Victoria University Press, $35.00,
The image on the cover of Ian Wedde’s new novel, The Catastrophe, sets the satirical tone and pitch of the ensuing story: the bold noun of the title, announcing disaster with just a hint of theatrical exaggeration, stands in counterpoint to the photograph of a man, head bagged ludicrously in faux-designer leather shoulder apparel, standing cuffed (presumably) against a bullet-riddled wall. The clear reference is to the infamous gallery of images documenting the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal of the second Iraq war, and all that those images represent of the injustices and perversities of war, and in that instance the hypocrisies of Western powers, self-elected defenders of justice, the rule of law and freedom. The effect is one of mock-horror, underscored in the novel by the comparison between the bagged man – Christopher Hare, the errant protagonist, though a bagman he is not – and a cockerel silenced by being hooded with a box.
Wedde’s dedication to the revered Palestinian “Poet of Resistance” or “Exile’s Poet”, Mahmoud Darwish, gives the satirical rope another twist. Evidently, the novelist means serious political business with this “entertainment”, for the allusion to Darwish immediately invokes the volatile and refractory politics of the seemingly insuperable Israel-Palestine conflict, and the worlds of human despair and violent struggle connoted by journalistic phrases such as “cross-border disputes” and “Middle East conflict”. Marshalling satire to serve a sensitive political cause is fraught with risk: real-world human suffering and political complexity can too easily be reduced to the mechanics of aesthetic contrivance in the service of comic play.
Wedde states in the brief “Notes” appended to the story that it is based on his own experience in, and research into, Middle East and Palestinian culture and politics. Certainly the novel establishes an immediate and credible realism, although since, strictly speaking, the action takes place off the main geographical stage (Nice not the Gaza Strip), this is less a matter of detailed and accurate evocation of foreign place and culture than convincing characterisation and controlled dramatic effect. As a New Zealand writer, Wedde is also always writing at a safe antipodean distance, as it were, though this is not a criticism by any means. Most of Wedde’s Australasian readers, at least in the first instance, will be familiar with the terms in which the “Middle East” problem is presented in the western media: a story of two competing narratives that tell opposing versions of a long, painful and politically tortuous story centred on the visceral themes of place and home, of identity and community, of occupation and exile.
Narrative itself becomes both an essential act and fact for both writer (Wedde the storyteller) and characters. Much of the action involves the two central characters in extended introspection, their personal stories unfurling before the reader’s eyes – life stories composed in and of memory through recollection and reflection. Their interlocking stories – those of Christopher Hare, the capricious and gifted gastronome, and Dr Hawwa Habash, an educated and accomplished woman serving (somewhat uncertainly) a political cause – pivot on the fulcrum of “presentness”, as the novel has it: the real-time action in the main frame of the narrative which, dramatically speaking, establishes the story as something of a chamber piece.
The dramatic action of The Catastrophe is generated by the reverberating collision between Habash and Hare, with Mary Pepper, Hare’s ex-wife, a recovering drug addict, food photographer and emerging visual artist, playing a crucial supporting role alongside other incidental characters. Habash is the intelligent, sophisticated political activist who, with noble and melancholic fortitude, carries the solemn burden of her family’s exile from Palestine with her. Hare, mercurial, melodramatic, anticly frivolous and archly charismatic, yet also confused and wounded in ways only intimated in the text, is her unlikely counterpart. While the two, as characters, represent sharply separate and opposed worlds of experience and values, each embodies complementary aspects of the novel’s interwoven themes – displacement and exile; identity and authenticity; time and memory; truth and illusion. Each also has serious identity issues; each has occasion to use noms de plume, and each is involved in interior struggles mirrored in external political circumstances.
Displacement becomes both theme and dramatic device: when Christopher Hare, whose celebrity star is on the wane, impulsively “displaces” himself from his own world of haute cuisine and international travel by catapulting into Habash’s reality, he crosses a figurative bridge into her world of political and cultural displacement – an altogether more complex and dangerous place; a place shadowed with deep, complex histories, with stories of loss and great suffering, paranoia and insecurity. The comic counterpoint on which the novel swings is established: western metropolitan narcissism meets violent partisan politics. The more profound existential theme of “being in time” is the (largely unspoken) bond they share. Habash at one critical point experiences the release from a paradoxically “burdensome present of so many years” – grief and pain of many years earlier held living, as it were, inside her, and which suddenly leave her body.
Contrastingly, yet also complementarily, Hare comes to understand that his irrational act has a certain meaning. He has rushed for freedom, sought “liberation” from his known and familiar world; he arrives at “the only place from which I can go forward”; a “calm place … his time-out present moment” from which he, the reviewer, can review his life. The pun is consistent with the comic element in the novel: Hare, as the petulant yet talented writer, is given to obsessive punning and wordplay, reflecting the author’s own delight in language (there is much semantic play on the imagery of food and language: Christopher “speaks with his mouthful”; Mary “feeds” on his words; “food is love” is their signature code to each other; and of course, food becomes its ordurous opposite). The satirical edge is sharpened when that now-hackneyed phrase beloved of politicians and corporate entrepreneurs – the vapidly intransitive “going forward” – becomes the repeated refrain in reference to Hare’s state of mind.
From the spectatorial intrigue of its opening scene, the novel gestures repeatedly to cinema. This allusion, however, is intended as a compliment; for Wedde, unlike many a popular novelist of our time, does not write literary fiction as if it were a draft for a screenplay – prose written to be seen, as it were. Instead, he employs the distinctive strengths of the novel – the power to evoke with language myriad confluences of time, space and perspective through the prism of subjective consciousness and experience – to incorporate and appropriate the dominant mode of seeing (and so knowing) in the 21st century, much as Phillipe, the inscrutable leader of Dr Hawwa Habash’s small team of self-elected defenders of their homeland, is described as a master illusionist and constructs appearances accordingly. In so doing, Wedde at once consolidates the realism of his narrative – we are what we watch in the 21st century – while pushing back against the dominance of this “other world” of televisual images.
This double effect is an act of resistance, in a particular (if implicit) sense that corresponds with the more explicit themes in the story itself. The filmic symmetry of the opening and closing scenes in the novel – it is difficult not to imagine George Clooney walking on set – works as an ironic framing device, saying, in effect, that the real action occurs in the (literary) pages in between. For all the explicit references to cinema – street lights give a “woman’s face a filmic appearance”; the above-mentioned Phillipe is likened to “an artist or a film director” – the reader has a far richer experience of the characters and their worlds through Wedde’s adroit, finely honed prose and tautly composed narrative.
I was, however, left with a nagging discomfort at the story’s end. With an eye to the camera, Wedde deftly arranges the closing scene so that the reader savours a particularly piquant irony hingeing on a gustatory pun, the full ironic flavour of which is denied the leading man. Within the dramatic structure of the novel, the moment marks a surprising point of resolution; viewed against the larger real-world historical backdrop against which the story unfolds, the climactic scene registers but one more violent act in the protracted Israel-Palestine struggle. Yet, while never simply caricature, Hare is difficult to take seriously, and so finally becomes merely and amusingly disposable. Certainly we recognise the indignity and injustice suffered by all refugees; but Hare’s fate serves to surprise rather than to reinforce a political point. This casts an unsettling ambiguity over the story, compromising an otherwise highly accomplished novel by an assured and sophisticated writer.
Stephen Harris teaches in the School of English, Communication and Theatre at the University of New England, New South Wales.