Cover of book: Axiomatic

Maria Tumarkin

Axiomatic is the fourth work of nonfiction by Maria Tumarkin, one of Australia’s most urgent and necessary writers, but it is the first to keep her accent – the first to fully register the impolitic intensity of her prose and breadth of her world view. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also her best.

Axiomatic is a book of risks. It is one in which the author appears only glancingly, whether in the guise of interviewer, interlocutor, coffee companion, gallery-goer, yet is present everywhere. Imagine a clutch of incubated eggs over which some anxious supervisor looms – not a replacement hen, rather someone invested in collective survival – adjusting the heat lamp, turning and re-turning each egg daily, so that the precious embryo inside keeps floating free.

The book is structured around five essays based on folk sayings so commonplace as to be evacuated of meaning altogether. Time heals all wounds. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. History repeats itself. Give me a child before the age of seven… You can’t enter the same river twice. But this is the thing about cliché: it is also a profundity hidden in plain sight, the most direct route between thought and culture, past and present, if we address it forensically enough.

Tumarkin takes each of these empty shells and inhabits them like a hermit crab would: as opportune temporary intellectual habitations. “Time Heals all Wounds”, for example, consists of a series of interviews undertaken with the families and friends and teachers of teenaged suicides.

We meet and I ask Frances about casseroles. Everyone knows about casseroles. A person dies and people – close, dear people and virtual strangers, some signed up to a special roster – converge on the dead person’s house bearing casseroles ... For those weeks ... the family inside that house, whoever is there inside the house, is entombed in an intense concentration of throbbing, desperate human attention. Then it stops.

This passage, which swings between the repetition of a banal, silly word – casserole – and then registers the intensity of grief as a form of domestic interment, is a literary construction, carefully weighted to avoid portentousness and capture something of the skittering psychic processes that attend grief. But it is also part of a reconstructed conversation with a young woman whose sister Katie, a year her junior, died by suicide some years before. Tumarkin’s process is circuitous, to say the least. Her essay is a spaghetti junction of journalistic transcription, editorial notation, self-reflection, stray thoughts, sudden switchbacks. It honours the tangled immediacy of thought and not the combed, beribboned school photo version of nonfiction we’re used to.

This approach tends to implicate the author, even when she situates her subjects front and centre – a frank and human admission that perplexity may be her only offering when it comes to explaining why a beautiful, talented young woman with a loving family and three sisters would take her own life – but this is also a careful, wrought procedure. It seeks to enact the idea that past weighs upon the present in ways that suggest simultaneity is the only way to capture the enduring fact of traumatic experience. Even the past is present tense in these pages.

Yet these fancier insights threaten to overlook the grunt work that has been undertaken. Tumarkin, we learn, has been talking with Frances for years: hers is a total social immersion. She has also interviewed Katie’s teachers, mental health professionals, fellow students. She has reconstructed events, accumulated everything from suicide statistics to diary entries to Katie’s final English creative writing exercises. So when Tumarkin fans out to explore the phenomenon of youth suicide in the Australian context more broadly, a rigorously sociological framework is fleshed out using the unweighable data of individual testimony.

This is the method of approach throughout. Long years of direct interaction with, say, a lawyer in Victoria’s criminal justice system, or a woman found guilty of abducting her grandson, or a refugee turned globetrotting entrepreneur, or a Polish journalist and Holocaust survivor. Then the assembling of supporting material: the objective analysis that bolsters or complicates the crooked timber of these various selves. And then there is the shadowy, personal, third dimension: the willingness to messily engage the subjective self in insoluble issues of child abuse or legal failure or mental breakdown. Some questions, she admits, quoting a line inherited from her Ukrainian–Jewish parents, require half a litre of vodka to work out.

And it is in the introduction of Tumarkin’s own background – told in a tidy manner in past books; introduced as an experimental, speculative correspondence with an old and estranged schoolfriend in the final section of this one – that explains a great deal. Tumarkin’s family left Kharkov when she was a teenager. She was just one of countless émigrés over the centuries to feel the stirrings of a recrudescent anti-Semitism in the region.

The author writes as one aware on a cellular level that the stubborn return of old cruelties, hatreds and stupidities in a society has something to do with our refusal to look hard at ourselves: to test and critique claims of a Whiggish optimism about the direction of human progress. She is not convinced that our national innocence is deserved. Nor does she feel an incomer’s obligation to be grateful. An excoriator of Australia’s anti-intellectualism and a scourge of a culture that everywhere evinces the soft bigotry of low expectations, Tumarkin is nonetheless capable of great feats of generosity and love.

Everyone is looking for the next Helen Garner and Maria Tumarkin shares with Garner a gimlet eye for the flaws in official systems, along with a fascination for the narratives nested in everyday lives. Axiomatic’s symphonic structure, however, recalls Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist and Nobel Laureate. She is another for whom reality attracts like a magnet, who has made a career out of appropriating and braiding voices and documents, seeing the world as a chorus and a collage. With this remarkable, wild, risk-laden book, Tumarkin has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as both of them.  AF

Brow Books, 256pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic".

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