MICHAEL GIACOMETTI My Life and Other Fictions. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart
Michael Giacometti is skilled in the short form – with much to excite, to heighten our senses, before a swift close.
Running through many of the stories in this collection is discovery and the yearning, futility and fallout that it brings. The act of discovery, the process of searching, can be driven by boastful pride or by reflection. Giacometti takes his readers on an arc of exploration, from the epic – journeys into Australia’s deserts and across the Southern Pacific ocean at the time of the Napoleonic Wars – to looking for answers inside ourselves.
The madness of the Commander in ‘Ulysses of the Pacific’ drives him to take his loyal crew on a search for the Biblical island of Mt Purgatory. He rails at his God from the decks:
… [as] the sea churned with whirlpools and eddies and Antaeus was captured as if in liquid ice … The sails were cut clear, but still the brig was assailed, as pleased Another.
His presumption in seeking God’s imprimatur to place the flag of his empire on the mount is punished.
The colonial expeditions to find the inland sea thought to be at the centre of the continent are similarly doomed. ‘At Failure Creek’ is the narration of an explorer of ‘this execrable land’. As supplies run low and he and his men sicken and die, the desert consumes then spits back their bones, their arrogance repaid.
Another desert exploration ends once again in death and decay through the white man’s failure to listen, to learn. The explorers are tormented by ants, hunger, thirst and heat. Not understanding the gifts of food from the indigenes, it does not occur to the explorers to question how they survive. Roasting and frying pink cockatoo is not successful, but ‘what else is there to eat?’ They drain and despoil the sources of water they find.
The explorers are perplexing to the native inhabitants:
– He leaves bits of himself everywhere: his tjina in the sand, his shit on the surface like a dog marking his territory, letting the bitches know he’s ready to rut. He scatters his kill liberally and wastes the best meat.
The story closes with a ‘solitary native’ who sips at the water stored in a tree cavity through hollow tubes of bark, leaving them at his feet ’ready for the next person to use’. It is a gentle rebuke.
But there is no chest-thumping here. Their follies are to be pitied:
– Poor walypala. They must have blind eyes. Don’t they know the tjurkupa? Everything is written for them to read: in the trees, the rocks, the sky, even in the ants.
The oppression and genocide that will follow would be impossible for the observers of these lost fools to believe.
In these stories, Giacometti conveys a sadness that domination and fear prevailed over humility and grace. The collection’s opening: ‘my abbr.d life’ is narrated by a child, six years old, longing for her mother, a ‘self-mutilating alcoholic’; it accentuates this sadness. ‘Granny grows me up,’ she says, and the violence of camp life, with its addictions and pornography, is our sorrow.
Today, when the Government rejects recommendations from its own national consultation process on constitutional recognition and treaty, or an assembly of First Nations people to advise parliament we seem as far away from genuine reciprocity as ever.
In ‘At Gallery cV3’, Giacometti shows us blindness in a different context – an art gallery’s conjured disorientation where visitors are deliberately misled and deceived as they progress through the installation. Their reaction? ‘What it is with all the art-wank?’ They are angry; how dare they be treated so! Unhinged, they will not engage with the experience, or try to understand. What goes around …
Entitlement, arrogance by another name, is seen in ‘Geometry’. A team of footy players trains with precision: ‘Position by position, we are better. Our finesse, our fitness, our teamwork are all superior. But …’
… But for the chaos of a real game:
Come Saturday afternoon, after the final siren of another season, past players and die-hard supporters dissect what could have been, over another beer.
In their splendid isolation, the team’s perfection is all theory.
The counterpoint to arrogance is searching with humility. What is the right path? In ‘The forking path’, a woman takes a familiar route through the bush:
… the one she has followed devotedly without deviation for years, keeping it clear by tossing aside loose stones and the debris of fallen trees and limbs, cropping branches that strive towards open space and impede her progress.
But fires have cleansed and smoked the wilderness and left it changed, as she is after the cancer that may still be in her body. The terrain is both known and unknown, regrowth is both regeneration and mutation:
Where is her path, the right path?
Does it matter which she takes? They all lead somewhere … She looks to the dog for assistance, but any essence of their past scent has been burnt away. There is only now.
So she stands still and closes her eyes, then turns and turns and turns, and when she stops chanting she stops turning, opens her eyes and looks straight ahead.
This peaceful acceptance is the counter to boastful striving. Giacometti draws on it further in ‘Six days and nights beneath the Bodhi Tree’. As Buddha teaches, the source of suffering – the constant seeking of new experiences – can never be satisfied. The dichotomy of either uncharted waters or a clear path is a false one. In the end, we can only move forward, guided or not, to find the answers within us.
Giacometti is skilled in the short form and his most successful stories are those of two to three pages only. There is much to excite, to heighten our senses, then a swift close. There is no dusk in his nightfall. In the scant pages of his third story, ‘undersize’, he leaves us signposts to many of the collection’s themes – homage to the history-bearers, hubris, futility and the cycle of life.
The author includes an essay expanding on his stories’ origins and influences – necessarily at the end, to allow the reader to come, unprejudiced, to the collection. It would not be giving away too much to say that he sees his stories as a ‘mobile feast of endless, insatiable desire’. His explication of his characters’ motivations and their struggles through the frameworks of Buddhism, Hinduism and Judeo-Christianity bestows a generous guide for the reader. To read is to learn and this is a gift.
Michael Giacometti My Life and Other Fictions Spineless Wonders 2017 PB 230pp $27.99
Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. After two decades working in public policy, she followed her heart and now works with books and words entirely for less money, but a thousand times more satisfaction. You can find her at www.yourseconddraft.com where she writes about language and books she’s loved.
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