Ghost files war report

By Murray Waldren

IN the same way John Howard is a prime ministerial "cricket tragic", others are captivated by the American Civil War. ALP leader Kim Beazley, NSW premier Bob Carr and AFL coach Kevin Sheedy are apparently among the aficionados. Peter Minack is not, even though he has just written a Civil War novel, CWG (Campaigning with Grant) (Vintage, 280pp, $19.70). "A surprisingly large sub-culture is fixated on it," the Melbourne author says, with no little awe. "And even heavy metal fans, UFO conspiracists and the Hezbollah avoid civil war nuts because they think they're too obsessive."

Civil, of course, is a cruel misnomer for any intra-national war, and the American North-South divide of the 1860s was as brutally uncivil as the recent Balkans implosions. Minack's novel, his first, has similarly Gothic undertones to Jack Dann's recent The Silent, leavened by a wry black humour and a playful, post-modernist cynicism. After all, the narrator is a ghost writing 130 years after his death. But there's no ethereal wistfulness about him - he's a tetchy, hero-worshipping diarist with a late-20th century scepticism towards historical "truths". His self-aggrandizing story is gripping, as constructively entertaining as it is deconstructive of war, gallantry and the fiascoes that become triumphs.

John Rawlins was Union General Ulysses S. Grant's chief of staff more by accident than personal attribute. In CWG, his street-wise take on politics blends with a 19th century sensibility to present a war report unlike any other. His worldview is absurdly self-centred, and even as he casts himself as sardonic truth-teller, he half-believes his mock-heroic interpretations. He aims to "correct" history's apologist gloss with no-illusions clarity; in the process, he exposes his own flaws and foibles.

Such a modern voice in such an anachronistic context was ripe for comic possibilities, says Minack: "I wanted a narrator displaced from his own history, whose experiences readers could accept as real. Then the impossibility of the novel's premise becomes irrelevant because what he is describing is authentic. But the book isn't really about the war at all - it's about Rawlins and his eventful life."

At 38, the novelist admits he himself lives a "totally unexotic lifestyle, I'm afraid - no hang-gliding, abseiling or Patagonian expeditions to talk about". A life-long Melburnian, he teaches at a high school "where there are 87 different cultures among the pupils. I'm an English teacher but I go where the kids want to go - and that's not high literature. More and more, it's media and info-technology; I'm happy to do that because it's cultural involvement, which for kids from an outsider's background is integral."

Cultural connection has powerful resonance. His German father fought with the Axis in World War II and was a PoW for five years before emigrating. His "Irish Catholic Australian mother met Dad in 1952 around Albury-Wodonga, and at the time their relationship was a bit socially hairy." They survived that to give him and his four brothers "a pure suburban upbringing - it was all totally normal yet I never felt entirely like a typical Aussie kid, even though I defined - and define - myself through barracking for Richmond."

He could not shake a sense of otherness. "Dad used to tell me when I was watching, say, a war movie on TV that I shouldn't believe what this culture tells me, that the truth was sanitised. I didn't know then what he meant, although I do now. Consequently, I always look at things from a perspective outside the stereotype. I never felt an outsider to the same extent as the wop kids at school with the funny names did, but I did feel agin' it all, resistant to that Anglo-Saxon propaganda."

Such party-line resistance underlies CWG. "Six years ago I decided it was now or never - that the only thing in my life I knew absolutely was that I wanted to write a book," Minack recalls. "To force myself to do that, I went from teaching full-time to three days a week. But I had no idea what writers did, or even what they looked like." He signed up for a writing course "which helped but also hindered. I had serious fears I might be no good at it, and I was frightened by the passion of some people I met who were doing stuff I thought was basically shit. There was a touch of desperation about them, and I was terrified that could also be me."

His Civil War interest had been piqued by an SBS television documentary, then nourished by the histories of Geoffrey C. Ward and Shelby Foote. An "author in search of a plot", he found the relationship between Grant and Rawlins "resonating within me. They were not the simple, brave and noble soldiers of most war stories, and my interpretation of their weird relationship is the core of CWG. What the real Grant meant to the real Rawlins probably bears no relationship to that."

Research was essentially "studying a few books" culled from military book rooms, sect-like hide-outs for secret men's business: "There were no women, just men shuffling around with shamed glee, avoiding eye contact, excitedly pouncing on a new copy of Insignia on the Left Boot Heel of the 33rd Panzer Division. The sophistication and breadth of military writing is equal to other academic subjects ... and probably just as useless."

Central to the novel are fathers and father figures: Rawlins' relationship to his oppressive, deadbeat father; Grant's black-sheep role in his father's eye; Rawlins' idolisation of Grant. "That was the hook for me," Minack agrees. "Initially I was planning to write about the enigmatic Grant, a wastrel and a drunk until his late 30s who within four years went to saviour of the nation." But Rawlins took over as the tale progressed.

For Minack, the key question became this: if your father doesn't earn your respect, what does that do for your life? "My interest was in no way autobiographical," he clarifies. "My own father was reliable, intelligent, hard-working. But I wondered what difference it would have made if he hadn't been, if I had been like the student who told me sadly that his father was 'a complete arsehole'. But all this analysis and interpretation is retrospective - at the time I just wanted to write something that was readable."

Now, whether or not CWG sells, "the accomplishment has been in getting it published. I'm rapt, totally rapt. The phone call from (Random House publisher) Jane Palfreyman saying she wanted it was the great justification. But I'm aware that reading books is, as Martin Amis puts it, a minority interest - I'd love an audience yet my own sense of achievement won't be diminished if it doesn't sell. The personal attainment has been in having written it."

And for those who distrust "faction", he cites Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay History "argues that when we find things in history that tell us about ourselves, it becomes irrelevant where or when those things happened. My hope is the novel connects with what Emerson called 'some reality in our secret experience'."

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 29/7/2000

Copyright 2000 Murray Waldren


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