Thomas Keneally | Critical Essay by Irmtraud Petersson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 19 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 5,447 words
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Critical Essay by Irmtraud Petersson

SOURCE: "'White Ravens' in a World of Violence: German Connections in Thomas Keneally's Fiction," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, October, 1989, pp. 160-73.

In the essay below, Petersson investigates the parallels between Keneally's use of German imagery and the Australian cultural experience, correlating German traits to similar Australian values.

Despite an increasing diversity in both modes of, and critical approaches to Australian writing, the question of cultural specificity has remained one of the foremost issues. How do we see and represent ourselves? What distinguishes us from other cultures? What do we want to be? These are some of the major questions raised. The debate about 'radical/nationalist' vs. 'universalist' positions and their 'postcolonial' variants may have become more refined, but hardly less self-conscious. Cultural independence comprises the readiness to look for similarities as well as differences, for models and anti-models 'out there'. Perhaps cosmopolitan rather than universalist, Thomas Keneally is one of those novelists who have addressed national issues in an international framework, and contemporary problems in an historical perspective. Keneally says that he has found history an easier paradigm to work with than the present, and that the best sort of historical novel is 'the one which is really about the present and uses the past as a sort of working model', a novel 'in which the human issues are the same as those we have now, and have always had to face'. In analogy to the use of the past as 'a parable for the present', Keneally's use of foreign settings and characters can be assumed to be paradigmatic, providing reference points for Australia, and raising questions about both human behavior in general and Australian issues in particular.

Among the cultural 'hetero-images' in Australian writing of the past four decades, German images have, for obvious reasons, been mostly unfavorable. They have usually emphasized the pretensions of 'high culture' and the incomprehensible transition from civilization to the barbarity of Nazism. By and large, German-speaking societies have been set off as 'the others', representing what Australians do not want to be. In a sense, therefore, Keneally's German images are an exception. Two major characters in his novels are Germans, Matthias Erzberger in Gossip from the Forest (1975) and Oskar Schindler in Schindter's Ark (1982), and so are some minor characters in A Family Madness (1985). Linking up with Keneally's preoccupation with war, violence and times of crisis, and with individual behavior in extreme situations, the two world wars provide the historical context for his German images: the armistice after the First World War in Gossip, events of the Second in the other novels.

There are some striking similarities between the German characters in Keneally's novels. They are outsiders who come from the periphery of the German Reich, both regionally and culturally. Though publicly functioning within the ideological and social system, or even representing it officially (a system which is either disintegrating or proves to be downright evil), these men are at odds with its mainstream developments. Within a merciless environment, they retain an unusual sense of human responsibility. None of them is portrayed as a 'flawless innocent' or a larger-than-life-sized idealist; in fact, they all are rather ambivalent. This applies to Erzberger, whom Keneally sees as 'a classic contradictory character', to Willi Ganz (of A Family Madness) and, most obviously, to Oskar Schindler, whose story has fascinated Keneally and who, in his own words, 'was such a fantastic character that it's hard to imagine making up a character who would be as contradictory, picaresque and large'. Keneally himself has emphasized the concern in his novels with 'men of decency' who fight historic causes 'on which they can't quite get a grip', and he says that he finds it more and more striking 'how every generation seems to produce independent spirits, the people who evade conditioning'. Erzberger, Schindler and Ganz (and some of the other minor German characters) have in common such an independence of spirit, a nonconformity which is all the more striking when set off against a background of extreme relentlessness or even barbarity.

Matthias Erzberger, leader of the German armistice delegation, is the center of attention in Gossip from the Forest, and even more obviously so in the dramatised version of the novel. Erzberger is a tragic figure. A moderate politician, he is dispatched by a collapsing political system that is hardly able to back him up any more. It is he, a civilian, who is expected to end the sufferings of war, whereas the military shun their responsibility. What he observes of the situation of soldiers and civilians on both sides, spurs him on to accomplish a truce ('All the fathers had abandoned the front and left their children behind'). But this compels him to accept the ruinous and humiliating terms on which Marshal Foch insists. These terms would increase poverty and famine in Germany and eventually, as foreshadowed in the novel, fuel the nationalistic and anti-democratic forces and help to establish Nazi tyranny. Erzberger knows the implications: the enemies despise him on the one hand for being one of the monsters 'liable for the mustard-gassed and the torpedoed corpses', and on the other for being weak and indulgent, a compassionate humanist ('Wemyss: Imagine those chaps trying the starving-children line?).' His compatriots, for their part, despise him for his way of ending the chaotic war situation. They will blame him for the disastrous outcome, call him and his companions the 'November criminals' and finally murder him.

Keneally's novel informs the reader extensively about the historical implications of Erzberger's career and, through it, about the German (and European) situation, by including documented facts and comments, but also through a poetic subtext of reverberating imagery. When one compares Keneally's portrayal of Erzberger with a scholarly study on the politician such as Klaus Epstein's Matthias Erzberger and the Dilemma of German Democracy, one realises that Keneally followed closely the results of research regarding both the personal and the political situation. Like the biography, the novel stresses Erzberger's Swabian peasant background which so markedly distinguished him from the ruling upper classes in the capital Berlin in various ways: in dialect and religion, appearance and manners, education and refinement. Erzberger, a southerner and a bright country boy, is constantly aware of the condescension and contempt with which the Prussian aristocrats and officers regard him, the outsider: 'He had never got used to facing the blue eyes and sculptured faces of the vons of the earth; there were still movements of bumpkin disquiet in his stomach, the belly calling him back to his peasant stale'. The novel highlights a sense of inferiority that makes Erzberger wonder whether he can live up to the greatness of his task: 'He thought, we won't get far because this is long traveling, it's Dante's hell and all we can expect is a further circle. And the worst thing is I have no Alighieri stature. I'm just a happy glutton with a head for figures and a little wife'. Although the novel, more than the biography, suggests an ambivalence of character ('His motives were both opportunist and visionary: that was Erzberger's nature'), it construes as predominant qualities Erzberger's incorruptible conscience, and his compassion and sympathy for the simple people. Rather than presenting a German character as the enemy, or as the embodiment of odious German imperial pretensions, the novel focuses on a man with a humble background, a basic decency and a sense of responsibility for the ordinary human causes. That he may appear petty in the eyes of the great and powerful adds to his qualities, and also to the sense that he is constructed to comprise some traditional Australian values. In emphasising those idiosyncrasies which originate from his social and ethnic provenance, the characterisation of Erzberger implicitly draws parallels to Australian cultural experience. There is firstly an association with postcolonial white Australians who lived at the periphery of the British Empire, as the Southern Germans did with regard to the Prussian dominance in the German Reich. There is also the parallel to an aspect of Australian society: Erzberger's Catholicism and his Swabian ethnicity put him in a marginal position similar to that of the Irish-Catholic minority in Australia (a theme treated in Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes). The author's sympathies would certainly be with the outsider.

In an obvious departure from historical sources, the name of one of the German delegates is changed from Count Alfred Oberndorff (still used in the first edition) to Count von Maiberling. Considerations involving the Oberndorff family prompted the author to rename this character, who seems constructed more freely than others, as a contrast to Erzberger on the one hand, and a symbol of a general decadence on the other. Another, at first glance minor, divergence is the novel's treatment of the umbrella connected with Erzberger's death. In Epstein's detailed account of the assassination, it is Erzberger's companion Diez who carried an umbrella on the fatal walk in the Black Forest. Gossip equips Erzberger with the umbrella and transforms it into one of the symbolic or allusive elements of imagery used to intensify the significance of events. In Erzberger's premonitory dream the umbrella is urged on him by his wife against his will, a 'treacherous', 'terrible' and 'sickening' umbrella, one which threatens rather than protects. From its bullet-holes, pale young soldiers struggle and attack Erzberger. The corresponding murder scene at the end of the novel reads:

Erzberger had forgotten his dream of 1918. All he had was the normal sense of déjà-vu. Impelled by it he opened his umbrella. Diez hit them with his. But Erzberger yielded to his supine nub and blotted them out with black silk.

Through this false hemisphere he was shot in the chest and forehead. (my emphasis)

In this scene Erzberger is presented as fatalistically prepared, as both unwilling and unable to defend himself. However, the umbrella image also carries geographical and historical overtones. The soldiers rising from the 'blood-bespattered' bullet-holes point towards the future war (as do also the Nazi arm bands the murderers put on in Keneally's playtext), and the metaphoric umbrella as a 'false hemisphere' suggests the old world as a terrible, treacherous place which can no longer protect the decent or innocent.

To be sure, Keneally's novel does not promote the southern hemisphere as a better alternative, nor does it refer explicitly to any Australian participation in the 'Great War'. But there is an Australian subtext in the novel, although Australia as a place figures only in a marginal episode where the British Admiral Lord Wemyss remembers a voyage around the world in the 1870s, visiting the distant parts of the British Empire with the future King. Wemyss's nostalgic retrospection to the 'benign imperial concept', 'the empire which was not only a geographical reality but a resonant abstraction also' evokes the decline of the British Empire and the 'collapse' of Europe. These the author sees as one of the most disturbing events for the Australian consciousness, and their effects on Australia underlie many of his books. Thus the links with Australia in Gossip are implied, for one thing, in the historical consequences. The choice of Erzberger as a protagonist and his characterisation provide another, more subtle link.

Whereas Erzberger eventually loses—personally when he is murdered, politically because his working for a peaceful democratic Germany will prove to have been in vain—Oskar Schindler is obviously more successful. Most critics and reviewers have emphasised the sense of hope that prevails in Schindler's Ark and sets it off from Keneally's earlier, more pessimistic novels. However, the novel's optimism is not based on the perception of an encouraging progress in humankind or societies at large, but rather on what the author sees as manifestations of independence and grandeur of spirit in individual human beings such as Schindler, 'an ordinary German who evaded the conditioning of his culture, his childhood and the politics, in a highly individualistic way'. In Schindler's Ark, a documentary novel described as 'imaginative historical journalism', the German protagonist once more functions as the outsider. Like Erzberger, Schindler comes from the periphery, and because of his background, his life-style and his attitudes, the respectable and powerful treat him with patronising condescension: 'He was Sudeten German, Arkansas to their Manhattan, Liverpool to their Cambridge'. Schindler is 'virtuous' in a strange sense. He provides a sanctuary for Jewish prisoners and saves many of them from death at the risk of his own life, but he 'worked within or, at least, on the strength of, a corrupt and savage scheme'. This scheme is reminiscent of the penal colony in Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes, but it is more outrageous and horrific in its dimensions, 'one which filled Europe with camps of varying but consistent inhumanity and created a submerged, unspoken-of nation of prisoners'. And, as in Bring Larks and Heroes, 'the gaoler actively conspires with the gaoled in order to subvert the system'.

Keneally's novel depicts several other positive characters besides Schindler, people who try to relieve the suffering and undermine the monstrous machine of mass-murder. The narrator tells their stories, but seems fascinated only by Schindler. One dissenter of kindred spirit, Wachtmeister Bosko, helps Schindler to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto. When he turns his back on the system completely and joins the partisans, the book stresses that he remains ineffective. He 'secretly despised himself and had contempt for partial rescues', the narrator comments, and 'Bosko wanted to save everyone, and would soon try to, and perish for it'. Only jovial Schindler with his playboy exterior, the apolitical capitalist, one who drinks and plays cards with the devil, succeeds in saving many victims because he is cunning and makes use of the oppressors' own modes and manners. The question of motivation underlies Keneally's reconstruction of Schindler's amazing story. Some critics in Australia and overseas argue that the book gives no satisfactory answers, others have questioned its ideological implications. Comments on its protagonist range from 'a man chosen by some divine force for its own ends', to an anti-intellectual, a 'Voss in the 80s, on the rebound from the Australian desert, back in his home patch, shorn of idealism'. The puzzling ambivalence of Schindler's character certainly pervades the novel as an informing theme. When Schindler is juxtaposed with his cruel opponent Amon Goeth, the commandant 'who went to the work of murder as calmly as a clerk goes to his office', the novel evokes a Jungian dichotomy of good and evil, with Goeth as the shadow of Schindler's persona ('the reflection can hardly be avoided that Amon was Oskar's dark brother, was the berserk and fanatic executioner Oskar might, by some unhappy reversal of his appetites, have become'). In Keneally's narrative Schindler has integrated the polar opposites within himself to a practical, social and humane wholeness. He becomes what in German is called a weisser Rabe, an exceptional 'white raven' who, aware of the evil intentions of his peers and familiar with their fatal methods, acts for deliverance and life instead of suffering and death. However, by concentrating hope on an exceptional person who can outwit a savage system only on a small scale, Keneally's novel puts forward an individualist and basically pessimistic view of history.

In examining representational patterns in Australian narrative, Graeme Turner fits Schindler's Ark into that section of literary treatment of imprisonment ('our most enduring literary and mythic image') which presents 'moral criticism of the gaolers in order to propose the moral superiority of those incarcerated'. Another critic, Michael Hollington, argues that Keneally's novel owes more to 'the mythology of the bush than to that of Central Europe'. Investigating the novel's 'subterranean connection with Australia', Hollington finds that Schindler represents features of the Australian bush hero and outlaw and calls him 'the Ned Kelly of Cracow'. Referring to the Schweik stereotype in the characterisation of Schindler, he evokes Brecht as a contrast: 'Brecht's 'red statements' about Nazi Germany remain superior: his Schweiks are not heroes, but they at least grasp that you get somewhere only when the office of "just man" is abolished'; and, "'Australia," read as the natural impulse of the heart, isn't ultimately an effective counterweight to "Europe.'" However, Brecht believed that humankind could learn and 'get somewhere', that change is possible (and that the artist can contribute to this educational process)—but Keneally obviously does not, nor does he believe in 'salvation through a political system'. He rather admits an instinctive and strong belief in original sin, or, in his own words, assumes that there is 'a problem at man's core that can't be overcome by any particular system'. Accentuated by keywords such as madness, lunacy, insanity, savagery, violence, corruption or brutality, the world presented in Keneally's writing continues to be a world of terror despite the occasional 'white raven', Australian or European. It is this lack of hope in historical progress that Keneally's portrayals of the Germans Erzberger and Schindler have in common with some of his more revolutionary characters such as Jehanne in Blood Red, Sister Rose or Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes.

At this point it is worthwhile to look at some problematic aspects of the relation between the use of fact (or documented material) and fiction in Keneally's writing. One issue has already been mentioned in connection with the changing of the name of Count Oberndorff in Gossip from the Forest, that is, the sensitivities of living 'characters' or their relatives towards possible distortions. For Schindler's Ark, Keneally did thorough research. He interviewed a great many witnesses all over the world, and tried to be as exact or 'documentary' as possible. This method, on the one hand, attracted the criticism of those who did not consider the book a 'novel', a work of fiction and creative imagination, when Keneally was to be awarded the Booker Prize. But it also attracted criticism from some who felt there was too much fictional embellishment or courting of effects in the book, at the cost of a more reliable documentation of historical evidence and facts. (In the case of transcribing oral history, it would, however, always be difficult to decide who does the 'construing' of events—those who tell their story from memory, or those who structure it into written form.) During a recent stay in Germany, I spoke to one of the Jewish survivors saved by Schindler, who was interviewed by Keneally and included as a character in his book. I must respect his wish to remain anonymous for his own reasons, but some of his general remarks are important enough to be noted. Although this person did not question the overall value and quality of Keneally's book, he had some objections and proposed some corrections concerning particular (though minor) details described, which he remembers differently and regards as unrealistic fictional adornments. The importance of such questionable details lies not in their relevance for the story by and large, the witness pointed out, but rather in the fact that inaccuracies play into the hands of reactionists who have doubted the measure of Nazi atrocities and have even tried, for defensive purposes, to discredit reports from extermination camps as untruthful exaggerations. (And one is reminded of a recent trend in Germany towards national apologetics in connection with the so-called Historikerstreit.) Perhaps the implications of these controversies can only be fully appreciated in a society confronted with such a terrible history. The problematic relation between 'real' and 'realistic' remains, and also between the 'imaginative' and the 'documentary' rendering of historical truth in writing. Is Schindler's story, presented in a realist mode and based on witness accounts and documents, more real, true or credible than, for instance, Himmelfarb's story in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot, 'created' as fiction and lacking a realistic description of the brutality involved? And, to carry the question further, is the sensational presentation of savagery, e.g. in The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas, more likely to shake up complacency than the quiet, laconic and ostensibly distanced approach of Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah?

With A Family Madness Keneally moves closer back to the mainstream fictional genre, although this book, too, is based on historical material (and on an Australian incident). The novel combines two strands of narrative, one set in Europe around the time of the Second World War, the other in Australia of the 1980s. The two parts are interwoven by thematic and structural devices, thus providing an obvious illustration of Keneally's concept of linking history with the present. The Belorussian immigrant family Kabbelski/Kabbel serve as an external connection. Forty years after the war, the Kabbels are still unable to lay to rest the ghosts of a savage past, gradually revealed as the Australian story develops. This haunting past is juxtaposed with the reality of a contemporary Australia in the process of losing the qualities of a sanctuary. Through a network of parallels and associations, imagery and comments, the narrative suggests that events, settings and situations may be different, but basic human predicaments resemble one another; that humankind finds itself placed dangerously at 'the cutting edge of history'; and that the belief in possible safety is an illusion.

Focusing on the fate of the Kabbelski family, the European part of the novel also portrays two German characters who swim against the tide, trying to preserve some decency in a savage environment: the SS Oberführer Willi Ganz and, a minor character, the young Wehrmacht sergeant Jasper. The novel picks up motifs from Gossip and from Schindler's Ark. Willi Ganz is an outsider like Erzberger and Schindler, but one of a different kind. As the German provincial governor in an occupied Belorussian town, he represents the 'white raven' within the black flock of German SS officials whose brutal ambitions are aimed at complete extermination of the Jewish population and of political enemies. His attempts to bring about a policy of moderation and to protect some of the victims fail completely and let him become the target of a murder plot, executed by Russian partisans, but contrived by his own superiors. Ganz is modeled on the German Generalkommissar in Belorussia, Wilhelm Kube, a 'civilian' administrator and thus a rival of the SS. In comparing the representations of Kube in historical, and Ganz in fictional writing, the latter emerges as a much more human and positive figure than the former—perhaps an indication of the author's tendency to explore both sides of the coin in his fiction?

There is no sense of hope in Keneally's representation of the Belorussian world. As in Season in Purgatory, all participating sides act with utmost brutality: occupiers and partisans, Germans, Poles, Soviet Russians and Belorussians. An aesthete and artist, Ganz does not really fit into that scheme, but he is too vulnerable to be effective or even to survive. Unlike Schindler's, his individualism is esoteric, elitist and escapist, and unlike Schindler, Ganz fails to recognize that 'no one could find refuge any more behind the idea of German culture' (Schindler's Ark) and that the values of enlightenment are vain in an age of darkness, where 'both Germans and Russians behave like savages' and the locals assist for the sake of nationalism. Ganz commits himself through his compassion and thereby courts danger, but he can save no one. The novel presents his attempts to escape into a world of art and refined culture, of friendship, children and domestic peacefulness, as an attitude of resignation, a retreat into a utopian dream that can never cope with the brutal reality. The 'Bavarian sentimentalist' Jasper, presented as a more genuinely 'innocent' character than Ganz, is 'a representative of that generation of Europeans who were all forced at great pace to learn a fierce amount about themselves and their fellows during those years in the furnace'. But, like Bosko in Schindler's Ark, he is eliminated before his resistance to the system has any effect. Like some of the German soldiers in Season in Purgatory, Jasper is a victim himself, conscripted and exploited by the regime.

Despite an occasional ambivalence towards the character Ganz, the novel uses him and Jasper to point up the helplessness of the decent individual within an evil or deteriorating world. Thus he is thematically related to the Australian protagonist, Delaney, who also tries to save others, but fails to prevent the decline in his mate's and his lover's lives and in his own. Though the consequences are of a different scale, a sense of resignation in the face of the inevitable, but also of guilt and confusion connects both parts of the narrative. The madness of the title is not restricted to the story of the Kabbel family and their past, but echoed in aspects of societal developments in contemporary urban Australia. Like Delaney, several of the foreign characters are ordinary people, with ordinary hopes and expectations. There is nothing megalomaniac about them, and they become guilty in pursuit of such aims as nationalism, patriotism, self-preservation, family protection—aims with positive connotations as Australian values.

One of the narrative devices of linking Australian and European experience in A Family Madness is the literary reference to The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Keneally admires the experimental qualities of Grass's novel, and he may have found in the German author's work attitudes, concerns and topics both congenial and challenging to his own views, e.g., a strong though critical affinity with Catholic tradition, combined with a kind of social and political 'moralism', a preference for realistic descriptions of lower-middle-class surroundings, and for the interweaving of the fictitious private foreground with the historical public events in the background. Both authors share a boldness in verbally attacking (or ignoring) sexual taboos (often to unmask bourgeois hypocrisy), an ironic tone and (occasionally grim) humor, and a taste for the picaresque. The Tin Drum covers the same time span as the Kabbelski accounts in A Family Madness, and both novels evoke the history of Europe in the first half of this century, dwelling particularly on the time of the Third Reich. There are some parallels between the fictitious narrators Oskar Matzerath and Rudi Kabbel. Their recollections present history through the perspective of a child endowed with the understanding of an adult. Both are exiles, and both are victims who are eventually driven into madness by the insanity of their environment. Whereas Oskar's refusal to grow up is a visible protest, Rudi's refusal to accept the world as it is, manifests itself in his vision and in his depending on voices and the imaginary uncle. The most interesting aspect of this literary connection concerns the way in which Keneally's book presents the German novel to the (Australian) readers; that is, for one thing, which themes from The Tin Drum are highlighted and how they are related to the narrative, and, for another, the impression the book makes on the Australian protagonist of A Family Madness. By having Delaney read some of the explanatory course notes to The Tin Drum, several central themes are outlined which, though referring to Grass's novel, also allude to themes in Delaney's own story. The connections with the Kabbelski story and with the terrible consequences of nationalism in occupied Belorussia are obvious; those with Australia are more allusive. When Delaney starts to read the novel, he is conscious only of the girl behind the book, but already he senses an imminent threat. The danger implied works on two levels: in private life the love affair jeopardising his marriage and career, in public life an increasing societal instability. The allusion to the 'Glass Night' in the notes foreshadows a subsequent incident of violence connected with the urban 'guerilla warfare', where windows are broken and a bag of glass is emptied on the car park, an incident that points to some disturbing features of contemporary urban development. Whereas Oskar's dwarfism as a trope for deliberately retarded consciousness is made explicit, the consequences of another (albeit less devastating) retarded consciousness in the Australian reality of Delaney and his mates reveal themselves only gradually and less conspicuously. Thus the early juxtaposing of the Tin Drum notes and Delaney's Rugby League diary operates like a warning: later in the novel, Delaney's world of sport, this 'perfect model of an imperfect world', will be infected by increasing brutality.

A further reference to The Tin Drum is used to contrast European and Australian perceptions. Delaney is impressed and confused by the opening chapter of The Tin Drum, 'The Wide Skirt', which tells the story of Oskar's grandfather who, persecuted by the police, escapes under the skirts of Anna in a potato field. The setting of the episode, 'somewhere around the borders of Poland and Germany', does not really interest Delaney. He 'preferred in fact for the young fugitive's politics to be vague and for the location to be a no-man's-land, a land still to be invented'—there is an association with a Utopia, an Australian topos. Whereas in Grass's novel there is an immediate motivation for the persecution, Delaney in his dreams associates it more generally with a Kafkaesque situation of the alienated individual in a threatening world. The wish for security found under Anna's skirts is a recurrent motif in Grass's novel, as is, in Keneally's, the wish for ultimate security. Delaney relates the skirt image to his almost pious longing for the ideal love, the ideal woman embodied by a medieval picture of a woman with a unicorn, symbolising chastity and faithfulness—ironically just the qualities Delaney is about to destroy. His wish to find 'the woman at the middle of things' informs his love for Danielle, and he tries to adapt her European strangeness to his sphere, by imagining her as the woman surrounded not only by unicorn and lion but also by kangaroos and emus. For the 'innocent' Australian, Delaney, the world evoked in The Tin Drum and the 'dark atmosphere of that book' remain alien and frightening. He feels relieved when Danielle in her course moves on to a novel more lucid and familiar to him, Our Man in Havana, where the atmosphere is homely and humane because there are heroes and villains, whereas 'in The Tin Drum there were escapees sheltering in weird and joyous places; a mother and an uncle loved each other; midgets could break glass with their voices; horses' heads squirmed with eels; and a woman ate herself to death with fish oil'. Delaney's reaction indicates that the Australian reader might find it difficult to understand Grass's novel and the (un-British) European world it presents, therefore its images remain meaningless to him. But there is an irony in the novel's use of art as an indicator of innocence or decadence. Grass's The Tin Drum apparently does not appeal to Delaney, nor does it suit his 'Australian ethos'. Yet by exposing the mounting violence endangering society, the Australian part of the narrative also creates a 'dark atmosphere', one without a clear-cut division between heroes and villains. Delaney's own story evokes, among other things, an Australian wish for Utopia not fulfilled.

I have suggested that Keneally uses the German images in his fiction to explore a different kind of experience but at the same time to relate them to aspects of specifically Australian issues. By treating such issues in another cultural and historical context, Keneally's narratives indirectly also complement, expand and comment on problems of Australian self-definition. Some positive traits of the German characters correspond to positive values of Australian self-images, and are therefore affirmative. The negative ones serve to correct or change self-images and draw attention to inherent dangers in Australian society. Referring to a dictum, common in his youth, that one 'could only get perspective on Australia by seeing it from outside', Keneally calls those of his historical novels set outside Australia the equivalents of a 'literary overseas trip'. This links up with the notion of an 'accidental Australianness' which Keneally shares with Malouf and other writers, and of the alternatives that can at least be written out, if not lived out. The European world of violence in Keneally's writing could be read as a reversal of an 'antipodean' myth, implying that hell is over there. More than this, however, it is a way of fictionally distancing fundamental human issues which also affect Australian self-understanding. Many of Keneally's characters have a Utopian dream, an insight that there are better possibilities worth striving for. But as a small nation such as Australia seems helpless against the influence of overwhelming powers, some of the protagonists in Keneally's fiction, including several German characters, seem helpless before the terrific task of changing the course of things—be it history, the system, or simply humankind's cruelty. Keneally sees the Germans as 'a fit study for anyone interested in humanity'. Thus the German characters in his fiction are presented not so much as 'ogres', but rather as exemplifying more widespread trends which in turn mirror 'what always goes on'.

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