Review and Launch Speech by Mark O’Connor – November 2014
I have a belief, or a prejudice, that you can tell the quality of an author’s mind by the epigraph that he or she chooses for a book.
As I opened this first novel by Gavan Bromilow, elegantly published by Valentine Press, I recognised that Gavan is clearly a man of taste, as shown from the first page where he selects to introduce his book those wonderful lines:
Come fill the cup, and in the fire of spring
The winter garment of repentance fling:
The bird of time has but a little way to fly, and lo!
The bird is on the wing.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a translation can never quite capture the full merits of its original. Yet in English there are two exceptions: the King James Bible, and Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Both are probably much better as literature than their originals.
When I went to school, Fitzgerald was seen as a minor figure among the great Victorian poets. Now that we are twice as far from the death of Queen Victoria as we were in the 1950s, it’s starting to emerge that Fitzgerald, the eccentric translator, is the Victorian poet we now most often read and quote.
Anyway, that rich and mysterious poemlet stands as a pointer to what lies beneath the surface of this remarkable novel.
A wise and wicked man once said that in planning our future we need to watch out both for the known unknowns and for the unknown unknowns. The known unknowns are the monsters we know or suspect are out there somewhere. The unknown unknowns are the monsters of whose existence we haven’t an inkling, until they jump us. Mr Rumsfeld was much ragged for pointing that out, because the wicked are not supposed to be wise; but he was of course utterly and axiomatically correct.
What is less often noticed is that in intellectual discussions of the future, we concentrate on the known unknowns, the risks that we have some sort of handle on. But in novels and films about the future – well the best tend to be those that deal with the unknown unknowns. For instance, if we discuss climate change, you’ll find me saying that we don’t quite know what things will happen, or in what order, if the world warms by 4 degrees, but here are some of the likelihoods . . . Yet if I write a novel about one of these things coming true – for instance about a rising sea drowning much of Melbourne—it may sound a little obvious and even propaganda-ish. In fiction, it may be better to ditch the reputable scientific scenarios and invent some event coming utterly out of left field, like Grendel’s mother lurching in off the moors.
And that in a way is what Gavan has done. His strange story begins, as all strange stories should, in a very familiar place. It is an experimental farm on the Deccan Plateau in India, owned by a brilliant Indian woman who is breeding improved domestic animals. Gavan knows that farm well; and so do my wife Jan and I, because we have visited him and his partner Chanda there. We have seen its orchards and buffaloes, and its sandalwood trees with back-to-base alarms to alert the farmhouse if local tree-rustlers try to chop the trees down in the night; and the collection of spectacular domestic chooks that Gavan was breeding back towards the bright pheasant-like plumage of the local jungle fowl from which they evolved. This place might seem a bit exotic to us, with its civets and mongeese and occasional jackals; but for Gavan and Chanda it is home.
And when the world changes utterly one day, it is in defence of their home and with every bale of hay and twist of wire this farm provides, that they set out to defend their lives. Or rather, the rugged handyman Griff and his partner Rohini, the characters in the novel, do.
The adventure begins one night when they experience cold such as never before, and in the morning find their tropical farm beginning to disappear under snow. This is not any of the scenarios we knew to expect, nor does it seem to have anything to do with CO2 emissions. Somehow it seems the Earth has changed its axis of rotation. India and China are now the new North Pole and Arctic, whereas the USA and all of Australia are now in the tropics.
How this could happen I don’t claim to know, and neither, I imagine, does Gavan, any more than Kafka knew how a human could wake up in the body of a giant insect. What matters is that it makes a richly detailed story, and one with symbolic reverberations. Because this is the timeless story of our human tribes surviving disaster. It’s the plot of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, in which the Antrobus family survive ice-ages and epic wars. A reminder of what human toughness and ingenuity and human family loyalties can achieve, in the teeth of utter disaster. And how after each disaster a few of the most competent humans, as Wilder would put it, inherit the task of rebuilding the world once again.
Of course the birds and animals of India are doomed by the snow. And so are almost all its barefoot or sandal-wearing villagers, unless they can turn themselves overnight into something like Eskimos. The deaths start quickly and heavily. Now extended family units must be formed from the survivors, and the wagons circled. Money is useless. Treasured objects must be discarded, and new uses found for others. The hay-bales, once used for animals, must now insulate the farmhouse, which becomes their survival shelter. The most useful parts of the snow-buried cars turn out to be the inner tubes, for making boots and mittens, and the roofs which can be cut off and used for sleds. A motor bike is a treasure because although you can’t ride it, you can use it to generate electricity.
And then there is the problem of human marauders. I’m not going to tell you the plot of the novel, except to say that this is a sort of adult version of the Swiss Family Robinson, with lots of sex and violence—except that where the Swiss family were cold-climate people force to adapt overnight to the tropics, these go the other way. And I don’t remember Mrs and Mrs Robinson, after a strenuous 48 hours relocating their family to safety in a tree-house, squeezing in quite such a rapid-fire sex-life.
There follows an extended action sequence when a refugee they have taken in betrays them to a rival group. This group sneaks in at night and seizes the warm farmhouse, driving Griff out into the snow in his nightclothes where he is meant to perish. He must now re-do from scratch the whole job of finding warmth and shelter and food, while his wife and friends are raped and pillaged for several days, before he can return and drive out the miscreants.
It’s obviously going to become a major Hollywood action movie, since what makes a good movie in that genre is a new setting, as in Fargo, for the timeless stories of human conflict and resourcefulness to occur against. The struggle to create and then to defend this one warm house in a snow-buried tropical landscape is what makes this story unique. Plus the fact that Griff is a sort of Mr Fixit. He fights, and defeats hostile Nature and hostile humans by endlessly inventing new uses for old pieces of apparatus.
Will this story be played out on screen by Hugh Jackman and Angelina Jolie? Or will one of the female stars of Bollywood, perhaps Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, be willing to take on the most un-Bollywoodish role of Griff’s wife Rohini, who although of high cast shares her husband’s preparedness to get down and dirty with machines and sewage systems—whatever it takes to survive. Whichever actors take the leads, they will have to master a new level of frankness mixed with a new style of eruditely salacious foreplay. I noted a sample from p. 152 where they are sleeping naked on separate bunks, one above the other:
Perhaps on second thoughts this may not be the right role for the statuesque Mrs Bachchan.
But the hero and heroine of this novel are far more than action man and action woman. They also have a philosophy of life, which they win the right to expound by doing the hard yards to save their group’s lives. There is a memorable scene near the end where an interviewer, who thinks he knows how spiritual Indians are, tries to get Rohini to explain the mystical values that allowed her to survive; and she informs him that she is an educated person, and an atheist. And when the hero Griff, who apart from being devilish handsome and inventive is I’m sure not at all like Gavan, is asked about his spiritual sources, he names the three great spiritual books of the world as Voltaire’s Candide, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the Rubaiyat.
The novel has an unexpected coda when their group arrive in Australia as refugees, partly lionised, partly pursued by accusations from the group that had attacked them. There is a wonderfully satirical account of the Indian diaspora’s tendency towards grievancism, that ideology which currently dominates many universities and much of our media, whereby one seeks to claim minority status or victim status.
Gavan’s account of the types and temperaments of India, and how they might respond to a physical disaster, will offend some and inspire others. He comments for instance that most educated Indians are mechanically illiterate—perhaps a hang-over of the caste system, whereby mechanical skills are left to the lowest classes, and then despised. Thus it makes sense that the group that survives longest in the snow country is one whose lead couple possess both local knowledge and foreign handyman skills.
The novel’s narrator talks of people with Masters degrees in veterinary science who have never had their hand up a cow, unless by proxy, and don’t even like touching animals. All I will say is that only those who know little about a given country have simple broad-brush attitudes to the nation as a whole. Those who know a country and a culture well will love some parts and hate others. Gavan, who is a Walkley Award winning journalist and former diplomat stationed in India, is clearly both a great lover of India and a severe critic of some Indian habits and practices: in particular of some Indians’ attitudes to women, to animals, and to entitlement. His portrait of the venal official Godse, who becomes a dangerous predator in the lawless world after the disaster, is memorable. In fact his vision aligns well enough with a century of fictional visions of India, from Forster’s A Passage to India to Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali; and it is considerably kinder than Nirad Chaudhuri’s Continent of Circe.
Then in its final pages this rich novel gives us a vision of Gavan’s homeland, Australia, responding sensibly and pragmatically to a flood of refugees—something we may have to face under many other scenarios. On what terms they can and should or must be taken in, and how they might be provided with shelter and necessities (and with organised work). Faced with this avalanche of people, whose rescue threatens to overwhelm the existing population and culture, the Australians accommodate them in a series of well-planned camps in the Northern part of Australia. In fact the scenario is that refugees are restricted to camps in the northern end of Australia, and won’t be allowed to move south for ten years unless they have accommodation and a job to go to. The camps are not prisons, but those who skive off cannot access benefits. The novel’s account is I think part prescriptive, part descriptive. Once again, Griff, or is it Gavan, the philosopher observes and speculates—and shows us aspects of our future that as yet we may only be able to face in a fictional setting.
It’s a rich novel, and one of a kind. I recommend it highly.
Mark O’Connor is an Australian poet, writer and environmentalist.
Book review: The Bird of Time, by Gavan Bromilow, The Canberra Times, December 12, 2014
The Bird of Time
By Gavan Bromilow. Valentine Press. $24.
Suddenly, right at the beginning of this extraordinary yarn, a massive blizzard hits India. The reader gets no warning, and neither does Griffith Bolton, the hero, who is asleep in his farmhouse on the Deccan Plateau in the middle of southern India. At once, he runs through the possible causes: volcanic eruption, asteroid, nuclear winter? The Earth hurtling out of its solar orbit? He guesses not. What if the Earth has shifted on its axis and India is now at the north pole? The US, Europe and Australia are in the tropics. The last guess is right, as many of Griff’s later guesses turn out to be.
This is ridiculous, I thought. But turning to Google, I found that in December 2013, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin had shown how melting polar ice and sea-level rise are contributing to changes in the distribution of mass on the Earth’s surface, causing the planet’s axis to shift slightly and with it, the positions of the north and south poles. This has caused nothing as sudden as a new ice age for India, but it is a reality nonetheless.
Griff and his partner, Rohini, a vet with a medical degree, realise they will be snowed in for months and set about providing for their survival, using whatever they can find. They take 10 of their workers into their house, as well as buffaloes, sheep and two dogs. They improvise power, fuel, food, warm clothes and snowshoes, and even rig up sleds using the roofs of abandoned cars. They raid nearby hardware shops, and houses where people have died. They offer firewood to survivors, and take in the teenage son of Godse, the village’s headman (which turns out to be a bad move).
While they still have satellite television, Griff and Roh are amused to see the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury saying it could have been worse, and this showed divine providence at work. Their neighbour, Godse, tells them the Iron Age, Kali Yuga, has come, the end time when everything disintegrates, including morality, and people will do anything to survive. God is punishing India for dealing with unclean foreigners and adopting degenerate Western ways. Griff takes time off to debate all this with Godse, who regards him as a cultureless, godless Australian and Roh as his immoral tart.
On top of their struggle with the elements, the little community faces the human threats Griff anticipated, including four rapes and four murders. How they deal with these crises, and manage their evacuation, Bromilow explains in dry, forensic detail, which works better than sensationalism. , and guesses about the outcome continue right to the end.
Bromilow, originally a journalist, is not above having Roh do a promo on the side for the beaches, parks, wines and museums of Perth, his and Griff’s home town. Bromilow’s subsequent job was in public affairs for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but that has inspired a novel, not a diplomatic memoir. He deploys his intimacy with communications, visas, press conferences, the ABC, and the bureaucracy, as well as with India. His descriptions of houses could have been written for the Overseas Property Office. Occasionally, officialese creeps into the prose style, with expressions such as”survival skills”. And such sentences as, “On the way to the UNHCR office they stopped at Griff’s bank and collected his diary and letter and photocopied the latter”. But soon it’s back to the vernacular: they were hungry enough “to eat the bum out of some old road kill”.
Once again, as if writing a cable, Bromilow reports: “The High Commissioner led the group to the VIP reception area and handed over the papers giving Rohini residence status in Australia and the rest of the group refugee status in Australia.” Improbable as that seems today, Griff is confident that in the global crisis, Australia will welcome refugees and resettle them with generosity, and it does. The government even buys their foreign currency and gives them Australian dollars for worthless rupees.
Bromilow’s yarn is an allegory for our times. Without stressing it too much, his moral is that with reason, decency, generosity, regard for life’s simple pleasures and care for the environment, humanity will survive, even if India freezes over.
Dr Alison Broinowski is a research affiliate at ANU.