Sunday, 21 October 2012

Battered Penguins - Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

I was really looking forward
to rereading Tourmaline. I loved it when I first read it around the age of sixteen. Disappointingly, while I still think the book has really beautiful passages – including the kinds of descriptions of far-off, hot and dusty places in inland Australia that make you homesick when abroad, despite the fact that they are landscapes you have never and will never inhabit - I now find it a bit portentous and overblown in its tone for my taste. 

Set in Tourmaline a ‘town of corrugated iron’, consisting of a war memorial, ‘a modest obelisk, convenient for dogs and the weary’, a store, with ‘white paint flaking from its iron’, the Tourmaline Hotel, ‘reddened with dust’ and a few houses, ‘uniform, dilapidated, stained with red dust’, and, according to the author’s note on the opening page, ‘taking place in the future’, the book is narrated by the town’s policeman, a man with an unusually lyrical turn of phrase for one of his profession (have you ever met one who makes such profound remarks as this: "It came to me suddenly that a man is a disease of God; and that God must surely die"). It tells the story of what happens when a young man arrives in the town, half-dead, having walked, (he claims, once restored to health), ‘From the other end of the road’; when asked about the place he has left behind, he describes it with one word: ‘Hell’. 

The young man’s arrival, according to our narrator is a thing of great moment, an end to the torpor in which Tourmaline has long been lying. ‘One could read it in every face: an event had occurred, an event whose magnitude and significance Tourmaline had difficulty in estimating.’ The young man turns out to be a diviner and soon he has almost the entire town under his charismatic spell.

Or at least that is how the story is told by the narrator, but whether he is reliable or whether possibly the whole story is a figment of his imagination is not entirely clear. There are events he relates as if he were a witness to them, when he could not have been unless they occurred only in his own mind. He has trouble summoning a clear memory of the young man, saying, ‘Ah, but how difficult it is to recreate this young man … He remains obscure, confusing. I cannot put him down.’ He admits that “In my terrible loneliness, I grow elegiac.’ Possibly he grows deluded as well.

Despite one or two faintly comic moments – "You’ve got a funny sense of humour”, Byrne said. “I’ve got no sense of humour at all,” said the diviner.” –  the book’s overall mood is solemn and melancholy. Futility and aimlessness suffuse the characters’ lives. I must once have believed in the peculiar kind of love story that forms a central part of the novel.Sadly, this time round it seemed to me to be an example of the kind of histrionic melodrama that I might expect to find in The Thornbirds. Here is a sample; I defy anyone to read it without wincing at least a little:

‘”He’s not my husband.”
“Of course he is, in the sight of God.”
“What do you know about the sight of God?”
“More than you think maybe.”
She tossed her head, a wild meaningless gesture. She was trying not to cry, perhaps. “I can’t love him. He won’t let me. You know, you can believe that, can’t you?”
“So you thought you’d come to me?”
She said, quite simply, “I want to have your baby.”
He sounded sick, with rage or disgust. “What makes you think you can talk this – filth to me? Did you think I was the sort of man who’d listen to it?”

The book contains beautifully observed details – “The flies in the traps irrepressibly sizzled on. The clock, with a view of Windsor Castle on the glass over the pendulum, announced the seconds from a distance of twenty minutes” – and I think I understand that Stow is trying to convey something about the aggressive Philistinism that can be an aspect of life in the bush. The book is worth reading for its evocation of outback Australia’s grandeur – “What enormous and desolate landscapes are opened by the voice of a lone crow” – but, within that setting, the stage Stow has created and the cast he has assembled are too flimsy to bear the weight of his cryptic but apparently hugely significant meaning. Or possibly one simply needs to be sixteen.

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