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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Australian Literary Awards

In recent blogs, I’ve been discussing various Canadian, American and British literary prizes.  I thought I’d research the major literary awards in Australia.

Australia Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal
This literary medal has been awarded since 1928 for “an outstanding literary work in the preceding calendar year.”  It is usually, but not always, awarded for a novel.
The 2015 winner has already been announced:  Drones and Phantoms by Jennifer Maiden, a book of poetry.  “In Drones and Phantoms, [Maiden] seamlessly fantasises dialogues between unlikely pairs: Mandela and Obama, Queen Victoria and Tony Abbott, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.  Within the poems, which are almost entirely void of context and offering no explanation as to how or why, the historical and contemporary figures discuss their wanton desires and moral queries without restraint” (http://www.nswwc.org.au/2014/11/poetry-book-review-drones-and-phantoms-by-jennifer-maiden/).

Miles Franklin Award
This annual literary award is for “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.”  This is Australia’s best known and most prestigious award, though it’s not the richest.  The award is valued at A$60,000.
The 2015 award went to The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna.  “Jimmy Flick is not like other kids - he's both too fast and too slow.  He sees too much, and too little.  Jimmy's mother Paula is the only one who can manage him.  She teaches him how to count sheep so that he can fall asleep.  She holds him tight enough to stop his cells spinning.  It is only Paula who can keep Jimmy out of his father's way. But when Jimmy's world falls apart, he has to navigate the unfathomable world on his own, and make things right" (http://www.amazon.com/The-Eye-Sheep-Sofie-Laguna-ebook/dp/B00K7VHTEM).


Prime Minister’s Literary Awards
These are annual awards supported by the Australian government across several categories, including Fiction.  The awards were designed as "a new initiative celebrating the contribution of Australian literature to the nation's cultural and intellectual life." The awards are Australia's richest with each category winner receiving A$80,000.  This year’s winner has not yet been announced; last year, there were two winners in the fiction category:  A World of Other People by Steven Carroll and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

"A World of Other People is a life-affirming evocation of love in war time, when every decision, and every day, matters.  Set in 1941 during the Blitz, Steven Carroll's cinematic new novel traces the love affair of Jim, an Australian pilot in Bomber Command, and Iris, a forthright young Londoner, finding her voice as a writer.  Haunted by secrets and malign coincidence, the couple struggles to build a future free of society's thin-lipped disapproval.  Iris shares rooftop fire watching duties with the poet T.S. Eliot, who unwittingly seals their fate with his famous verse 'Little Gidding'" (http://arts.gov.au/shortlists/Fiction/AWorldofOtherPeople).

I did read The Narrow Road to the Deep North which also won the 2014 Man Booker Prize.  Here’s my review:
4 Stars
I picked up this novel to read since it won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Though it was at times a harrowing read, it was definitely a worthwhile one.

The novel focuses on Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon and the senior officer whose men, Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese, work under slave labour conditions to build the 415 km railway between Thailand and Burma during World War II. As an old man, he reminisces about this childhood in Tasmania, his torrid love affair with Amy Mulvaney, his war experiences, and his post-war marriage and life.

The depiction of life for the POWs is unsanitized and unforgiving in its details. We read about beatings, starvation and diseases (malaria, cholera, dysentery, flesh-eating ulcers, beriberi). Daily life is filled with grueling labour in either sweltering jungle heat or torrential rains: “They went on trudging and falling, they went on stumbling and slipping and swearing as they thought of food, or as they thought of nothing, they went on crawling and shitting and hoping, on and on” (175). There is no rest from “The suffering, the deaths, the sorrow, the abject, pathetic pointlessness of such immense suffering by so many” (19).

During the war, Dorrigo suffers privations like his men but he is a kind and respected leader who cares about his men: “every day he carries them, nurses them, holds them, cuts them open and sews them up, plays cards for their souls and dares death to save one more life. He lies and cheats and robs too, but for them, always for them” (154). Nonetheless, he constantly feels like a fraud: “The men called Dorrigo Evans Colonel to his face and the Big Fella everywhere else. There were moments when the Big Fella felt far too small for all that they now wanted him to bear. There was Dorrigo Evans and there was this other man with whom he shared looks, habits and ways of speech. But the Big Fella was noble where Dorrigo was not, self-sacrificing where Dorrigo was selfish. It was a part he felt himself feeling his way into, and the longer it went on, the more the men around him confirmed him in his role. It was as if they were willing him into being, as though there had to be a Big Fella, and, having desperate need of such, their growing respect, their whispered asides, their opinion of him – all this trapped him into behaving as everything he knew he was not. As if rather than him leading them by example they were leading him through adulation” (37-38).

Nor is life after the war much better for the survivors: “They died off quickly, strangely, in car smashes and suicides and creeping diseases. Too many of their children seemed born with problems and troubles, handicapped or backward or plain odd. Too many of their marriages faltered and staggered . . . They went bush by themselves; they stayed in town with others and drank too much; they went a bit crazy . . . They went silent or they talked too much” (246).

Dorrigo’s post-war existence is certainly not happy. Adulation follows as he is treated like a war hero, but he does not consider himself one: “He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying.” Like he felt imprisoned by his men’s adulation, he now feels trapped by society’s acclaim: “there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that” (14).

Dorrigo is like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, the dramatic monologue to which Dorrigo often alludes. During the war, he “suffer'd greatly.” Once he returns home, he finds life boring and meaningless: “Wealth, fame, success, adulation – all that came later seemed only to compound the sense of meaninglessness he was to find in civilian life” (254). He feels constrained by the “still hearth” of his life: “It all bored him. [His wife] bored him. . . Home brought on a weary headache. He bored himself” (288). He finds himself constantly “roaming with a hungry heart.”

One aspect of the novel which I especially admired is the author’s unwillingness to portray evil as black and white. We are given the point of view of Nakamura, the Japanese officer in charge of the construction of the segment of the railroad on which Dorrigo’s men are forced to work. Nakamura was raised on emperor worship: “one existed for the Emperor and for the railway – which was, after all, the embodiment of the Emperor’s will – or one had no reason to live or even die” (216). And he had been brutalized and trained to brutalize in turn: “He had been beaten all the time in the Japanese army, and it had been his duty to beat other soldiers. Why, when he was training he had been knocked out twice, and once suffered a ruptured eardrum. He had been beaten with a baseball bat on his buttocks for showing ‘insufficient enthusiasm’ when washing his superior’s underwear. He had been beaten senseless by three officers when as a recruit, he had misheard an order” (238). Dorrigo sees Nakamura at his worst as the embodiment of “the terrifying force that takes hold of individuals, groups, nations, and bends and warps them against their natures, against their judgements , and destroys all before it with a careless fatalism” (219). Such an attitude is amazing, considering that Flanagan’s father was a POW who worked on the death railway.

The one weakness in the novel is the love affair between Dorrigo and Amy. I found it hackneyed and unconvincing. This romance could have been omitted and nothing of value would have been lost. And the lies of Dorrigo’s uncle and his wife make the love story even more trite.

In the end it is the novel’s message of our powerlessness in the face of history which stays with me. This powerlessness is clearly conveyed in a metaphor. One day Amy and Dorrigo go to the beach and she sees fish caught in a wave: “As far as she could see all the fish were pointed in the same direction along the wave face, and all were swimming furiously as they sought to escape the breaking wave’s hold. And all the time the wave had them in its power and would take them where it would, and there was nothing that glistening chain of fish could do to change their fate” (91-92). And then there is the meaningless of our endeavours, an idea expressed in an allusion to “Ozymandias”: “For the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only. And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass” (227).

This book deserves to be reread. It haunts me even though I know there is much I missed. The artistry of it will undoubtedly impress me even more on a second read.