True tragedy in a lost time

Hannah Kent: Burial Rites is a ”dark love letter to Iceland”.BURIAL RITES
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By Hannah Kent. Picador. 338pp. $32.99.

Hannah Kent’s $1 million two-book deal with Picador and Little Brown came after her debut novel, Burial Rites, won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and she was mentored by Geraldine Brooks.

Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland in 1829. Magnusdottir was found guilty of the murders of her lover Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson at a remote farm in Illugastadir, where she worked as a servant. Kent, who now teaches English and creative writing at Flinders University, first heard Magnusdottir’s story when living in Iceland as a Rotary exchange student.

Kent says that Magnusdottir was represented “as a monster or a witch, the Lady Macbeth behind the murders, a very manipulative, scheming woman. It didn’t take into consideration her experiences or the struggle that she probably suffered.”

Kent, therefore, reimagines the last months of Magnusdottir’s life, after the District Commissioner, Bjorn Blondal, sends her to live with Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and their two daughters on their farm, Kornsa, “a custodial holding until the date and place of execution have been agreed upon”.

Blondal believes that living with “upright Christians” will “inspire repentance by good example” and a priest will visit to “inspire … an acknowledgement of justice”. Magnusdottir asks for a young priest, Thorvandur Jonsson, known as Toti, as she remembers him for an act of kindness in the past.

Initially, the family at Kornsa resent and fear the presence of Magnusdottir, but her humility and hard work win their respect and, to a degree, their affection. Magnusdottir tells Toti the truth about what happened at Illugastadir and the appalling life of servitude and poverty she has led since being abandoned by her mother, at the age of six.

Her suffering establishes her as a human being rather than ” the whore, the murderess, the female dripping blood” of legend.

Kent has called Burial Rites a “dark love letter to Iceland … my paean to this place where beauty and horror, and tradition and deprivation … were all woven together”. Certainly, Kent’s beautiful prose recaptures evocatively a lost time and a true tragedy.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

In defence of Aussies at war

Prime Minister Robert Menzies talks to Australian troops in the Middle East during his 1941 visit.ANZACS IN THE MIDDLE EAST: AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS, THEIR ALLIES AND THE LOCAL PEOPLE IN WORLD WAR II.
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By Mark Johnston. Cambridge University Press. 255pp. $59.95.

Like most other Australian wartime prime ministers, Robert Menzies visited his troops in the field – in this case, in Libya in February 1941. He ”traversed their recent battlefields and celebrated their successes with them”, his biographer Allan Martin wrote.

Menzies also spoke to the Australians’ overall commander in Libya, Britain’s General Maitland Wilson. He asked how the Australians had performed.

”They’re troublesome, you know,” the general replied. Menzies was quick with his response: ”I understand the Italians have found them very troublesome.” The general persisted: ”It’s not that,” he said. ”They’re not disciplined, you know.”

It is the aim of this book to explore that and similar perceptions. Mark Johnston has written good solid books on Australians in action in World War II and knows his subject thoroughly. He has written histories of three of the Australian divisions in the war and he tells us that this book is a companion piece to his earlier books, At the Front Line and Fighting the Enemy. Like them, it draws on the letters and diaries of hundreds of soldiers and others who observed the Australians and has a detailed and most personal touch.

The focus is not on battles and strategy but how the Australians engaged with the locals among whom they lived and fought; how they perceived their allies; and how they were perceived by locals and allies alike.

Johnston reveals that he has been thinking about this book for more than 20 years and it shows. There is such a breadth of reading, such a wide range of evidence and one word springs to mind as the reader engages with the book: judicious.

Johnston will not be rushed to judgment; nor will he allow the actions of a few thoughtless, boisterous or unruly Australians to dominate his evidence or opinion.

Johnston tells us that he teaches at Scotch College in Melbourne – in his words, ”one of Australia’s best private schools”. Strangely, it was the image of a school that occurred to me as I was reading this book. I went to school not far from where Johnston teaches and endured long journeys each day. We had it drummed into us by our teachers that we were always on display in our uniforms as we made our journeys. Most of us would have been well-behaved from natural inclination but a few might be a bit rash or over-excited. These few could trash our reputation no matter how good the rest of us were.

Perhaps Johnston tells his boys this on a fairly regular basis for this is the overwhelming theme of the book. As one of his eye-witnesses writes: ”It seems to me most ungenerous as well as silly to seize on the nastiness of a few to belittle the whole.” Johnston is determined to defend the reputation of the Australians and he goes about his task with overwhelming success.

Of course, some Australians, in their letters home, made remarks that would now be described as crudely racist. Of course, some Australians drank to excess and caused trouble. Others visited houses of ill repute even if the ”heads” had put them off-limits. Some of them – too many – contracted resulting infections. This is an army, for goodness sake. But Johnston shows that most men treated most locals generously and personably. They were eager to learn local customs and to see local sights. Johnston makes the important point that the soldiers were appalled by the poverty they witnessed in many of the host societies. But, as they were largely from the working class themselves and had just emerged from the Australian poverty of the Great Depression, their reaction was rarely condemnatory. More usually, the Australians engaged with local poverty with sympathy and understanding.

To explain how their allies viewed their capacities as fighting soldiers, Johnston takes his readers, briefly, into accounts of the fighting in Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria and elsewhere. He has a sure touch and his battle summaries seem to me to be interesting and fair.

Johnston concludes that most of the time most of the Australians fought bravely and with individual initiative. It was this initiative and professionalism that distinguished them from the troops of other countries, occasionally. He explains that every nation will have fighting units that serve somewhat better or somewhat worse than the norm. The conclusions in this book are not remarkable or sensationalist but they are agreeable and fair.

Menzies stuck up for the reputation of his troops, too, and made one of the more sensible points in Mark Johnston’s fine book. He took up the cudgels against General Wilson: ”These men haven’t spent their lives marching round parade grounds. They come from all walks of life and they’ve come over here to do a job and get it over.” Precisely. Or, as another observer put it: ”Their discipline under fire is immense … it does not matter a lot if they shave irregularly and like to go about their duties wearing underpants and no trousers.” Cut them some slack, both these men were saying, and Mark Johnston most strenuously agrees.

Michael McKernan is completing a book on Victoria in the Great War.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Truth behind Cambodian tale

The Killing Fields …. Under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79 life was a struggle in Cambodia. Photo: Jack AtleyIN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN.By Vaddey Ratner. Simon & Schuster. 322pp. $29.99.
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It has always puzzled me that Buddhists who avoid killing even a mosquito, have a history of bloodily slaughtering other humans – Burmese, Sri Lankans, and Nepalese among them. In the four years after the Vietnam War, a million Cambodians – a third of the population – were rounded up and sent to the killing fields by their Khmer Rouge compatriots, raised in the same Buddhist tradition.

Not that those elsewhere from other faiths have behaved any better. But we usually expect Buddhists to be above all this, setting an example by contemplation and serenity.

Few accounts by Cambodians of the Khmer Rouge years have appeared in English. This may be because most educated Cambodians spoke French, and also because so many of them died.

Vaddey Ratner was one who survived, and her first novel is based on what happened to her and her family when she was five to nine years old. Speaking no English, she reached the US as a refugee in 1981, completed high school 10 years later, and went on to graduate from Cornell University.

Now, the epitome of refugee success, she is married to an American and lives in Maryland. Among the many refugee novels and memoirs that have appeared since the 1990s, hers is unique.

Under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79 life is a desperate struggle for Cambodians, but Raami, Ratner’s character in the book, has two other disadvantages: she has a leg crippled by polio, and is a descendant of King Sisowath.

All families like hers are driven out of Phnom Penh, and are then constantly moved on, from town to village to work camp to killing fields. At every stage they lose more family members, possessions and dignity. But Raami’s family, and her father, Prince Ayuravann, are particularly targeted by the boy-soldiers and their ruthless Khmer Rouge leaders.

In the end, only Raami and her mother are left, and as a result of the trauma of her experiences, including nearly being shot dead, Raami refuses to speak. It is as if she cannot waste her last reserves of toughness and determination on mere words.

Ratner made a return visit to Cambodia to research her roots, and she tells Raami’s story eloquently. Some indifferent poetry and passages of rather saccharine moon-gazing are offset by plenty of authentic detail.

Cambodian frogs, for example, we learn, say ”Oak”, toads go ”Heeng hoong”, and roosters crow ”Kakingongur”. Raami watches Cambodian peasants tap chilled juice from a palm tree, and sees how they deal with a cluster of leeches. She observes a boy, caked in dried mud, washing his albino water buffalo that ”stood as transparently pink as a peeled pomelo”.

The revolution not only introduces the Phnom Penh aristocrats to their rural compatriots, it reduces them to barely surviving. Once, a person’s head was sacred in Buddhist tradition, Raami’s uncle muses. ”Now it can be cracked like a coconut.”

As well as narrating the awful fate of her family, Ratner’s story contemplates what drives the Khmer Rouge to seek to ”bury a whole civilisation”.

The revolution was released by the departure from Indochina of the French and then the Americans, but as Raami’s mother comments, it originated in Cambodia’s distant past. It is ”an old blaze reignited, decades, possibly centuries of injustice manifesting itself like a raging inferno”.

Raami’s father takes his share of responsibility for that injustice, and meekly surrenders to ”the Organisation” in the hope that his family will be spared.

How a few boys with guns can turn intellectual Cambodians and those in ”modern professions” like taxi drivers and clerks, unresisting, into undesirable refugees to be eliminated, remains a mystery.

But the process is not unknown elsewhere: think of Mugabe’s gradual eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe, and the grinding down of wealthy Jewish families in pre-war Austria. Although all that seems long ago and far away, think of the opinions now expressed about intellectual ”elites” in Australia by Nick Cater in The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class.

His ”undesirable” Australians, on academic or ABC salaries, are hardly wealthy like the Cambodian aristocrats, the Zimbabwean farmers, the Ephrussi family in Vienna, or the Murdochs who employ Cater. Nor do they rule over anyone. If Cater wants to start class warfare in Australia, lets hope he meets stronger resistance.

Dr Alison Broinowski reviews and researches Asian fiction.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Roberts puts on brave face for his rematch with Wallabies

The last time British and Irish Lions centre Jamie Roberts was in a team that beat the Wallabies he played 10 minutes and came away with a fractured skull.
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Despite the head injury, Roberts remembers the 21-18 victory at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium five years ago with fondness.

”Me and [Wallabies centre Stirling] Mortlock bashed heads, so I got credit for winning us the game by taking the captain out of the game,” he said. ”Since then I haven’t beaten Australia and not a lot of guys in the squad will have beaten Australia, and that’s a huge factor. Hopefully we can come together, be a stronger force as one and beat the Wallabies.”

That process of integration is well under way and steps up a notch on Monday, when the Lions squad flies to Hong Kong for the first leg of their month-long tour.

Roberts, who will graduate from medical school in July, is one of a small group he has dubbed the ”three disciples”, a deferential nickname for himself and the other young centres Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi, who were named alongside veteran centre and former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll in Warren Gatland’s powerfully built midfield.

The ”disciples” are the physical manifestation of Gatland’s strategy for this three-Test tour. Powerfully built, hard-running backs who will look to run up and over the Wallabies come the first clash in Brisbane on June 22.

But Roberts said there was flexibility to complement the back line’s physicality that would be deployed at will when the game required it.

”Warren has picked very good rugby players, very big athletes and guys who can cross the gain line and play an expansive game but also play a power-based game,” he said.

”I think we have to adapt our game accordingly, it will be interesting to see how we go in the provincial games leading up to the Tests. By choosing that sort of player, it gives us options to … chop and change our game plan accordingly.”

Despite a large number of Lions players coming from the Welsh side Gatland has coached for the past six years, Roberts said the team’s game plan would be ”completely different”.

”I can’t give too much away but it’s a completely different group of players and you have to adapt your game plan according to what sort of players you have in the team,” Roberts said.

The Lions’ past three consecutive series losses will no doubt be a motivating factor for Gatland and every player in the squad. Roberts nominated the Welsh Test team’s poor recent record against the Wallabies and England’s loss at Twickenham on the spring tour last year as extra fuel for players from the four nations.

”Everyone’s motivated to beat Australia; from our part of the world Australia [is] viewed as a country that prides [itself] hugely on [its] sporting background and heritage, it’s a massive part of what you guys do and to beat Australia away from home is a huge goal of everyone in the squad,” he said. ”I played in that [spring tour] game in November when we lost to that last-minute try to Kurtley Beale. It was probably the toughest result to take, [it was] absolutely brutal, losing in that fashion, but that becomes motivation. You learn with each game you lose and you have to use it as motivation to win next time around.”

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Revenge off menu but Brumbies desperate to halt mini-slump

 ACT coach Jake White says ”we will never forget” the heartbreak the Auckland Blues inflicted on his side last year.
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But while the trip to New Zealand looms as a revenge mission, White insists the Brumbies’ motivation is keeping alive their season instead of focusing on redemption. Rewind 10 months and the Brumbies trudged off Canberra Stadium licking their wounds as a last-round choke against the Blues cost them a golden opportunity to make the play-offs.

In just 80 minutes they slipped from top of the Australian conference, lost the right to host a home final and were relegated to seventh on the ladder. White admits that pain ”still burns” but wants his players to focus on moving forward.

But he said the lessons learnt from the 30-16 meltdown last year can be used to get the Brumbies back on track after consecutive defeats. ”Yes, [last year’s result] burns a bit but we’re not using the word revenge,” White said.

”The bottom line is it hurts so much because we were so close to something that’s so special in Super Rugby – making the play-offs. I don’t want [the players to put it out of their minds], I want them to be reminded of that for as long as we have to so we get to where we want to be. We should have won last year and had we won we would have made the play-offs. But if it was that easy, everyone would make the play-offs. We will never forget it so that we use it to make us better when we’re in that situation again.”

The equation is simple. The Brumbies are still at the top of the Australian conference and if they win their remaining four games they will make the play-offs.

But a loss to the Blues would throw the race wide open and put the Brumbies’ finals aspirations on the edge of disaster. It’s the Blues who can again be the destroyers.

Last season Auckland were ranked near the bottom of the table and struggled to win games all year before firing up in the last round to crush the Brumbies.

This year the Blues are also fighting for a finals berth.

The Brumbies have struggled in the past two months, winning just three of eight games. They have lost three and drawn two in that period.

Wallabies World Cup-winning captain Nick Farr-Jones says the Brumbies need to stabilise their play-off bid.

”At this time of year it’s important to get into a culture of winning tight games. It’s a culture of digging deep, not giving up and working hard for the victory,” Farr-Jones said.

”It’s dangerous to defend leads. You’ve got to keep playing attacking, aggressive football that you’ve trained and worked towards. Whether there’s a bit of mental scarring from last year and it’s starting to come to the surface, who knows.

”But the Brumbies just have to play open, free, attacking rugby and enjoy themselves or you can get into a rut.”

The Blues are having a stronger season this year and have been bolstered by the appointment of head coach John Kirwan and All Blacks World Cup-winning mentor Graham Henry as his assistant. They have a team of All Blacks – including Rene Ranger, Piri Weepu and Ali Williams – but White said the contest was about restoring the Brumbies’ confidence. ”We’ve created an opportunity for us to win the competition; we don’t want to knock over hurdles when we know we can get results,” he said. ”Talking about it is easy but it’s about making sure actions speak louder than words.”

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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.