No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, April 10, 2006

#32: True History of the Kelly Gang -- Peter Carey

I didn't have much of an interest in Australian history until quite recently: Carey's Jack Maggs resonated with vague memories of Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish (which I mean to reread) and impressed me with Carey's craft. Jack Maggs was a distinctive voice, and Ned Kelly is another. I was much more aware, reading this novel, of the post-colonial themes -- the wild colonial boys (first-generation Australians rather than transported Irish), their intimate relation with the land, the alienation from Empire, etc.

It's also a cracking story, and I'm almost certain that it glorifies crime, if not terrorism. The story is told entirely from Ned Kelly's point of view, in an idiosyncratic style that's recognisably based on the Jerilderie Letter: allegedly written by Kelly himself, with or without the assistance of his mate Joe Byrne, this 58-page document was published decades after Kelly's execution. It's referred to in True History of the Kelly Gang, but not included there because, unlike the conceit of the parcel of papers spirited away just before the Kelly Gang's last stand at Glenrowan, it's declared to have been lost.

Carey magnifies the sense of character in that document. In this novel, Ned Kelly's voice is vivid and honest: he's not exactly arrogant, but certainly never humble, though there is a simplicity (and even sentimentality) to his prose that makes the tale all the more poignant.

The novel is built around the true history of the gang, all right, but it expands that history -- the story of a poor boy driven to the bad by poverty and by the bias and corruption of the authorities -- with credible details and wild speculation. There's a strong Oedipal thread in here, and some allusions to especially savage or perverse aspects of Irish history that I'm not qualified to judge as truth or invention. There's more than a tinge of the supernatural (changelings, curses, banshees) that fits with the traditional superstition of uneducated Irish. There's a compelling explanation for the infamous Kelly armour: based, according to Carey, on yellowing newspaper reports of the Monitor, the Civil War's iron-clad submarine. And there is a very real sense of a man living in, and on, the land. No evocative descriptions here, apart from the odd phrase -- 'the vast ancient stars', the sound of a tree about to fall 'at the hinge of life' -- because this is not a novel about people coming to a magnificent new landscape but about people inhabiting that land and making it their own.

All of it's told in a style which at first seems wilfully perverse. The newspapers describe the Jerilderie letter as the work of a 'clever illiterate person', but though Kelly (by which I mean Kelly's voice transcribed by Carey) disdains punctuation, there's a clarity and simplicity to his prose that has the rhythm of speech without the need to enforce that rhythm:

All my life I had stood by her when I were 10 I killed Murray's heifer so she would have meat when our poor da died I worked beside her I were the eldest son I left school at 12 yr. of age so she might farm I went with Harry Power that she might have gold when there were no food I laboured when there were no money I stole and when the worthless Frost and King closed round her like yellow dingoes on a chained up bitch I sought to protect her.

Kelly and his gang are not immigrant Irish, or transported convicts: they are first-generation Australians, rattling around in a country at once too large for them and too constricted by land-ownership and by the geographical borders imposed by great rivers and the Great Divide. They all have a shared Irish identity, built from anti-Irish bigotry and gilded by the legends of Cuchulain and Maeve that Ellen Kelly weans her children upon. It takes Mary Hearn (entirely fictional, as far as I can tell) to tell them what Ireland is 'really' like, to puncture their romantic fantasies about the old country and the old ways.

That is the agony of the Great Transportation that our parents would rather forget what came before so we currency lads is left alone ignorant as tadpoles spawned on the moon.

The novel does not rose-tint the undoubted benevolence of the bushrangers, and of the Kelly Gang themselves -- payers of overdue rent, workers in the fields of men who've gone to prison -- but rather focusses on the injustices perpetrated by the police (the 'traps') and the respectable settlers of Victoria. There's a strong sense of unfairness, a clear chain of cause and effect that links Ned Kelly's first encounters with authority to the last desperate days before his death. Yet for all the grudges and the occasionally petty attention to detail, there is also a strong sense of personality, of humour and charisma. Carey makes this horse-thief and murderer into a hero: but more, into a likeable and potentially gentle man who's prisoner of his own fate. It's a grand and epic tale and I fear that when I finally get around to watching the recent movie version, I'll find it a pale shadow of this book.

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