Tuesday, 12 March 2002

Australia and Timbuktu

Listening to:

Bach, prelude in F sharp major, from Book 2 of the Well-tempered clavier.

Just read:

Philip Knightley, Australia: biography of a nation.

This book is a readable history of Australia. It’s written by a journalist rather than a historian, which means that the style and tone of the writing is different from what you’d expect of a historian. For example, the first chapter reads like the sort of newspaper article you might see in the travel section of a newspaper in the UK; it waxes lyrical about how great life in modern Australia is. No doubt Knightley would call this scene-setting, but I think it’s fluff.

Nonetheless, I rather liked this book. Its coverage of events of the first half of the 20th century is engagingly written, and full of interesting detail. Even the author’s personal reminiscing is reasonably interesting. He covers the two world wars quite well, carefully explaining how the Gallipoli myth arose in WW1, and providing a good discussion of the way Australia broke free of Britain to look for help from the US in WW2.

The later sections of the book are the main cause of my not being keener on the book. Knightley gets all gushy about the Gough Whitlam government, making it sound as if heaven on earth had arrived in the early 70s. He then goes on to suggests that the CIA was involved in Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s dissolution of Whitlam’s government. There’s no point to such unfalsifiable conspiracy theories, and it just makes Knightley look silly. He’s clearly a real New Labour kinda guy, and he later approvingly claims that Tony Blair is really an Australian at heart. This is meant as a compliment, of course. How crawling can you get?

Paul Auster, Timbuktu.

This is very good book, telling the story of a dog called Mr. Bones, from the dog’s perspective, imagining that the dog has a human-like mind and the ability to understand human speech. It’s funny and sad, and very vivid. All of the people that Mr. Bones has something to do with are drawn very well, making the story very real. As I read this, I was reminded of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, which is also a fable about love and loyalty. The differences between the two books are a matter of style. Eucalyptus paints its picture in muted tones, with a distant dream-like feel, while Timbuktu is bright and almost hyper-real. I enjoyed it a great deal.

(I read the first chapter of Timbuktu in Granta 63.)

To read next:

Anita Brookner, Undue influence.

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