Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Divine Wind

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Relationships under pressure are the focus of Garry Disher's book, writes Laurie Clancy.

Early in Garry Dishers novel "The Divine Wind", the narrator says "You could say that this is a story about friendship, and the betrayal of friendship, and friendships lost and regained". The key word is "betrayal", because it is a novel that is about love as well as friendship and, above all, about loyalty.

Throughout the novel we are confronted with numerous examples of loyalty - Zekes sacrifice of his life to save Hartley, Hartleys father courageously taking Sadako and Mitsi into his house in defiance of the town, and later his defence of the Aboriginal stockman Derby Boxer. But in the end the novel seems to argue, rather dispiritedly, that if society is able to impose sufficient stress upon any relationship, then no matter how intense and no matter how wellmeaning the people involved are, it can be broken.

The novel opens in 1946, just after the war, in the northwestern Australian town of Broome, and then goes back to the events of previous years to account for the melancholic, almost foreboding tone in which Hartley tells the story. Though his language is extremely simple, Disher does a wonderful job of evoking the delight of growing up in a tropical town "mangoes and barramundi on the table, bamboo furniture, siestas, sundowners, pearl shell ashtrays, servants" - to say nothing of falling in love with a Japanese girl and regular visits to the pictures.

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There seems to be little real racial prejudice in the town, though there are subtle reminders of the past Sadako may have worked in a brothel when she first arrived in Broome and there are hints of illtreatment of the Aborigines. Saltwater Jack was "lured by force or slippery promises to work the luggers". His wife, Bernadette, was separated from her family when she was little and raised by the nuns, who instilled in her the conviction that she could never amount to anything more than a servant.

While the town is not under pressure, these hints of racial prejudice remain in the background. The Tampa had not arrived when Disher wrote his novel, but he shows himself to be a prescient observer in his recognition of the fragility of Australias racial tolerance and what is now called multiculturalism. Generally, it is an idyllic existence, except for Hartleys Englishborn mother, who reacts violently against the easygoing egalitarianism of the town and returns home. Ironically - and pointedly - it is the Englishborn person who cant fit where the Japanese can.

All this is due to change, of course, and what Disher now offers us is a slice of Australian history at a crucial time and its disruptive effect on the lives of a number of individuals.

Disher has always been intensely interested in Australian history and has written several books about it. In addition, he has dealt with it in his fiction. The stories in Approaches begin at the time of World War I. The Stencil Man first sounds the theme of detention for those deemed to be aliens in a time of war. The Bamboo Flute and The Sunken Road are set during the Depression.

Japans entry into the war and the possibility of the first invasion of the Australian mainland strike terror into the hearts of its citizens and destroy the veneer of harmony that had previously existed in the town. In the end, the male characters are either boorish, like Mr Kilian and Carl Venning, or weakly principled, whereas women like Alice and Mitsi are much stronger. Mitsi first rejects Hart (whose name seems rather ironical) when he fails to stand up to his mother over the issue of Derby Boxer. Alice does similarly with Carl when he joins in Major Morrisseys openly racist sentiments. In commenting on Carls treatment of the blacks, Hart can offer only negative praise that he wasn't worse "Carl didn't force his recalcitrant black stockmen to dress in women's clothing and do women's work, with the clear implication being that other bosses did.

In rejecting Carl, Alice is also refusing to follow in the trail of the downtrodden wives we mostly see in the novel, women like Mrs Kilian or the careworn but offensive Olive Webb. Harts loyalty to his friends is finite. He follows Jamie to see if he is having a rendezvous with Mitsi, just as earlier he discovers from notebooks his father had suspiciously followed his mother.

The courage they both display in standing up for Derby Boxer and later Mitsi and her mother slowly leaks away as the war goes on and in the end poisons the relationships of both the Penrose males with the two women. The intern camps become ironically the only places where they can be safe.

I have reservations about Dishers scrupulously sensitive narrative only when Hart turns on Mitsi, with whom he has been and perhaps still is deeply in love. Could outside pressures cause both Hart and his father to alter in such a drastic way, even after they have defied the town and invited them into their own house as permanent guests?

Disher clearly and sadly believes they can. Hart learns something about the darkest recesses of his own soul during those final scenes of Mitsi and her mother in the house, just as later he learns them again when he is momentarily tempted not to save Jamie.

At the end of the novel, Disher returns us to the "present of 146 and perhaps just a gleam of hope". After the rousing climax of the Japanese air raid and the rescue of some of the survivors, Mitsi and her mother are sent to a camp in Victoria but in yet another generous gesture, approved of by her mother, Mitsi writes to Hart and tells him she loves him.

They resume their friendship by correspondence, but what kind of friendship will it be? The novel ends ambiguously. The authorities have begun to release the internees. Last week it was Joe Suzuki, and as he stepped on to the jetty carrying all of his possessions in a duffle bag, the locals shout at him, just as they will shout at Mitsi. It wont be easy. We may not make it.

Background notes

Garry Disher's novel "The Divine Wind" is set against the backdrop of W.W.II and the impending threat of invasion by the Japanese.

The novel examines the relationships existant in the once comfortable and cosmopolitan Broome and racism and isolation against the background of war, threaten to destroy all understanding.

In many ways Broome was Wild West Country. The role of women was defined and understood by the men - and nothing else mattered. The role of Aboriginal Australians was equally clear - they were to be servants, stockmen and subordinates.

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