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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/23/21

Book Review: Amnesia by Peter Carey

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Prague Castle
Prague Castle
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Lest we remember ...

by John Kendall Hawkins

I was waxing sentimental the other day about my days as a columnist for the Prague Post -- long ago before it got sold into slavery. They were glorious days of triumph and genuine angst. You know, because it was Europe, instead of here. Anyway, I recalled a piece that had appeared there at the same time I was taking Amazon to task for burying Hachette. Czech President Zeman was in trouble with his overlord in DC, and I was darkly amused (a requirement by law there) by the Republic's growing pariah status vis-à-vis the United States. In an editorial, "Bloom wears off Czech-US relations," there was expressed by US officials deep imperial disappointment at the Republic's refusal to accept an anti-nuclear weapon battery just outside Praha, with the requisite stationing of US occupying forces to safeguard it, of course. How could any nation, let alone the home of Budweiser beer, refuse to garrison an exceptional and indispensable set of soldiers from Freedonia? Yanks had practically bought the place up anyway. You couldn't look up at the giants at the Castle anymore without thinking neoliberalism. (See image above.)

The key to Peter Carey's novel Amnesia is understanding the answer to what happens when a client nation-state in good standing falls out of favor with Uncle Sam: change comes suddenly and shockingly. As Duane Clarridge, the former head of US Counterterrorism, and CIA meat cleaver who helped oversee the Allende ouster in Chile 1973, told John Pilger, "We're not going to put up with any nonsense. Get used to it, world" It's not about their democracy, but about our sense of national security. You f*ck around; we'll f*ck you up. Now, pick up my soap.

The amnesia referred to in Carey's title is the long forgotten removal of the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on November 11, 1975 by the British governor-general to Australia, after a parliamentary crisis had seemingly reached an insurmountable moment similar to what the US was facing with the Fiscal Cliff fiasco of 2013. Legislation seemed permanently stalled.

Whitlam is most remembered for being the PM who established a socialistic safety net that included free university education, free health care and money to get by on during the search for a job. He was also opposed to keeping Australian troops in Vietnam, and according to journalist Paul Kelly, in The Dismissal,

As opposition leader in 1975 he bluntly told Australians they would have to face up to the consequences of the debacle in Vietnam. He publicly advocated bringing thousands of refugees, men, women and children to Australia.

This would have required correction from the Nixon Administration, which was obsessed with bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age, including tac nukes. According to Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon had a date set for nuking them, one of the reasons he feared the president's men might make him 'discovered beneath a truck' -- as the Bard from Duluth sang.

In this context, it seems clear that Czech present Zeman had failed to understand his "obligation" to provide logistical support, a la Havel, as the US completes its humanitarian conquest of the globe theatre. With just Syria, Iran, China and Russia (and maybe Venezuela) standing in the way of star spangled hegemony, now is not the time for backsliding or insolence from has-been client states who gave us Kafka-esque cucarachas to worry about, for chrissakes.

Amnesia is an attempt to wrestle, first, with American imperialism and how it makes a mockery of sovereignty, and, second, the available avenues of response in dealing with the globalization of surveillance seemingly designed to provide a Stasi-like omniscience mechanism to make people fear resistance to the system; they are opaque and unaccountable, and we are utterly 'exposed' and full of the original sin of private thoughts and free expression.

Carey accomplishes this difficult task by focusing, developing and blowing up two events of Australian history, now long forgotten (and so, largely devoid of active controversy) - the aforementioned coup, and, long before that, the so-called World War II era "Battle of Brisbane," which saw Australian soldiers battling "Yanks" in the streets of Brissy, especially over Aussie women. And Black American soldiers fighting white American soldiers, over Aussie women. As one character in Amnesia reports, "It was about sex," Celine answered. "The stupid Australians were jealous of the Yanks. The only people in the world who want to help us, and so they shoot them because they like Australian girls." This is an ironic statement, given the source.

The events are separated by decades, but one thing has led to another, and Carey merges them in a marvelous (and funny) caricature of historical causality and the all-too-familiar blowback of events gone wrong. While the novel has the usual assortment of zany Carey creatures, weird in a uniquely Aussie manner, the two main characters are Gabrielle Baillieux and Felix Moore.

Gaby is the star, a young Julian Assange-like hactivist who has got herself into trouble with the US for releasing the Angel virus, which has the hilarious virtue of releasing prisoners from their computer-secured, American-owned facilities in Australia -- and anywhere else that America has private contractors running prisons, which turns out to be around the world, including, of course, the Land of the Free itself, which has more prisoners, by far, than any other country.

This act of hooliganism gets her into immediate raving trouble from right-wing TV news spinners and a call by one senator for Gaby to be droned to death, all this reminiscent of the response to Assange and, later, Edward Snowden, for their work in releasing evidence of the dark deeds of the US government at work. But, more importantly, Gaby was born on the day that Gough Whitlam was tossed out of office "by the Yanks."

And if the birthday coup weren't reason enough for her to always remember, Gaby is also burdened with the knowledge that she is the product of a rape by an American soldier during one of those Brissy battles. You could even say she's the product of two rapes -- her mother's and the rape-by-coup of her country's sovereignty. She was, it seems, born for blowbacks.

Like Assange, Gaby has an interesting family past, and a passion for the shadowy world of hacking, which Gaby describes thusly:

In the 'twisty little passages' of the computer underground " there was a species dedicated to the collection of discarded information, furtive scholars, jesters, fools, hackers, phreakers, practitioners of the black art of recycling who picked the locks of Telecom exchanges and, like dung beetles busy with their ancient occupation, rolled their holy sh*t into the night.

Carey employs Felix Moore to tell Gaby's story, and in a deft touch Carey has Felix as an involuntary narrator, having been kidnapped by an underworld figure and told to tell Gaby's story in an offer he cannot refuse. Felix is an aging, falling investigative journalist, who has just been successfully sued for slander and is in the process of becoming the kind of news he once broke ("Look this way, Feels," paparazzi call to him).

As the bitter author of lefty "The Lo-Tech Blog," Felix has revealed Australian government's lies in the 2001 Children Overboard scandal, during which conservative PM John Howard claimed boat people coming to Australia were intentionally throwing their children overboard to protest being rejected for entry into the country; a lie which, once spread by an uncritical national media, resulted in hysteria. Said Felix,

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelesque immensity. The fourth estate made a whole country believe the refugees were animals and swine. Many think so still" Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

This secondary event in the novel actually serves to accentuate the amnesia not only of the Gough Whitlam coup, but amnesia as a cultural malady (certainly not restricted to Australians) that leads us to quickly forget over and over these catastrophic events that should outrage a truly democratic citizenry and stir the masses into action. But a nation mired in mediocrity as a positive trait, where lopping tall poppies is a national pastime, strikes one as developmentally disabled. Even the milieu Carey sets his characters in feels parochial and politically disinterested.

No Aussies really seem to care about Gaby and the motivation for her deeds, and this echoes the inexplicable general indifference (and maybe even hostility) to Assange and his work that exists in Oz (I don't recall even one national publication at the time reviewing his When Google Met Wikileaks).

In Felix and Gaby, I felt like I was revisiting previous Carey creations, Harry Joy and Honey Barbara from his fantastic novel Bliss, which, if I recall, was the last time Carey laid out what could loosely be described as a contemporary realist tale. While Amnesia is no tour de force, or even as groundbreaking as some of his other more recent works, it is still a first rate novel.

It contains many of Carey's now familiar traits, including quirky characters and gorgeous linguistic flourishes, such as this description of Woody, the underworld figure, menacing over Felix,

The Great Wodonga was settled at my desk, fleshy enough for Lucian Freud, his huge thighs pressing against the limits of his tailor, hunched over the laptop which had been obviously removed from my embrace like a teddy bear from a sleeping child.

Nice touch.

I'm one of those critics who see Carey's ouvre as Nobel prize quality. His novels include Bliss, Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda, True History of the Kelly Gang -- the last two, winners of the Booker Prize for the best work in English (Carey being a two-time winner). He has short story collections out there, too, including a favorite, The Fat Man in History (1974). He also helped with screenplay for Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World (1991). He lives in New York and teaches creative writing at Hunter College.

In a strange coincidence that one imagines could only have helped Carey's sales for Amnesia, Gough Whitlam died in the October of the book's publication, at the age of 90, a death which briefly brought back to life some of the controversy surrounding the 1975 coup, but few care, once more, although I doubt that that reality would have greatly impacted on Carey's fiction sales. People are always ready for fresh fictions.

(Article changed on Aug 23, 2021 at 5:41 PM EDT)


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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Australia. His poetry, commentary, and reviews have appeared in publications in Oceania, Europe and the USA, such as Cordite, Morning Star, Hanging (more...)

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