Books of ambition | Saturday newspaper
Author who wrote his first novel at age 17, Damon Galgut has spent decades trembling on the verge of greatness. Anyone who has read his scarification The good doctor from 2003 or his autofiction preselected by Booker in 2010 In a strange room, will already know him as a refined stylist and the most cutting-edge analyst of contemporary South Africa after JM Coetzee.
In this year The promise (Chatto and Windus, 304 pages, $ 32.99) – winner of the Booker Prize 2021 – Galgut has taken the combination of banality and violence that underpins his company and made it into an epic. The premise of the novel is simple: In the mid-1980s, a dying woman named Rachel Swart promises her black maid, Salome, that she could have the house she lives in on the Swart property as her own.
But Rachel’s widowed husband doesn’t honor the gift – a check on decency that puts the Swart family on the wrong side of history just as a new and very different South Africa emerges. The transgression of a single family then serves the sins of an entire nation, during the years when apartheid collapsed and Nelson Mandela moved from the prison cell to the presidential residence. The promise is a polyphonic novel; it floats democratically in the minds of priests and sleepers in the street, of ministers and of Salome herself. But it is also narrowly targeted. He asks how historical guilt might manifest itself in the present, making Galgut’s novel suitable for Australian readers.
Jacob’s books (Text edition, 992 pages, $ 34.99) is one of those endeavors whose pleasure comes in part from the commitment that the reader is obliged to make to them. At over 900 pages, the newly translated masterpiece by Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk is more akin to marriage than an affair.
But what delights await patient grooms-to-be! The Polish author did nothing less than recreate the world that disappeared from European Jewry in the 18th century, from the frozen swamps of Lithuania to the sunny port of Smyrna, at a time when the modern world was dawning.
The novel is based on the actual, albeit mysterious, historical figure of Jacob Frank: an alleged Jewish messiah and founder of a controversial sect that hovered between Islam and Catholicism. But if Frank provides the thread on which the story is linked, it is the wider distribution of Tokarczuk’s novel that provides its counterparts. The liveliness of Jewish life at the time, its lively texture and its intellectual richness are considered so long and so precisely that the author’s attentions end up taking on a meaning of their own.
At a time when refugees at Poland’s borders are being used as geopolitical weapons, walls across Europe rise and paramilitaries run for-profit prisons for boat people captured on the Mediterranean coast, the novel de Tokarczuk feels newly – and urgently – relevant. Impeccable translator Jennifer Croft, it should be noted, ran the full marathon to bring her English-speaking readers.
Mark McKenna has long been an excellent academic historian guided by a strong sense of decency. There is not a word he has written since his beginnings, the years 2002 In Search of Blackfellas’ Point, who was not informed by the desire to find a compromise between the native Australians and the Europeans who recently came to these shores. But this year with Return to Uluru (Black Inc, 272pp, $ 34.99) he surpassed himself. It is a work of historical recovery and a call for justice anchored in what can only be called a story of the true metaphysical crime.
McKenna provides a compelling account of the manhunt undertaken by a Central Australian police officer named Bill McKinnon which resulted in the shooting death of the native man, Yokununna, in 1934, at the site of the White Australia then called Ayers Rock.
Just one more murder since 1788. Yet in McKenna’s hands the story spreads outward – to Canberra and to a government increasingly unwilling to tolerate acts of racial violence, and to a nascent generation of activists, whether black or white, who were galvanized by these events – until today, when Yokununna’s descendants have taken over Uluru’s stewardship after a century of dispossession.
The implications of McKenna’s argument in these pages are immense. He wants us to understand Uluru as the true heart of the country. In his story – via the Anangu people for whom it is sacred – it is a university, a courthouse, a chamber of parliament, a cathedral. As such, it is the natural site of the makarrata – the process of truth and reconciliation between black and white Australia without which, as McKenna calmly asserts, we remain a wounded and diminished nation.
Finally, a local indulgence by this recently struck Vandemonian: Breathing Space: reflections and projections on nature in Tasmania (Tasmanian Land Conservancy, 198 pages, $ 49.99) is a collection of coins from the Tasmanian Land Conservancy to celebrate its 20th anniversary. If you want to know why the wild island of your south is so special, this volume is the only guide you will need. Beautifully produced, diverse in its talented contributors, Breathing space reminded me why it was in Tasmania that the world’s first ecological political party was formed. It is difficult to live among such beauty and not wish to see it preserved.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 under the title “Books of ambition”.
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