Thursday, 7 March 2019

Book review: Balga Boy Jackson, Mudrooroo (2017)

The story told in this novel starts in 1947 when the protagonist is aged nine years. He lives with his mother and sister in a town named Shiloh near Perth and the two kids start breaking into buildings in the town and are confronted by the local police. Balga is sent away to a Catholic orphanage in the capital to be educated. The man who wrote this book, Colin Johnson, was also reportedly born in 1938, and was reportedly educated at an orphanage. At least the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica says as much, so you are inclined to believe it.

But then you are confronted by other details of the author’s life. There seem to be two versions. One is as the author sets down in this novel and the other is slightly different in some of its details. According to this alternative version the author has no Aboriginal forbears and so the claims he made during his life (he died last year, reportedly) to be a representative of that community were fabricated. At the present point in time it seems impossible to discover which version is accurate. One person, a Dane, calls attempts to discredit the version of Colin Johnson (he adopted his pen-name in 1988, it is reported) “politically correct” when, in fact (if she knew much at all about politics in Australia), the reverse would be truer. It’s all a bit of a puzzle and I don’t mean to attempt to clarify things here.

The first thing to say about this curious production is that it desperately needs more subbing. There are incorrect spellings, a sometimes cryptic sentence structure that in many cases suggests a lack of education, and some really serious solecisms, as where the same character is given words to say in reply to himself, but under a different name (Balga is deprecatingly called “Skinny” by the malicious priests in the orphanage, and both names are indiscriminately used for the one person by the author, which sometimes causes problems for the reader).

The second thing to note is that the truth of the version of events as they relate to the time spent in the orphanage is brought under question by the controversy surrounding the author’s ancestry. If you can’t believe one set of facts, it makes it harder to accept the other. The parts that cover the period Balga spent living with his mother and sister in Shiloh are furthermore very vividly imagined but once you get into the orphanage the details are not quite as convincing. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which way he or she wants to fall: on the side of Johnson or not.

Johnson also has this problem with his story: there is no shape to it. He hasn’t thought out what he wants to say and when, and all you get is a plain recount in episodic form. One thing comes after the next in a straight sequence and the dramatic arc is constantly being interrupted by unrelated events. Sometimes, with little preparation, a new event or theme is introduced, and you struggle as you get through the narrative, all the while trying to make sense of what you are reading. As well as the sometimes idiosyncratic syntax this characteristic of the book makes it hard to follow. The payoff is usually not there and just as one episode ends another has appeared to take its place. There is enough drama to make this novel interesting but it needed to be written a bit more, to be given more form and structure.

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