Friday, June 30, 2006

Books: literary ventriloquism (I wish I'd said it first)

Another reviewer somewhere on the internet described this book as a feat of literary ventriloquism. I couldn't have said it better myself. So I won't. *

Matthew Keane has written a superb book about, well, the closest approximation of what it is about is to say that a three mismatched Englismen travel to colonial Tasmania to find the Garden of Eden, on a Manx smuggling ship that was chartered to them because the captain needed to pay off his debts to British customs. That's the closest approximation of the truth about 80% of the story. There is a parallel story of the Aboriginal Tasmanians who were all but wiped out in a few decades by British settlement, or invasion, of their homeland.

A lot hasn't been said about this period over the years. It is a dark stain on history, from which nobody emerges looking good: particularly the settlers. All over Australia the power of British armoury and the idea among some people that it wasn't a sin to kill Aboriginals brought out the worst in people. Aboriginals were hunted for sport, slaughtered because they were in the way of agriculture, or because they stole the occasional sheep. They were wiped out by disease and turned to alcoholism for entetainment and profit. By the mid eighteenth century, mainland Australia had matured beyond the worst attrocities - with Sydney and melbourne being quite large towns by then - and Aboriginal numbers so reduced, that this behaviour was becoming a rarity. In Tasmania, however, the horror was in full, bloody, swing.

Matthew Keane has written his story in the form of diary entries written by the key characters - including Peevay, a Tasmanian Aboriginal. The diaries are intercut with eachother, and skillfully written in markedly different voices, and with utterly different personalities. They are superb and utterly believable.

The diary of one character, Peevay, the Aboriginal, can be a bit irritating to read because his voice is not like a modern Aboriginal's. Matthew mentions in the foreword, quite correctly, that there is no way to know how a Tasmanian Aboriginal might have spoken or written English. (Comparing an 1830s Tasmanian Aboriginal's diary to the speech of a modern Western Desert aboriginal is like saying a 19th century Bedouin doesn't sound like Tony Blair - it's about the same distance in time, space and culture.)

All this is by-the-by, however. The true genius of this book is that Matthew Keane has managed to get inside the heads of people on both sides of a cultural chasm - both of whom think that they are doing the right thing, and not understanding why the other is so unccoperative. You see, the true tragedy of genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginals and the colonisation of Australia is that - while some abhorent people did some abhorent things - most of the damage was done by Europeans who thought they were doing the right thing.

It is a superb book. I wholeheartedly recommend it, especially if you are trying to understand why Australians don't laugh at jokes about colonialism.

(The BBC Radio 4 Book Club has invited 24 other Australians and me to ask some questions of Matthew Keane tonight. So listen on September 4, or September 7, at 4pm to put a voice to the typing. I'll be the one named Damian.)

* If I could rememeber who it was, I'd offer a credit, but I don't, so I can't. Sorry if it was you.


Blogger pinochiette said...

Glad to have found your blog. I always like to have a peek at what other people are reading (on the metro everyone tries to hide their book covers from me so I can't see the title) and often people are just reading the same old blockbuster. So all this is good, very good.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger Damian said...

Thanks Catty. It's commenters like you that keep me posting.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 9:00:00 AM  
Blogger pinochiette said...

Well I'm definitely going to read this book too. At school I wasn't very interested in Australian history - my eyes were gazing towards Europe, but now that I've been ex-pating it for five years I've developed a much greater interest in Australia and its history. Living away from there has made me want to get to know it better.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 4:26:00 PM  

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