each reader, for each time it is read.

The same is true of Ghost Species. Eve’s situation will resonate with anyone who has felt ‘the same but different’ in society: an awkward adolescent; a child of immigrants regularly asked ‘but where do you really come from?’; someone affected by disability or a mental health issue, or who is coming to recognise that their sexuality or gender doesn’t fits easily into a box. Kate’s situation resonates too, alienated from her own chaotic, alcoholic mother, yet discovering love for a child who is not quite human. Like each of us, she locates her full identity by recognising the responsibility we owe the past and that we owe to future generations. This is the case for our species as a whole, too, as the consequences of the Anthropocene become ever clearer.

Ghost species by James Bradley (Penguin 2020)

Dr Kwong, the bright moon, and a problem with time

Nostalgia. noun.
Derived from the Ancient Greek νόστος
(nóstos, ‘returning home’) + ἄλγος (álgos, ‘pain’).

There comes a time in life when we’re able to pause and catch our breath at last, and to take a look back at the past. Our mind turns to vivid memories of childhood and youth. Whatever happened to the person who sat next to us in class, or the one we had a first crush on? Perhaps we make a sentimental visit to where we grew up, wondering at how much has, or hasn’t changed. How small the town and buildings look now! How intense those memories, saturated in colour and emotion, compared to whatever we did last year!

Emigrants feel this nostalgia deeply. For them, distance in time and space have become confounded: they can be lovesick for a place and a past that no longer exist. The home country has kept changing while their memories are frozen in time. Exiles feel the pain of nostalgia even more sharply, forbidden even from returning to the landscapes of their youth.

Andrew Kwong is an exile. A GP on the NSW Central Coast, he was brought up in rural China during the horrors of the Maoist Great Leap Forward of the 1950s (when millions starved) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (when millions of educated and cultured Chinese were persecuted and murdered). His 2020 memoir, One Bright Moon, tells the story of this upbringing, and his escape to Macau, Hong Kong, and eventually Australia.

There has been a wealth of migration memoirs in recent decades, with a number relating to China. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin are the best-known examples. A Penguin Book of Migration Literature anthology was also published in 2019. Kwong’s One Bright Moon is a valuable addition to this genre. He vividly evokes a childhood of feeling constantly hungry, with his family persecuted for being ‘bourgeois’ (as his parents had university degrees), yet still eager to be a loyal follower of Mao Zedong and wear a coveted red scarf. Speakers on every street corner blared out revolutionary exhortations all day. Every year, so-called traitors with ‘incorrect thoughts’ were publicly executed in front of the townspeople. As a little boy, Kwong witnesses one of these killings and feared for his own family. His father has to attend ‘thought-cleansing’ sessions in the evening, and the entire experience sounds like being plunged into a real-life version of 1984, which of course it is. George Orwell understood how totalitarian regimes operate long before anyone else.

After the family spirit young Kwong out of China, he attends school in Macau before being smuggled to Hong Kong. From there, he managed to move on to Australia and then medical school. It’s not long before Kwon is married, established a general practice in NSW, and has a family of his own. While his father was eventually able to escape, his mother remained in China during the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, causing everyone great anxiety. Only 20 years after Kwong’s escape was she finally able to leave, reuniting the entire family for the first time. This is the ‘one bright moon’ of the book’s title.

What lingers in the mind after reading the book is not only the dramatic moments, of which there are many, but also the author’s intense accounts of small details and incidents from his youth. Being given a delicious Arnott’s biscuit, from a packet sent by family overseas; the scent of incense sticks burnt to honour their ancestors, fishing with his friends to eke out the family’s food. Every precious memory is rescued and restored to the world. It’s as if, decades after living in Australia, he has to pinch himself as a reminder that he is not still back in Maoist China. This is not only about the trauma of political oppression, but also about the mystery of time passing for all of us. After all, how can a clock ticking compete with the intensity of our memories and emotions?

Time is a mystery for philosophers, astrophysicists, and clockmakers alike. Is it another dimension like space, which can bend and change shape? Are there many ‘times’ just as there are three physical dimensions, with others strongly suspected to exist? And how can we even imagine it, from the absurdly narrow perception of a species which lives for less that 100 revolutions of the Earth around our sun? In the universe, there is no such thing as ‘a long time’ for there is no comparator. No sooner has something happened, then it is gone for ever. When we remember past times, though, and the deep personal and emotional meaning they have for us, then they live on inside us, sometimes more ‘real’ than the present, that tick-tock procession of ‘now’ followed by ‘now’ and so on. Andrew Kwong’s memoir is a dramatic tale of survival during a tumultuous period in history, and also an evocation of the fact that what matters to us – what gives meaning to all our lives – is independent of time passing.

No one describes this better than another exile, Vladimir Nabokov, in his memoir, Speak Memory:

Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love – from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter – to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behaviour of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time.

One Bright Moon is published by HarperCollins.

The Tale of Genji: Reading in a time of pandemic

For Genji, too much was never enough . . .

When I was in my twenties, I worked at home for several years. I was writing a thesis on Lolita, gazing out at an oak tree in the garden of my cottage, and making endless cups of tea. BBC Radio murmured in the background, the ubiquitous soundtrack of British life. Every morning, the presenter announced the winner of a ‘round tuit’ – listeners nominated someone who was always going to ‘get round to it’ on some household task. It was harmless chatter in between the music which I need when working.

In the years since, I’ve accumulated a formidable list of works I mean to read, when I get round to it. Among these is The Tale of Genji. Nestled in the ziggurat of books beside my bed – between DeLillo’s Zero K and a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft – Murasaki Shikibu’s novel has lain untouched for years. One reason for this delay is the work’s formidable reputation (‘Am I ready for it?’). Another is the commitment it requires; The Tale of Genji is a doorstopper of nearly 400,000 words. It is 1,200 pages long, and weighs over a kilogram. But if not now, when?

While the pandemic rages, I am working at home again, in isolation like everyone else. It is a silvery eucalyptus tree that I see in the garden. Once again, I make countless cups of tea while Spotify plays in the background. The time has come to read The Tale of Genji.

Scholars dispute whether the book is a novel or not – or whether it was the first. Yet it doesn’t need a label to be recognised as a great work of art. The Tale of Genji is a richly-embroidered tale of romance and intrigue at the court of the Emperor of Japan, written around the year 1,000 CE. Apart from literary quality, it is invaluable as a historical document, providing an acutely-observed insight into Japanese life and culture in that period.

What were your ancestors doing a thousand years ago? Mine were sitting in a wattle-and-mud hut somewhere in Britain, coughing as they huddled around a smoky fire, and waiting for someone to invent the chimney. The urbane comforts of Roman Britain were long forgotten. Yet on the far side of the world, a level of civilisation had arisen beyond their imagining. In Japan, this flourished in the Heian (‘peace’) period between the ninth and twelfth centuries: a period recognised as the classical era of Japanese culture, in architecture, music, literature, and art. There was a huge cultural flowering – comparable to that in Elizabethan England.

The Imperial Court was based in Kyoto. Among the courtiers was the woman now known as Murasaki. She was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, and a renowned poet and novelist in her own lifetime. The Tale of Genji is her greatest work. Most females at this time were married soon after reaching puberty. Murasaki, however, stayed at home with her father well into her twenties. He was a renowned scholar and poet, and she was an eager student. This turned out to be a great advantage when she joined the court, to be a companion for the Empress Shōshi, who had joined the imperial harem at the age of 12. The Empress too, seems to have been an enthusiastic student, and the two became lifelong friends bonded by a love of literature.

Murasaki was not not only a keen observer of life at court, she was finely attuned to the complexities of human relationships. Drawing on her experience, she imagined the most noble man of all: the son of an emperor, charming, handsome, intelligent and cultured, a poet and musician, cunning yet kind-hearted. His name is Genji.

The novel recounts his life at court and many romantic affairs. He falls from favour and is exiled for years. Returning to Kyoto, he marries several wives and takes many consorts (Japan was a polygamous society during this era). Over the years, he does not discard the women he is involved with, but retains them as lifelong friends – adding more and more wings to his palace to accommodate them. Each keeps her household of servants and a private garden designed to her wishes. Sometimes Genji passes an entire day visiting them in this chain of pavilions, chatting, playing music, and reciting poetry. (There are over 800 waka poems in the novel.) At other times, he is skilfully navigating the complex power-play between rival families at court. The tale covers decades, including around 400 characters, and lasts beyond the end of his life. Despite many affairs, Genji’s deepest love is for his life companion, Murasaki (by tradition, the author has been named after her). Once she dies, he is plunged into a fatal grief. His last words to her echo lines of the poet, Henjō, we are told:

Above, below, the dew falls soon and late,
As if to tell us the story of the world.

’Grief does not correspond exactly with love,’ Genji muses. ‘When an old and continuous relationship comes to an end, the sorrow is not just for the relationship itself . . . it is the proliferation of memories . . . that makes for the deepest sorrow.’ The following chapter is entitled, ‘Vanished into the clouds’. It is a blank page. When the story resumes, Genji is referred to in the past tense. Murasaki has described his passing in the most elegant way possible. Genji had every advantage anyone could desire. Yet for him, too much was not enough, as he hungrily sought new experiences. Murasaki’s death teaches him that the quality of experiences is what matters, not their quantity. He wishes that they could have lived a thousand years together, yet knows the final moment of that thousandth year would still come around.

The Tale of Genji paints a shimmering picture of that distant place and time a millennium ago. Genji’s palace of pavilions in Kyoto, gardens alight with lanterns. Mountain-top monasteries above the clouds. The lonely, wind-swept strand of his exile. This world seems exotic, yet also very familiar at times. Murasaki is able to write convincingly from the perspective of both male and female characters. Relationships are immediately recognisable as authentic. When the wife of Yurigi, Genji’s son, has had enough of his behaviour, she storms off to her parents’ house, leaving their young sons behind. ‘So you leave your brats behind for me to look after, do you?’ he asks. ‘Now they’re my brats, are they?’ she replies angrily. The bickering could be from a Family Court transcript of today. Despite the conflict, Murasaki makes it clear that they love each other too, and work – sometimes painfully – towards a new understanding and appreciation of each other.

When Arthur Waley’s translation of Genji was published in the nineteen-twenties, reviewers compared Murasaki to Jane Austen and Marcel Proust. The breadth of her portrait of a society over decades, and her precision in rendering characters, relationships, and how people talk to each other, justify these comparisons. Murasaki moves with absolute mastery between narrative, poetry, characters’ interior monologues, and her own, sometime acid, asides. Like Remembrance of Things Past and other ‘great works,’ being labelled as such can make The Tale of Genji seem daunting and marmoreal. This is a pity. Murasaki’s novel, Like Proust’s, is deeply human, full of humour and sexual adventures, as well as psychological and social insights. Yet the delight she takes in portraying Genji and his society is accompanied by a profound awareness of its ephemeral nature. This is the concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ) – a melancholic sense of the transience of life, seen even today in the Japanese fondness for travelling to watch the cherry trees’ brief blossoming.

We do not know Murasaki’s actual name, but some of her diaries survive, covering the years 1008-1010. Here she imagines how other women at court see her: ‘awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, and scornful’.

I like her already.

Murasaki Shibiku. The Tale of Genji. Translated with an introduction by Edward Seidensticker (1976).