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? 

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Comfort Zone, Lindsay Tanner

Jack is an Everyman. He drives a cab; lives by himself, from meal to meal, from tv show to tv show, cigarette to cigarette. He’s a man who has been left behind by his world. Melbourne, the most European place in Australia. A place of cultures from around the world. Constant change has a remarkable effect on people- whether that is the weather, or cultures- it can create disenfranchisement, a sense of rejection. 

That’s Jack. On the edge of society, rejecting this new world of people and cultures. A world where everyone isn’t like him. It isn’t that Jack is a bad person; his views of multiculturalism are shard by thousands, it is just that soon the world will come crashing down and Jack will either adapt or get lost.

Lindsay Tanner is one of the more talented politicians of the last twenty years. A member of the left faction, upon the election of the Rudd government in 2007 saw him in a senior role in the first Labor federal government since 1996. He was instrumental in the early period of Rudd’s prime ministership. However, upon Julia Gillard’s ascent to the prime ministership, Tanner elected to return to the backbench. 

Certainly, he can write. His vistas of Melbourne are quirky and heartfelt, a world constantly changing. The astute depictions of Melbourne are measured against some clever positioning of characters. Jack the cab driver, fearful of this new world, is thrown into helping a young Somali woman and her children. Suddenly, after his simple life, he has complications. 

Tanner’s prose is simplistic and cliche in places, something that took away the lovable evolution of Jack into someone more than the Everyman. The message is straight forward: we might hold prejudices, but if we actually spent time with those different to us, we would learn to love the world of many cultures. This is a warm novel, a comfortable novel that never gets the reader out of their comfort zone. 

Life & Times of Michael K

There is a strong sense of the individual and isolation in every sentence of J.M Coetzee’s 1983 novel, Life & Times of Michael K. Michael is a simple, but strong individual. He has a marathon runner’s body. The early scenes with his mother are compassionate, heartfelt and tragic. Coetzee sets up the relationship as one of mutual need. The mother, sick, incapable of moving from the war torn suburb relies upon her son. Michael continues his daily routine, he keeps going to work in the midst of the creeping war. After some failure and being forced back by nameless soldiers, he finds himself on the road to his mother’s home land. 

When dusk fell he broke from the road, crossed a fence, and found a place for the night in a dry rover-course. He made a fire and ate the second can of beans. He slept close to the embers, oblivious of the night noises, the tiny scurryings across the pebbles, the rustle of feathers in the trees.

The evocative images of Michael’s journey across the veld are deft touches of poetry; the understated tone, the simple prose of Coetzee makes the landscape live beyond the assumed African context. The mother and son moving around troop movements, through check points, avoiding other humans could easily be current day Syria or Iraq. Refugees in their own country, the pull of his mother’s home land draws Michael through every moment of everyday.

He gazed up at the ceiling for a long while, like an old man consulting the spirits, then spoke. ‘My mother worked all her life long,’ he said. ‘She scrubbed over people’s floors, she cooked food for them, she washer their dishes. She washed their dirty clothes. She scrubbed the bath after them. She went on her knees and cleaned the toilet. But when she was old and sick they forgot her, They put her away out of sight, When she died they threw her in the fire…’

Michael finds himself in detention. Accused without evidence of being a terrorist, of leading attacks. These images provoke the constant smell of political fear. The concentration camps are akin to those of the South African War and every war since. I can imagine Coetzee reading by the window in Adelaide and thinking of the camps set up in our name. Those camps have their own Michael K, some of the poorest people in the world, fleeing like Michael, only to be locked up. The passages from the point of view of the nurse are some of the most compelling pages. Her humanity within the system that dehumanises the individual contrasts with the brutal layer of inhumanity.

He thought of the farm, the grey thornbushes, the rocky soil, the ring of hills, the mountains purple and pink in the distance, the great still of blue empty sky, the earth grey and brown beneath the sun save here and there, where of you looked carefully you suddenly saw a tip of vivid green, pumpkin leaf or carrot-brush.

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.

MaddAddam

Don’t hope too much, she says. Hope can ruin you.

The third novel in the Oryx and Crake series is a pure, delicate and intricate novel. As Atwood notes, most the characters feature in the first two novels. As the story of MaddAddam unfolds through the voice of Toby, Atwood is able to draw together the threads. Toby and Zeb finally together, six months after Crake released the plague upon the world, and they sit together in the dark of a world mutating, retelling how each came to that moment. The world is being over grown by the natural and unnatural environment; a small band of humans, some former followers of Adam One, some members of Zeb’s breakaway organisation MaddAddam and the Crakers attempt to survive without all modern political and social structures. There is the constant threat of two surviving Painballers.

But Fuck kept him company and gave him advice. Fuck lived in the air and flew around like a bird, which was how he could be with Zeb one minute and then with Crake…

This is more than a simple gathering together of answers to questions and relationships from the first two; instead a level of detail is obtained with a great respect shown to the pure joy of the written word. After Jimmy the Snowman’s injury, Toby is charged with the education of the Crakers, the humanoid creators created by Crake in his Paradice program. Toby’s voice fills the Crakers with the history and values that Crake deliberately left out of the Crakers DNA. There is a folk lore power to Toby’s narrative. Part of the joy of reading Atwood is her refreshing value for oral tradition. As one of the Crakers begins to value the written word and learns English, he begins writing her story down.

Will this be a painful story? It’s likely: most stories about the past have an element of pain in them, now that the past has been ruptured so violently, so irreparably.

The backstory of Zeb and Adam one forms the majority of the narrative; this is painful, yet joyous relationship between two brothers. Toby’s passion, her past and the values installed by Adam One form the basis for her reaction to Zeb’s sordid tale of intrigue. Such a well defined, crafted plot is astutely controlled by Atwood; the building of tension, each sentence a masterpiece of understatement and irony. Atwood notes that everything in the novel, splicing of DNA, modification of plants and animals, solar energy et al, is happening or could happen. With this in mind the underlying didactic warnings for the reader is part of the artistic joy.

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?