IN THE HUBBUB that is Australian publishing, an unprecedented silence has gone largely unnoticed. Amid an unquiet farrago of scandal and back-biting, hype and hypocrisy, Tom Keneally, the pace-setter of the new release scene, has been missing in action. For a three-year stretch, no less. Maybe that's not Man bites dog territory but it's still significant - not since 1964 when he first published has such a hiatus occurred. In 34 years, this veteran of 25 novels (including two as William Coyle), 10 non-fiction works, four plays, several screenplays and a children's book has missed an individual year's accounting just six times. In some years he's been a multiple entrant - in '95, for instance, three books, in '93, four.
This weekend, Keneally's Great Silence is broken with the Australian release of The Great Shame. An 800-page Chatto & Windus opus (published in Britain in the New Year and soon after in the US), it's an extensive investigation of 80 years of Irish history, both personal and public, against an old world/New World backdrop of an Ireland of famine and exodus during which its population halved, an Australia of penal harshness and rapidly advancing democracy, an America of activism, civil war and achievement. The distillation of five years' obsessive research and a lifetime's focus on the politics of principle, it's especially apposite for an Australia that is, per capita, the largest Irish country outside Ireland.
Today is auspicious for the author beyond the great relief that his book is "finally out there": the real main event is his elder daughter Meg's "full regalia" wedding, complete with Franciscan celebrant ("We found a suitably aware one," he chuckles sardonically). He's been in serious training for his proud father of the bride role, "on the wagon and hitting the beach" to reduce "extra girth engendered by the obsessive sedentariness of The Book". There's irony, too, that after five years of household domination, The Book at fruition has become a distraction from the Keneally clan nuptials.
The Book - he always refers to it with capital letter emphasis - in fact has distracted him "from everything in my life. It's pretty much mentally exhausted me; that's my fault, and I'm not moaning, but I have paid some sacrifice in terms of health." And it's true that at 63 his customary haleness is not so hearty - the cherubic ruddiness is a paler imitation of its norm, his bounce and energy less overt.
And there's little time for R&R - the immediate pr trail includes two weeks in New Zealand and solid interstate spruiking. Then it's off to the northern hemisphere. Just as well, you suspect, he's delivered 235 pages of "very raw novel" to his publishers: otherwise his next title, Bettany's Book, might be seriously delayed.
FROM THE STREET, Keneally HQ in Sydney's prime-zone Northern Beaches is modestly egalitarian, discreetly tucked against a hillside. Inside it's all no-fuss elegance, tastefully livable amid a gallery of paintings, a plenitude of refined furnishings and a cascade of intriguing memorabilia. Dressed in avuncular comfort in slacks, faded polo shirt and cardigan, he apologises for (barely discernible) pre-wedding chaos and, coffees in hand, leads me downstairs to his office. Three walls are floor-to-ceiling bookcases, all burgeoning. The fourth, full glass, looks south over a fernery - complete with pottering gardener - towards the distractions of Bilgola Beach's freshly-raked sand and jutting headland. A dominating snooker table, temporarily decommissioned, is a repository for papers, reference books and literary detritus. His desk is similarly cluttered.
Reluctantly, he snaps shut the laptop on which he has been final-proofing his manuscript, shuffles a teetering pile of page corrections aside and, suddenly all business and folded arms, commands me to "Fire away". It's a nice thought. Once the tape is running, so is he - it's not so much an interview as a dissertation. Keneally is a verbal gattling gun, a proselyte who swamps me in a whirlpool of words, two hours of eloquent erudition and tangential by-the-ways that encompass the social, political and psychological in concentric - at times eccentric - swings from past to present.
He's amazed the project lasted so long. "No matter what the world thinks, I see myself as a novelist and this has forced me away from fiction far too long. For the first time, I employed research assistants in Canada, the US, the UK and here. When I finished, it was more than 2000 pages, and all through it I kept thinking, 'God I'd like to write a novel'. But I felt I had to make a stab at being scholarly, to ensure that there was no novelistic posturing or licence, that everything was based on documentation. If I'd known its involvement, I would not have started. It was like being locked in a room with a tyrannosaurus rex and only one of us was going to get out alive. Other things were continually tapping on the window (he raps his desk onomatopoetically), the unwritten novel, the unrealised children who are at least in prospect darlings."
He smiles enigmatically. "It was like running away with someone you think you desire and then finding that the relationship takes a very different direction from what you expected."
The whole enterprise has been a different direction for the compulsive novelist, even if a logical merging of his multiple leanings. And it could be construed as a career risk, a tempting invitation to academic and literary critics to again maul the man.
Still, he's used to that: cultural snipers take special delight in targeting him. More accepted internationally (despite odd scalding reviews in London and New York), he has at home been slighted with predictable regularity: too populist, too prolific, too facile, too preachy, too cinematic, more read about than read ... His Friar Tuck persona, heart-on-sleeve Irish Catholic Labor leanings, patent enjoyment of spotlights, propensity for stirring political possums, for being rent-a-quote ready with telling sound-bites, his readiness to rail at criticism have all been held against him.
Trouble is, that reeks of snobbery and sour grapes. Perhaps one problem is he writes for everyman. Or that he confronts with disquieting moral dilemmas. Or that he sells in huge numbers. The real trouble, of course, is that he's been too damn successful. A Booker Prize shortlistee four times and winner in '82 with Schindler's Ark, he's also twice won Franklin awards as well as assorted international gongs. The Spielberg film, Schindler's List, rewrote box-office records. Keneally's also had the gall to pick up a Logie and an Australian Film Institute award. And there's the OA in 1983. And his founding chairmanship of the Australian Republican Movement.
Two years ago, when he was feted as a living legend at the Melbourne Writers Festival, he spoke of "mellowing' from his youthful resentment of criticism. "I think there's a darkness in the Australian literary community," he told one journalist, "and that is not made easier when you look at noble figures like Manning Clark and see the damage that can be done when the pygmies pick at his grave."
Today, he's philosophic. "The biggest risk, and it's only because The Book's by me, is that it will be seen as the continuation of an old war. It's not meant to be that at bloody all ... it's partly to explain the old war, partly to celebrate the New World. But you don't have to be a rocket-scientist to know some will dismiss it as 'typical Pom-bashing'. Yet our history is too subtle to be either Pom-bashing or Pom-loving." Then, recycling a theme, "there's a darkness in all of us and a great light in all of us ... My biggest fear is that people will condemn it unread solely because I'm a Republican and Irish by descent."
He's tried to write in a way that will interest Australians in general - "I didn't want it to be a revisiting of grievance, but dreadful things did happen: the Irish famine was appalling, the work of an economic rationalist government believing all the stuff our present government believes in ..."
On the other hand, back then "you had the British Association, which on the scale of modern-day famine relief was an extraordinarily generously subscribed aid body - the great irony is it was run in the field by Count Stryzlecki, the bloke who discovered Kosciosko. The Book is full of wonderful lateral coincidences. Stryzlecki goes through the Monaro country where my wife Judy's great-grandfather was an assigned convict in 1844, and then ends up administering aid to her great-grandmother who is suffering the famine in East Galway. That's an instance of God having fun."
Two influences motivated him: his wife's great-grandfather, Hugh Larkin, being an Irish political prisoner transported for life here, and "I had hold of a petition from his wife in Ireland seeking permission to join him. Such a poignant document, it fired my imagination. A great story, wife starving back there, husband marooned in the deepest Monaro.
"I've looked at the old world and the New World through the lens of these political prisoners, tracked the communities they came from, what politicised them, the impact Australia had on them, and they on it. Through all my writing, I've been fascinated by how the Australian landscape challenged the European soul. Larkin, despite coming from an animist world very much like the one the Aboriginals live in, of ghosts, spirits, little people, enchanted wells and so on, is up immediately against a world in which there are few points of purchase."
As he writes in The Great Shame, "Hundreds of unrepentant Irish seditionists full of savage memory and unsettled scores reached Australia in the first decade of the 19th century. The survivors brought a virulent memory of the instruments of torture which had been used against their forces and supporters." Yet out of this cultural disorientation, he qualifies as he settles back in his chair, "we see some of the foremost questing and liberal minds at work, seeking social change. If we could find solutions today in the way these men and women did, Australia would become an exciting place again."
His hands, so tightly constrained early on, have burst free, swooping in the currents of converse. When a reminiscence gratifies him, he chortles, thumping his desk with his fist. "One hopes it has the same international audience as my novels get. I wanted it to be affirmative, not just for Irish descendants but for everyone ... I've tried to interpret why it is an issue and I'd be very disappointed if this were seen as a sideshow of Australian history."
Critical carping won't matter a jot "as long as the readers run with it. The world is holistic and all ethnicities bleed into each other. You can't have a growth of culture without a vigorous attempt to identify Australia as its own country constitutionally. And you can't have a constitutional republic unless there's been a republic of letters already established. Convictism is a phenomenon which has an Australian meaning, pure and simple, and a world meaning."
Australians, he maintains, have looked upon transportation as involving only us and the Brits, "but it was really international - it drew comment both from British liberals, from whom we inherit the best traditions, and from the Democrat Party in the US". He spotlights four dominant characters among a multitudinous cast: Larkin, "an arse-out-the-pants assignee"; Thomas Francis Meagher, "who had an extraordinary career as orator, prisoner, Van Diemen's Land escapee, American Union general and governor of Montana who was drowned by vigilantes; he loved women, booze, politics and bullshit, in many ways your typical Australian Irishman"; John Boyle O'Reilly, who became a renowned American writer after escaping from WA; and William Smith O'Brien, "who was the Mandela of his age".
He forages on his desk to find their pictures, then proprietorially displays one of his "grandfather's first cousin John Kenealy, a city treasury clerk in California" and bit player in the text. When I remark on a likeness, he chuckles delightedly, "I'm afraid so - particularly around the middle".
Then it's back to business. "I also wanted it to be a book about women and their involvement, which is often overlooked - so many strong-minded female activists were so influential. I'm fascinated with women and their consciousness; I grew up in an all-son family and have an all-daughter family, and that's been a salutary education." Look at Speranza, he says, "Oscar Wilde's mum and friend to all these convicts, a major figure in Irish literary culture and immensely more famous than Oscar for the entire 19th century". Or Eva O'Dougherty, the "ferocious teenage poet known as Eva of The Nation, who died in 1912 in a little house in Brisbane's Toowong".
Or Mary Shields, "Judy's great grandmother - God, I'd love to spend half an hour with that little tart ... I developed a great affection for her. She was 5 ft 1, gave birth to five Australians, and I'd love to ask her just what happened on the female convict ships. Were the sailors kept away or were you forced into associations to get a few extra rations? No one's written a frank confession of what happened there ... and what about her three years in the female factory? It was written off as a den of whores and sluts by the Tories, but it was actually somewhere between a haven, a house of improvement and a prison designed to protect society from these women and vice versa. But the women had a very strong sense of their own dignity; they'd shock evangelical improvers with their tendency to raucousness - often wrongly identified as lowness of soul and a trait that lives on in modern Aussies - but few were colonial prostitutes, as they were described. Most were working-class girls of inimitable spirit, careful survivors who when given tickets of leave went on to do well."
He believes we are ready to look at the whole question of convictism frontally. "It didn't die with its legal abolition - the convicts all bred, passed on attitudes to their children, sustained it in the lore ... it survived until well past 1912, where this book traces it. We have two big questions of the past still to be resolved, convictism and Aboriginal sovereignty."
Which makes it doubly ironic, I suggest, that the Irish were among the persecutors of the Aborigines. As he writes, "the Irish, so passionate on land questions themselves, did not inquire whether the indigenes had any ownership of this ground".
"Yes, and you see it today with the Israelis and the Palestinians. We haven't learnt that legitimacy comes only from recognition of all legitimacies. As the Fenian O'Reilly says, 'he is not free who is free alone'. That could be a motto for Australia," he QEDs.
AT 16, KENEALLY'S BLESSED TRINITY was sport, writing and the Catholic church. Nearly half a century on, he regards the latter with the rueful fondness of an adolescent lover, despite (or because of) the six years he spent in the seminary. Sport has endured more strongly, although his attend-every-weekend enthusiasm for rugby league has been shaken by the super league war; only writing has retained its unshakeable conviction.
For someone raised in country NSW towns and suburban Homebush who's spent large chunks of his adult life travelling in search of story, he's become very much a Northern Beaches local. His nongenarian parents live two suburbs away, and he's proud of his standing as Manly rugby league team's No 1 supporter. As he escorts me out, he detours half-shyly into his "sporting shrine", an odds 'n' ends room "bequeathed to me as a concession by my understanding family" where he displays framed test and state of origin guernseys, Australian and Manly team photos, and one of his father, Thomas, in the premiership-winning Tamworth Old Boys team of '29.
On the lounge-room walls I'd spotted framed congressional citations and abundant international cultural awards, but he points out only a fading handwritten note from an international footballer. "You know," he says in farewell, "maybe this historical fixation has been to the good - maybe I needed a break from the novel. It means I'm starting again with the insecurity of the beginning writer, which is appropriate ... in writing, you're supposed to be a pilgrim and a bit bewildered."
Not just in novels, I realise as I depart - The Great Shame is also The Great Pilgrimage, and if it bewildered him it doesn't show: if anything, it allows us a reconciliation, with the shames of the past and the shadows of tomorrow. And that's no mean feat in anyone's book.
The Great Shame by Tom Keneally is published by Chatto & Windus.
This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1998
Murray Waldren's latest book The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins) is available from all good book stores, including: Gleebooks Shearers Bookshop Readings Better Read Than Dead Dymocks Angus & Robertson Borders The Co-op Bookshop Australian Online Bookstore Booktopia Seekbooks The Nile The Book Abyss
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