In a twist on the creative nonfiction trend of authors weaving themselves into “plucked from the headlines” narratives, veteran author Arnold Zable performs his own masterclass in literary shadowboxing, in The Fighter. A ghostly reporter throughout, the writer is always present in the narrative but never speaks. He only listens, and observes.
Zable’s subject is Henry Nissen, a 67-year-old former boxer who works nights at the docks and days as an unpaid community service officer. Nissen is constantly on the move in his yellow Hyundai, ducking between the housing commission flats of Melbourne. Trailing in his wake, the biographer barely is able to keep up.
Nissen and his siblings grew up in Carlton, back when it was a working-class Jewish neighbourhood, populated by “the children of postwar newcomers, fresh off the boats”. Talent spotted by a local pugilist, Henry and his twin brother, Leon, are trained in the sweet science, with Henry showing enough promise to be a world title contender – “the Miniature Freight Car, the Great Jewish Hope. Hammering Henry the Hustling Hebrew.”
Later in life, Nissen devotes his life to vouching for the troubled kids he has mentored, helping them out of strife. The man’s a saint, but Zable senses unresolved trauma lurking in the family closet. The midsection of the book concentrates on Nissen’s mother, Sonia, who survived the Holocaust, but not intact. Always a volatile presence, her problems stem from what she witnessed, and what horrific acts were perpetrated upon her, in Bergen-Belsen.
She is not alone in her suffering. Many of the families in Carlton “found their way here to the ends of the known Earth in the wake of an event they called the Annihilation”. There were no surviving grandparents to help raise the children and no support networks, only dark secrets slowly eating away new Australian families from within. In one chilling moment, a resident recounts seeing a photograph on a neighbour’s mantelpiece, in which the host is proudly wearing an SS uniform. The monster is always with them.
Zable has a superb eye for detail and it serves the narrative exceptionally well. The Port Melbourne docks are vividly described and postwar Carlton is brought humming back to life. Most affecting of all is his admiration for Nissen. Without ever descending into mawkishness, Zable channels the story of an ordinary man, a good man, who, to this day, is still winning on points. JD
Text, 208pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Arnold Zable, The Fighter ". Subscribe here.