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Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Book review: Saint Antony in His Desert, Anthony Uhlmann (2018)

This experimental novel has on its cover a photo of a hand with the palm opened upward and a burst of sand leaving it, as though someone had had their picture taken while they were throwing dirt in the air. The image is fitting for many reasons, all of which are explored in the book, which is made up of interwoven narratives. One is the account of a night spent on the town in Sydney by a young man from Canberra, Frederick, and a DJ at radio station Triple J, Louve. There is also an account of the meeting of minds that took place in the first decades of last century when the philosopher Henri Bergson met with the mathematician Albert Einstein. This part of the book has been written by Antony Elm, a man who is somehow marooned in the Australian desert.

So you have the reality and grit of a Sydney night, when it’s most likely Friday; a discourse about the nature of the universe as it emerges from the meeting of ideas of two notable thinkers of Modernity; and the relentless abyss of the outback. To underscore this last item, Frederick and Louve at one point in their adventures have to go in Louve’s clapped-out VW Beetle to Redfern to give the brother of Hilary, a singer in the band that Louve’s boyfriend Kheiron plays synth in, his asthma medication.

Now, here’s the thing. You have to be patient. The drama unfolds at the beginning of the novel with all the speed of a lava flow. The stuff trickles out of a source of inspiration that lies buried within the recesses of the book in a slow stream that lets you gradually pick up on the relationships between the different people who appear in the narrative. At each cut of the frames (sudden and emphatic) there is more of the Bergon-Einstein narrative interspersed that you have to get through. The suspense however builds up to stratospheric levels if you wait for long enough, and so by the time you near the end of the book you cannot wait to turn the pages. This is a very interesting novel indeed.

It is somewhat like a snow-globe, one of those plastic domes that contain a diorama or some kind of “scene” that is enclosed in a transparent plastic dome. The white plastic flakes of “snow” fall to the bottom when the water-filled globe is shaken. Many places form the backdrop to the story in this novel, from the Salvation Army’s People’s Palace in Pitt Street to the Block in Redfern, and from the Triple-J offices in Darlinghurst just off William Street to the Sydney Tower development on Market Street. There are even appearances from a left-wing activist office on Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, and Christ Church St Laurence on George Street in the Haymarket. The novel is also one that looks in some detail at the Post-Punk era (the action takes place during one evening and night in the autumn of 1981), and it is important here to note that, like Charles and Frederick in the novel, the author grew up in Canberra (his brother Chris is the TV news journalist).

I wonder how Uhlmann managed to get the cadences and personalities of his characters so close to the truth? You feel as though these are people who actually lived. There’s something of the ventriloquist’s art taking place here. Perhaps he used a personal journal kept when he was a young man. Furthermore, two of the main characters in the book, Frederick and Charles, are outsiders who pick up on details about Leviathan that someone brought up in the city might have missed because they are too familiar.

Where the action takes place in and around the city (Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Chippendale, Redfern) is exactly where I spent time when I was a young man, places that were then largely still raw with the interwar poverty that has since been driven out by a process of gentrification. The streets that Uhlmann invokes from his imagination were therefore redolent with meaning for me. As I was reading I could feel the fear and hear the footfalls on the pavements and smell the lingering stench of a thousand cigarettes smoked in closed rooms.

Frederick is an unlikely hero. He is a no-hoper when it comes to small-talk, and he is aware of this shortcoming but he is a serious, intellectual type who tends to books and avant-garde music. Charles ends up getting drunk on vodka even though his friend warns him not to, and Louve and Frederick end up going off as a pair on a quest to deliver the inhaler. Louve exploits the glamour inherent in her job and flirts energetically with Frederick who is often nonplussed. She is arch and sometimes cruel. Redfern, where they are headed at one stage, is locked down by police because of rioting by local residents.

The things that are touched on in this novel include the changing nature of the relationship between the sexes, Aboriginal land rights, the fight of the proletariat against Capital and its conniving State, AIDS, and religion and the nature of existence. Big themes. To illustrate aspects of the last of these, there is a lot of discussion about suicide and God. Heavy subjects, to be sure, but the young in that era were nothing if not serious. Joy Division features in one scene in the book. Frederick is in many ways a fitting hero for the times depicted. (The author has a small joke at his expense near the end when Frederick jumps a wall to escape detection by some people walking on the street.)

The echoes of Joyce in the night scenes are unmistakeable, but there are also traces here of Claude Simon and his speaking artefacts of the material world. The objects might be solid, but you know what happens when lava hits water? It forms pumice. Which floats. A floating rock: two contradictory things in one.

Uhlmann teaches at Western Sydney University and this novel is deliberately difficult to access in many respects that I do not feel at all qualified to articulate. The meshing of the different narratives serves, in my mind, a primary purpose of highlighting debates that have raged about the nature of existence since the middle of the 19th century. This is not only the point where Modernism starts to appear in the literary arts (Melville, Whitman, Flaubert, Baudelaire), but it is also when Marx was writing his famous books. The device also provides a certain drama-inducing lag in the signal conveying the main story that involves Frederick and Louve. In this second sense the breaks have something about them of the intercut black film separating scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film ‘Stranger than Paradise’. There are also occasional flare-ups of meaning when words and themes in the two narratives happen to intersect.

Other, better-educated critics than me will be able to make more of the twinned narratives and what they portend when analysed together. But you certainly don’t need a university degree to enjoy this brilliant book.

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