East West Street, Philippe Sands

The shared humanity that binds us has had a few moments when all hope seems lost. Humanities ability to be inhumane is well documented; none more so than the Nazi era. There is no series of events that have shaped every aspect of culture for so many. It still lingers through art, literature and film. And here Sands passionately and elegantly with how the people and their actions of Nazi Germany helped shape international human rights, international treaties on genocide and set precedents for laws protecting the individual from the state and groups from other groups. The only good thing coming from the close to 20 year period of Nazi influence over Europe? Perhaps. 

Sands maps a personal and professional connection from Polish-German-Ukraianian-Russian city of Lviv through World War I, the Great Depression, through the early days of Hitler and the subsequent human crisis of World War II. The deeply personal connections are so well drawn showcase how we are all interconnected and if only we realised this deep connection could we prevent what was to come. 

This is deeply satisfying and sad addition to the story of  a world where Nazism was dominant. I found the legal evolution of crimes against humanity and genocide profound. There’s so much of the language that the Nazi used still being thrown around today- about refugees, about Muslims, about groups against groups. Is there another period of humanities inability to see their connections? 


The Schooldays of Jesus, J.M Coetzee

We join the central character from Coetzee’s 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, as he strives to adapt to his new country; he continues to question, he continues to inspire and frustrate. It is the simplicity of how Coetzee draws together the people of the town, the intricate details of the dispossed- work, relationship, art and confronting the world as if for the first time.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of Coetzee’s characters; unlike his earlier novels it is the unseen, the unanswered that is the cause of fear. This isn’t violently confronting like Disgrace or as sparse as The Life and Times of Michael K. You can’t forget what he has written before. But you don’t have to hold this novel within the Coetzee canon. And that’s what some may forget: if this wasn’t written by Coetzee, what would you think of it?

Simon and Ines, after taking serious risks for David settle that they don’t have to be together just for the boy. When their entire lives revolve around David, they forget themselves. He sucks all air out if them. It is reaction- to turn to the assistant at the museum that see the majority of the plot flow together. 

David and Demtri’s relationship is preverse. What is it that he sees in the boy? What is the effect on each character? Demtri recurs throughout the novel- provoking, speaking for and of David. 

As poetic as ever, Coetzee creates an eccentric and spellbinding world. 

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

…a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the Revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indian and enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro, one of the good, learn, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it- generals, dignitaries, magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots and read the riot act when they chose to- while my father, of course, was only a Jew.

Through the fictional eyes of a Philip Roth, a Jewish family is describes in vivid detail. Philip’s innocence when describing his older brother Sandy, his insurance sales man father and stoic mother has the backdrop of the frantic period of 1940’s America.

The live in Newark, in a Jewish community, surrounded by characters that hover around the fear of the anti-Semitic few. This is Roosevelt’s America, there is still racism and a fear of a repeat of world war 1 and the Great Depression. The voices are captured with the ease of a veteran writer. Roth, the writer, not the character, is the consummate professional.

The Nazi stain transcends the Atlantic when the charming Charles A. Lindbergh is elected president. The constant fear, often silent steps around a boy growing up in the suburbs, is precise and realistic.

…harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

The America is one of isolation and narrow minded leaders. The US stays out of the war in Europe, Nazi leaders visit the White House. Only a few Jew speak against the tide of hate. I found the mother figure comforting, the glue. A brilliant depiction of an all American woman.

A novel for a post-9/11 America, an America of Obama and Fox News; it tells us so much about that period-of course, it is fiction- but it tells us more about now and how fear is still used to incite and control.

The Lost Dog

Night after night, images of the refugees appeared. Tom saw death flicker in the furtive glow of TV and knew the guilty rage of those who have crossed to safety. Time toppled like a wave. He was a falling thing, spiralling down to wait forever in a room as blue as an ocean. He felt the convergence of public and private dread.

Buried deep in Australian memories was the knowledge that strangers had once sailed to these shores and destroyed what they found. How could that nightmare be remembered? How could it be unselfishly forgotten? A trauma that had never been laid to rest, it went on disturbing a nation’s dreams. In the rejection of the latest newcomers, Tom glimpsed the past convulsing like a faulty film. It was a confusion coded as a denial. It was as if a fiend had paused in its ravaging to cover its face and howl.

The images he saw on TV brought him out in goose bumps: far writing its name on his flesh. And since the frightened are often frightening, the pictures on his screen made him grimace and distorted his face.

Bodies flashed up constantly in those weeks: broken, burned, fished lifeless from the sea. He thrust at them with his remote, willing them to disappear. But it was as if the mass were imprinted on his retina. They affected everything he saw. In ordinary streets the air turned red with callistemons. Tiny corpses appeared on pavements, nestling as naked and strange as Martians.

Michelle De Kreater, The Lost Dog.

The People Smuggler – Robin De Crespigny

This is a book based upon various interviews between Robin de Crespigny and Ali Al Jenabi, a ‘people smuggler’ from Iraq via Kurdistan, Iran, Indonesia and every jail hell hole. Ali Al Jenabi is a child of Saddam’s Iraq; a country suddenly regressing from a progressive, innovative and wealthy nation with a rich cultural heritage to one under the dictatorship of a man prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people.

The voice of Ali builds, slowly, gently, by the third section, the voice is echoing in your ears. It will keep you awake at night. The brutal sensibility of his reflection on his detention in Abu Ghraib is a haunting piece of personal struggle. The question that continues to bounce around my head is simple: how can humans treat other humans so poorly?

There is a rumour that Australia didn’t respond to reports that the SIEVX was in distress because they didn’t want to receive any more asylum seekers. I wonder if the woman who was taking her son to meet his father survived, or if he weeps alone in the land of opportunity.

This account, when held with various David Marr’s articles and Dark Victory, will form part of the history written by my children. This history will condemn the politicians and society that allowed for the continued demonisation and detention of refugees arriving by boat. How can a country so rich be so poorly led? Ali accounts in detail the task of bringing refugees from Iraq across the globe and onto Australia. A painstaking journey of bravery and courage. Families taking such a trip show resilience, innovation, passion and a desire for liberty. The kind of people who will make Australia great.

I have no support from the Iraqi embassy, I am given no preparation on what to court…I don’t have a chance and Australia makes sure I don’t. They have their Thai lawyer, AFP witnesses and six others from Australian embassy to make their case.

Throughout Ali’s voice is honest, brutally so, his aggression, sometimes transcending into violence, is not hidden or air brushed. His motives are multilayered and in the final court case, the comparison to Oskar Schindler is provocative. The clarity and insight into the lengths people to go to seek freedoms we take for granted. As much as this is Ali’s story we must ask, what kind of country closes his eyes, covers it ears and pretends to be silent? This book tells us so much about Australia in the last 20th century and the early decades of the 21st century.

‘Look Ali…The government want to lay blame for boat people on smugglers like you, but you’re not working out as a good scapegoat…it is becoming clear you are also a decent, kind and compassionate human being, and its difficult to whack someone like that…’

Ali is clearly bias in his personal account. Your own political and moral views will inform your approach to the story. I am unreserved in my belief that the treatment of refugees arriving by boat in Australia has been hideous. For more than twenty years the narrow minded, politically motivated demonisation of refugees has disgusted me. How can we fear the poorest people in the world? Finally Ali is jailed in Australia for eight years, (despite not living in Australia or breaking any law in Indonesia) with a four year non-parole period. His story doesn’t end there. Even the removal of John Howard doesn’t lead to the granting of refugee status to Ali.

I am stuck by how many of the other prisoners are Aboriginal. All my jury were white but in jail at least eighty percent of inmates are black, yet I understand they make up only two and a half percent of Australia’s population.

At times it does feel like de Crespigny’s fingerprints come through; had there been substantial editing? Though Ali is obviously talented, the cinematic feel of the descriptions and the final tense moments are the work of an experienced writer. I love d every word. I leave this reflection with this little piece. In January 2008 Ali has been in detention for 19 months, Justice Lindgren hands down a condemning judgment.

He finds the former Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, committed ‘an egregious failure’ to obey Parliament’s command by leaving my case unresolved for eighteen months.

Yes, the same Kevin Andrews now a minister in an Abbott led-government. No doubt there are more stories like Ali’s out there. They should be written, published, made into films, shown around the world. Just then the society that allows such treatment of people already tortured might be shamed into changing.

Did he really say that?

This is our country. Tony Abbott

Where does one begin to comprehend this comment from someone who may be the next prime minister?

Firstly, this is clever. Yes, despite my deep displeasure with both major political parties, this is a clever ploy from Mr Abbott (and whoever wrote his notes).
Why? Because you can’t argue against it. Most Australians feel a deep sense of pride in their country. Family’s will count their generational links and more people than ever proudly proclaim their links to the First Fleet of 1788. It is an obsession.
How can Mr Rudd argue against this ingrained nationalism? There will be no votes in telling the truth. The truth being that way back in 1778, the illegal dispossession of the land, breaking the standards of international law of the time and ignoring direct instructions to speak to the locals means that the country isn’t ours, exclusively.

There should be a logical rebuttal: actually, Tony, this country is Aboriginal country, always has been, always will be. We are merely here sharing it. It is their land and we are here as long term guests.

There are no votes in this rebuttal.

The second part of this announcement evokes a former prime minister, that we decide who comes here. Again, this is clever. The Australian nation state, in colonial form and as federation, has always controlled, obsessively, compulsively with diligence and overzealous vigour who could come here. There is no counter argument. For safety and security reasons, people coming here, all people, must be checked. If refugees, their backgrounds checked. If people come on planes, same procedure. It is how it is. There will be no one saying that we-the government, as representatives of us- can’t decide who comes here.

There is a rebuttal, you can refute this: We must do this humanely. No more transportation to tiny islands with poor resources. No more demonisation. No more fear of the Other. The small number of people coming to Australia, seeking to share this land as long term guests, belonging to our nation state, is a good thing. It can continue to create a vibrant cultural identity, it can bring new people who new skills and ancient cultures.

How about saying that?