ARNOLD ZABLE The Watermill. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks
Arnold Zable finds resilience and inspiration among the survivors of extraordinary suffering.
In his quartet of stories, based on real people and events, Arnold Zable travels to places whose histories feature, within living memory, genocidal regimes that visited unimaginable atrocities upon their victims. Ranging from remote towns in rural China to post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Yiddish Poland, Aboriginal Australia and Kurdish Iran and Iraq, through conversations and quiet reflection, Zable bears witness to survivors’ experiences of suffering and loss, and how they have transcended tragedy and forged new paths of meaning, wisdom and love.
Their achievements are extraordinary in the face of their suffering. With brutality and vindictiveness their oppressors eliminated all that gives meaning and purpose to life: family and community connections, all forms of cultural expression and values, including language and religious observances. Their lives reduced to a subhuman existence, they were ruthlessly exploited, then callously discarded when they were considered to be no longer useful, or simply in the way.
Yet you may find this book one of the most uplifting, inspiring and moving you will read this year.
Its title, The Watermill, is inspired by the connection Zable forged to the poets of the Tang and Song dynasties during the time he taught creative writing at the Guizhou Agricultural College in China. As I moved deeper into his stories I was struck by his clear-sighted observations coupled with his deep empathy and respect for the people who opened their lives to him.
In China his touchstone is the miller, who he regularly visits. Because of the language barrier, they sit in silent companionship, simply experiencing each other’s presence:
Then, through the open doorway, the sight of the miller going about his work, a dependable presence, and, minutes later, the singing of the kettle, the deliberate movements as he poured the water into the teapot. And the two of us – the foreigner and the miller – seated side by side, cups in hand, engaged in wordless conversation.
Throughout the book, Zable brings out the full impact of his subjects’ experiences through his capacity to walk with them as they reveal their stories. And, having borne with them the pain that can never be erased, he asks how it is that, despite their suffering, they have continued to grow and develop into achieving, wise human beings. In ‘The Ballad of Keo Narom’ he reflects that:
The story is incomplete. There are episodes yet to be recounted, and threads to be unravelled. How had Narom regained the will to live? How had she rebuilt her life and become an ethnomusicologist and a writer of children’s stories? A doctor of philosophy? We will meet again when I return from travelling around Cambodia.
He finds some resolution to these questions in Sonia, a Holocaust survivor, in ‘Republic of the Stateless’:
She knows how to withstand confined spaces. She possesses infinite patience.
She knows how to endure a state of prolonged transience. She had long ago learned to dismiss thoughts that are disturbing. There are questions she deflects and places she no longer ventures. She has mastered the art of the moment, and in this moment there is only music.
In the final story, ‘Where We Meet’, Zable finds common cause between those who have been overwhelmed by political/social forces and callously forced from their traditional homelands: Australian Aborigines, Eastern European Jews and Iranian and Iraqi Kurds. He sits with Aunty Joy, Hadassah and Meier, and Faris and Majida in their suburban Melbourne homes, light years away from the richness of the communities they have lost.
He calls this story ‘a tale of maps’. He is confronted with the full measure of white colonialist savagery towards Aboriginal people when, in a Melbourne museum, he sees a map of Aboriginal massacres that had been hidden from mainstream white Australia – until now. He has seen that map before, he tells us:
… on the outskirts of the site where Treblinka death camp once stood. The map detailed places of massacre which extended east to the Soviet border and beyond, and hundreds of kilometres to the west.
At times I found the wrongs Zable describes incomprehensible, having lived my life in a relatively peaceful and ordered society, never having had my freedom constrained. Yet I must face that, tragically, they nevertheless happened. Zable set out to chronicle the barbarity human beings are capable of visiting upon each other, and the ensuing suffering, which we ignore and forget at our peril. But he also brings forth our capacity to survive, to learn, to find purpose in suffering and simply to go on.
Arnold Zable The Watermill Text Publishing 2020 PB 288pp $32.99
Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights, teaching and conflict resolution.
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