A Portrait of Alice as a Young Man
The cultural historian and essayist Maria Tumarkin once described an essay as “a dramatisation of a writer’s mind at work”. Ender Başkan’s A Portrait of Alice as a Young Man, though a novel, takes this dictum as its primary motivating force.
The book begins with the narrator, who is also named Ender, driving to the Northern Territory with his partner, Sophie, and his friend Gabe. Ender – a descendant of Turkish Muslims, whom he describes as “fortunate victims of a brutal historical process” that brought them and many others to this country – is preoccupied with being and becoming. He is working through his notions of home, from Istanbul to the suburbs of Melbourne to a hut in Alice Springs, as well as his imminent transition into fatherhood.
When Ender catches sight of Uluru for the first time, he is mesmerised by the “wake and smell of five hundred million years of geological ferment and the songs of generations of Anangu”. His wonder soon turns to despair, however, as tourists walk blithely past “Do Not Climb” signs to climb Uluru. Much of the novel is given to Ender’s grappling with his complicity in continuing Indigenous dispossession from his position as a settler-migrant, a child of “the flotsam and jetsam of the diabolical plunder of the world”.
Eventually Sophie returns to Melbourne (“the world’s most liveable Ponzi scheme”) while Ender and Gabe spend a few weeks living on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Here, Ender wonders what compels him to write. “What is this compulsion to excavate myself and the lives around me? … I can’t seem to separate the act from my historical position, this process is either quixotic or an absolutely necessary reclamation of ongoing loss.”
Başkan is a keen observer of the Australian condition – a fraught concept at the best of times – and his narrator spends most of the novel listening to others. The chapters in the book read like diary entries or short essays, and while there are elements of autofictive navel-gazing, they are overshadowed by the thoughtful work of a deeply sensitive mind. In this novel, Başkan doesn’t attempt to resolve anything but, rather, tentatively proposes an ethic of engagement with the questions that occupy him: What does it mean to be a parent? An artist? A settler? “We will have a child soon,” says Ender. “They will be in the world while we are still wondering how to be in it.”
Vre Books, 170pp, $25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Ender Başkan, A Portrait of Alice as a Young Man". Subscribe here.