Cover of book: Books of ambition

Geordie Williamson
Books of ambition

An author who wrote his first novel at 17, Damon Galgut has spent decades trembling on the edge of greatness. Anyone who has read his scarifying The Good Doctor from 2003 or his 2010 Booker-shortlisted autofiction In a Strange Room, will already know him as a polished stylist and the most acute analyst of contemporary South Africa after J. M. Coetzee.

In this year’s The Promise (Chatto and Windus, 304pp, $32.99) – winner of the 2021 Booker Prize – Galgut took the combination of banality and violence that undergirds his society and made an epic from it. The novel’s premise is simple: in the mid-1980s, a dying woman named Rachel Swart promises her black maid, Salome, that she may have the house in which she lives on the Swart property as her own.

But Rachel’s widowed husband does not honour the gift – a failure of decency that places the Swart family on the wrong side of history at the very moment when a new and very different South Africa is coming into view. A single family’s transgression then does service for the sins of an entire nation, during the years when apartheid crumbles and Nelson Mandela moves from prison cell to presidential estate. The Promise is a polyphonic novel; it floats democratically among the minds of priests and rough sleepers, cabinet ministers and Salome herself. But it is also narrowly focused. It asks how historical guilt might manifest in the present, making Galgut’s novel apt for Australian readers.

The Books of Jacob (Text Publishing, 992pp, $34.99) is one of those undertakings whose pleasure, in part, comes from the commitment the reader is obliged to make to them. At more than 900 pages, Nobel prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s newly translated masterpiece is closer to marriage than an affair.

But what delights await the patient bride or groom! The Polish author has done nothing less than re-create the vanished world of European Jewry in the 18th century, from the ice-bound swamps of Lithuania to Smyrna’s sun-drenched port, at a moment when the modern world was coming into being.

The novel is based on the real, if mysterious, historical figure of Jacob Frank: a would-be Jewish messiah and founder of a controversial sect that oscillated between Islam and Catholicism. But if Frank provides the thread on which the narrative is strung, it is the larger cast of Tokarczuk’s novel that furnish its pendants. The vividness of Jewish life during the era, its living texture and intellectual richness, is envisaged at such length and in such detail that the author’s attentions ultimately take on a significance of their own.

At a moment when refugees on Poland’s borders are being used as geopolitical weapons, when walls across Europe are going up and paramilitaries are running for-profit prisons for captured boat people on the Mediterranean coast, Tokarczuk’s novel feels newly – and urgently – relevant. Impeccable translator Jennifer Croft, it should be noted, has run the full marathon to bring it English-speaking readers.

Mark McKenna has long been a fine academic historian guided by a strong sense of decency. There is not a word he has written since his debut, 2002’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point, that has not been informed by the desire to find some accommodation between Indigenous Australians and the Europeans who latterly came to these shores. But this year with Return to Uluru (Black Inc, 272pp, $34.99) he has outdone himself. It is a work of historical reclamation and a call for justice embedded in what can only be called a narrative of metaphysical true crime.

McKenna furnishes a gripping account of the manhunt undertaken by a Central Australian police constable named Bill McKinnon that resulted in the fatal shooting of Indigenous man, Yokununna, in 1934, at the site white Australia then called Ayers Rock.

Just one more killing out of so many since 1788. Yet in McKenna’s hands the story ripples outwards – to Canberra and a government increasingly unwilling to countenance open acts of racial violence, and to a nascent generation of activists, whether Black or white, who were galvanised by these events – all the way to the present, where Yokununna’s descendants have once again taken up stewardship of Uluru after a century of dispossession.

The implications of McKenna’s argument in these pages are immense. He wants us to understand Uluru as the true heart of the country. In his telling – via the Anangu people for whom it is sacred – it is a university, a law court, a house of parliament, a cathedral. As such, it is the natural site for makarrata – the process of truth-telling and reconciliation between Black and white Australia without which, as McKenna calmly asserts, we remain a wounded and diminished nation.

Finally, a local indulgence by this recently minted Vandemonian: Breathing Space: Reflections and Projections on Nature in Tasmania (Tasmanian Land Conservancy, 198pp, $49.99) is a collection of pieces by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy to celebrate its 20th anniversary. If you want to know why there is something special about the wild island to your south, this volume is the only primer you will need. Handsomely produced, various in its talented contributors, Breathing Space reminded me why it was in Tasmania that the first ecologically minded political party in the world was formed. It is hard to live among such beauty and not wish to see it preserved.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Books of ambition".

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