Book reviews

About face: Asian Accounts of Australia,
Alison Broinowski. Scribe Publications, 2003. isbn 0908011962, rrp $30.00
Diplomatic Deceits: Government, Media and East Timor, Rodney Tiffen. UNSW Press, 2001. isbn 086840571X, rrp $27.95

Asian-Australian relationships have always been a critical issue; they are either a source of promise or fear.

In About Face, Broinowski, a former Australian diplomat, has written a book that looks at these relationships from an Asian perspective. Broinowski charts the historical events that have impacted on Australian relations with Asia, from the gold rush troubles of the Victorian era to the Bali bombings. However, not only does Broinowski examine national agendas, she deals with the cultural results of East meeting West. This is an illuminating process in itself.

Broinowski argues two fascinating contentions. First, that Asian nations themselves are subject to the same racial virus that affects us in Australia and that this is a reaction to the ‘white superiority’ of the colonial period. Asian leaders use this fear of others to their own electoral advantage, much like John Howard. Second, that part of the cause of the Bali bombings was Indonesian resentment of foreign tourists on their soil. She claims that the offensiveness of Australian tourists to Muslim sensibilities, combined with the wider deterioration of Indonesian-Australian relations from the East Timor crisis, created a groundswell of ill will that made the Bali bombings possible.

Broinowski writes fascinatingly about contrasting Indonesian and Australian perceptions of the East Timor crisis.  Rodney Tiffen’s Diplomatic Deceits puts that crisis into a broader historical context, covering Australian political considerations in the period from the Indonesian annexation of the former Portuguese colony to East Timor’s eventual independence.

Diplomatic Deceits, through no fault of Tiffen’s, suffers from being written before the bombings in Bali. An analysis of this event would have added another dimension to the book, however Tiffen provides valuable insights into our government’s acquiescence to the invasion and occupation of East Timor. Diplomatic Deceits highlights the constant tension between pragmatic and principled policy-making on East Timor. Tiffen argues that principle  would have been the better option for maintaining Australian credibility. Diplomatic Deceits is a quick but valuable read.

Godfrey Moase

The Complete Book of Great Australian Women—Thirty-Six women who changed the course of Australia, Susanna de Vries. Harper Collins, 2003. isbn 073227804X, rrp $35.00

A senior female judge recently delivered a speech at Melbourne University called ‘Women’s Experiences in the Courtroom’. When asked what it takes to become a judge, she reflected that the women she knew on the bench possessed ‘an element of the extraordinary’. Reading Susanna de Vries’ collection of stories about great Australian women, I understood what the judge meant. The women in de Vries’ book are notable for their extraordinariness, and their courage. As for the visiting judge, she put her appointment down to an incredible amount of hard work.

The problem with stories that are intended to be inspiring is that they float somewhere far above the ordinariness that I can relate to. When de Vries describes the depression of Louisa Lawson, or the desperation of Miles Franklin as she suffers a heart attack alone in her Carlton house, it is without
tangibility. The moments of greatness are so luminous that they obscure the depth of humanity that is shown through failure and despair, doubt and struggle. Through the glorification of success, these stories lose the capacity to move.

Emily Millane

The Conclave: A sometimes secret and occasionally bloody history of papal elections, Michael Walsh. Canterbury Press, 2003.
isbn 1 85311 497 9, rrp $33.95

One might be forgiven for thinking that a history of papal elections would be a rather weighty and densely written volume filled with meticulous detail, much of it frankly dull. Not so Michael Walsh’s hugely entertaining survey, which ranges over nearly two thousand years in 180 pages. I like anecdotes in my history, and there is no shortage of them here—and far from detracting from the subject matter they allow a brief glimpse into the way some figures from the past viewed the world. Some of the anecdotes record the downright bizarre, such as the extraordinary conduct of Pope Stephen VI (or VII, depending on how you count the Stephens) who arranged for the exhumation of the body of his recent and disliked predecessor Formosus. The body was dressed in papal robes, installed on a throne before an assembly of bishops and accused of various misdemeanours. Stephen got his comeuppance, however, being strangled while imprisoned in a monastery. History does not relate whether one of the monks was responsible for the deed.

Other anecdotes reveal a world both foreign and familiar. The punishment and shaming to which the antipopes were subjected seems crude and inhuman—Gregory VIII, created pope by Emperor Henry V in 1118 and then abandoned a few years later, was ceremonially paraded through the streets of Rome sitting backwards on a camel while antipope John XVI was obliged only to sit backwards on an ass, though he also endured mutilation for his troubles. But surely our own cultures have generated more subtle but equally devastating methods for the humiliation of those around us.

This is a history of papal elections—or, more accurately, of papal succession—so the material on policies and personalities is necessarily brief. Walsh includes enough to show the influence one pope’s policies could play over the selection of a successor, particularly if those policies offended a secular ruler. But in a way, the very brevity of the book is its great strength, for Walsh manages to convey a palpable sense of the emergence of the present from the past, and a superb ‘afterword’ sets the stage, so to speak, for the conclave which will elect the next pope.

And no, the papacy of John Paul I was not the shortest on record.

Tom Riemer sj



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