Books

Tom Keneally
Two Old Men Dying

Tom Keneally has been at the game of writing novels for a long time now. Although he has always been an uneven writer, the best of his work is made to last. If 50 years ago his Catholic Church novel Three Cheers for the Paraclete – with a hero who according to legend was based on that dashing and personable priest Edmund Campion – seemed like a thinnish enactment of a bright idea, there had already been Bring Larks and Heroes, which made Keneally look like the natural successor to Patrick White and which is a passionate dramatic work that called out for comparison to The Crucible or Camus’ The Plague.

Keneally’s Aboriginal bushranger novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, does something Australian fiction had never done before, with a bright and savage eloquence. Then there’s Schindler’s Ark (filmed as Schindler’s List with a painstaking austere grandeur by Spielberg), a work of faction with a hero who took on the worst things in the world – the Nazi concentration camps – and has a tremendous narrative energy. Was the English critic D. J. Enright right to say the story had better be true? Well, yes and no, because Keneally has always negotiated the business of fiction-making with a complex double-handedness, entertaining and trying to keep it real, in something like equal measure.

With the passage of the years, the supremacy of the craftsmanship has tended to win out. His new book about an old Anglo documentary-filmmaker dying and an ancient Indigenous figure, Learned Man, juxtaposes – at once exotically and mundanely – their journeys towards death and recollections of the blood and sparkle of life.

The documentary-maker did a vérité film in Vietnam and saw his artistic partner die before his eyes, whereas he lived to win an Oscar for their joint effort. He wants the bones of the ancient Indigenous man who lived more than 40,000 years ago to be put in the right place, and plagues prime ministers with his request.

Learned Man is seen punishing and, in practice, killing a young man who has raped a girl, and we see his own confrontation with the figure the filmmaker calls Jack the Dancer, who is Death. The Indigenous sections of Two Old Men Dying avoid Aboriginal nomenclature and create a dense mist of lived mythopoeic reality that serves to counterbalance the more mundane recollections of an old documentarian on the way out who also recalls the passions and achievements of a life trying, only sometimes vainly, to be true to the best impulses of his heart.

The documentarian becomes crucially involved with an eminent, zealously activist eye doctor, transparently based on Fred Hollows, who launches first a national, Aboriginal-focused and then international campaign to rid the world of the kind of eye disease that Western civilisation has bequeathed to the rest of the Earth, not only in Australian deserts but in war-torn Eritrea and the Sudan.

All of this is done with a tough energy and a very sure narrative command. The subject matter of this book – not to mention its title – may seem dismaying, but Keneally is one of those serious writers who will never allow a subject such as the grinding down of age to dilapidate a good yarn. It’s consistently interesting to see him wrestling with the twin spirits of Anglo-Celtic senescence and the spirit-haunted and morally intense world of an immemorial Australia.

Two Old Men Dying has a light shining through its darkness because the great eye doctor is obsessed with the idea that some monumental thing was triggered in the DNA of humankind, which created Homo sapiens, and that the same kind of quantum leap – into a deeper morality and a heightened spiritual sensitivity – will one day, someday, happen again.

The idea is negotiated with tact and a degree of diffidence in this impressive sketch of ghostly affinities between a man who makes images at once artistic and real out of the life he records and shapes, and another who conjures and kills and wills himself on the tightrope of justice and mercy in a time that Keneally is very adept at animating – even if the counterpoint between a period of unimaginable distance, before ever we were, is made to enrich a present that is failing and, perhaps by necessity, presented with a somewhat faded realism.

The moral is something like the biblical one that the old should dream dreams as well as – via the arch of any lived life – traverse the strange walkway between youthful vision and aged wisdom.

There is a strangeness in this book written by a famous Catholic novelist that invokes no paraclete but is nevertheless vibrant with a spectral presence of descending birds and whisperings from congruent worlds.

Two Old Men Dying necessarily comes across as a kind of raging against the dying of the light and a suggestion that Jack the Dancer, the character ushered in by the banshee, will not have dominion, not quite. It’s also, in the familiar mundane manner of the entertainer and realist Keneally, a book about faltering marital infidelities, abiding loves, old flames, stark and fierce vengeances, the slow saddening pull of inevitabilities.

It’s a rather brave book for all its overt lameness. It leaps to Africa, it resounds with the shadow-world of ancient Australia, it can evoke a background of the Inuit, of any damn thing pertinent to the purposes of a master craftsman who has no intention of taking anything lying down. Who could deny that Keneally has his dominion?

When I was a boy, growing up in the vicinity of a mother who had left school when she was 14 but who read four books a week, mixing and matching the Agatha Christies with the Anna Kareninas, she told me that although her favourite book was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair she would rather write bestsellers. Someone once said, a bit unfairly, that Keneally started out as the successor of Patrick White but ended up as the successor of Morris West. Well, in some ways he’s both and good on him.  QSS

Vintage, 336pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 3, 2018 as "Tom Keneally, Two Old Men Dying". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: QSS