Thomas Keneally | Critical Review by Peter Conrad

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 962 words
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Critical Review by Peter Conrad

SOURCE: "Wizard of Oz with Jet Lag and Too Busy for His Own Good," in The Observer, September 12, 1993, p. 53.

In the review below, Conrad finds the arguments and production values of Memoirs from a Young Republic "shockingly amateurish.".

Writers are the makers and the keepers of a nation's identity. Thomas Keneally (or Tom, as he now matily styles himself) has done as much as any living writer to identify and extol Australia. He deals with the bogus ceremonial of its European settlement in The Playmaker, and with the suppressed tragedy of aboriginal dispossession in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; in Outback he tramps across its dusty, torrid, adored terrain.

He was an inevitable choice as chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, which aims to make the country at long last its own master by severing constitutional links with Britain before the centenary of federation in 2001. Why then has he now disgraced himself and degraded the cause by writing such a shoddy, ill-argued book about it?

Please don't mistake me for an expatriate loyalist. The republican cause is as dear to me as it is to Keneally, and in my wallet I carry one of the ARM's trinkets, an unspendable five dollar bill from which the Queen's face has been meticulously expunged by nail polish remover. I too will feel proud when I finally have a passport which treats me as a citizen rather than the subject of a non-resident and increasingly unmajestic Majesty. But before I accept the jumble of anecdote and propaganda in Memoirs from a Young Republic as an emotional and intellectual justification for this epochal change, I'll drop a curtsy in the main street of Wagga Wagga.

Keneally's conviction of historical inevitability absolves him from having to do anything except repeat that the republic is coming, whether the Windsors are ready or not. Paraphrasing law books, he works through the iniquities of the current Australian constitution; he also recites the usual list of local gripes against Britain, which commandeered colonial troops for use as cannon fodder at Gallipoli in 1916 but declined to defend Australia against the Japanese in 1942.

His own contribution to the debate consists of a claim that 'Jenny Kee, the couturier' can't market her wares in Asia because Australia is still perceived to be a 'white supremacist' bastion, and a lament that, during his own promotional junkets across America, he has had difficulty explaining the monarchical connection to 'deconstructionists like Harold Bloom and Jacques Derrida' (who, given the self-centeredness of Yale and its cabalistic high priests, probably suffer from a more basic bemusement about where and what Australia is). There have to better reasons than facilitation of the rag trade and a spanielling desire to earn Derrida's approbation!

Keneally's analysis of Australia's ancient servility towards Britain, recycled from a review of Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore, is interesting; he blames it on 'our penal origins', which encouraged Australians to see themselves as 'the fallen, the spiritually defeated', requiring redemption by a mystical White Goddess like Elizabeth II.

The same demoralization is probably responsible for the economic malaise of a country which can no longer lazily trot to prosperity on the back of its merino sheep. Keneally trusts that affluence will return, along with self-respect, when the 'mercantile protectorate' is ended. This surely over-estimates the curative powers of a quick constitutional fix. Keneally's case is not helped by a quote from the poet Les Murray, who windily prophesies 'a surge of creative energy' the moment the Union Jack is lowered. Australia needs entrepreneurs, not more state-subsidised novelists.

The fuzziness of Keneally's thinking might be forgivable if his book weren't so sloppily put together. Grammar and syntax frequently slump out of control, and he manages to misspell the names of Randolph Stow and Peter Shaffer, colleagues he professes to admire.

He is, admittedly, a busy man. He casually mentions that in 1990 he wrote three books and a screenplay simultaneously, and reveals that while compiling Memoirs from a Young Republic he worked on a new novel and ghosted the autobiography of 'the great Manly Warringah utility player Des Hasler' (a footballer, in case you were wondering). He now commutes between continents as well as projects, hopping from Sydney to California, where he teaches creative writing, with detours every few months to England to promote the latest of those mass-produced books. Recently there have been diversions to Prague, where Spielberg was filming Schindler's Ark, and humanitarian expeditions to Eritrea. 'I work a lot on planes', Keneally confesses. Alas, it shows.

He tends to excuse political blunders by pleading jet lag. On one return to Australia, when his body arrived in advance of his brain, an interviewer asked him for a short list of presidential candidates. Keneally provoked a scandal by blurting out the names of 'a number of women: Ita Buttrose, Geraldine Doogue, Faith Bandler….' Not exactly world-class ladies: after considerable research I ascertained that the first used to edit the Australian Women's Weekly; the second is that most unbearably light-headed of beings, a television personality; and the third has the fortune—in the grievance-culture of political correctness—to be the daughter of an enslaved plantation worker from the New Hebrides. If the plangent question of the cultural cringers is 'Who among us is worthy, Lord?', then I'm afraid the answer is 'None of the above'.

Meanwhile Joan Sutherland—the only woman with the proper theatrical training for the post-regal role, though disqualified by her DBE and OM—was faxing support to the royal resistance from her tax-free fastness above Montreux ('in the Helvetian Republic', as Keneally tartly comments), and declaring that the republicans deserved transportation to Australia, which is where they were already. This shockingly amateurish book makes me feel, in spite of my own sympathies, that she has a point. Cry, the beloved country.

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This section contains 962 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Peter Conrad
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