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Creation stories from inferno Australia

  • 18 October 2013

The Garden of Sorrows, by John Hughes. UWA Publishing, 2013. Website


Fables evoke primary school memories of Aesop. Arrogant gods, grumpy critters and hapless mortals.

That nostalgic take, however, will not prepare you for the sophistication and intensity John Hughes infuses in the 'reverse fables' that populate The Garden of Sorrows.

The Garden proves to be fertile soil for both the writer and his partner in the sublime, acclaimed artist Marco Luccio, as they conjure creation stories that transpose the natural mythic order. Instead of attributing animal qualities to humans (Hughes suggests 'this is the natural origin of all fables'), this volume places the spotlight on each animal character's 'human qualities [and] the human it might become'.

Turnabout, Jen, is said to be fair play, but there is way too much bloodlust and passion in this re-imagining of 'Australia, the garden and the inferno' to be inordinately concerned with moral imperatives. Hence, The Garden is populated by the larger-than-strife figures who follow their lust of life and self. Kaos the crocodile, who becomes the first man, and Hades the platypus, the first thief. Orpheus the lyrebird, the first actor, and the first healer, possum Prometheus.

The giant red kangaroo, Knuckles, the first ruler; Karma the koala, the first farmer; and mighty Achilles the green ant, who becomes 'the first magician (or priest, or scientist, who could say?)'.

This is storytelling that exults in pain and primordial uncertainty. Primeval passion and purpose. It is also luxuriant prose and a wealth of imagery that doesn't, for me, lend itself to sustained perusal. Did you too, Jen, find it best embraced by chapters interspersed with reflection, space and caffeine?

Just as we punctuate our own lives with insights, duplicities, regrets etc., so too Hughes' all-too-human fauna are complex, emerging from 'the winter fog or the entrails of a beast'. The characters challenge us, via their mystical awareness or dislocation, to consider our own choices and goals.

Profundity on causality and consequence lurks in word and image. We learn from Spindle, a spider who 'had learnt to spin a web', yet 'no one had taught her how to walk across it'; and the last of the thylacines (read Mohicans), Torment, who, deceived into self-harm, found 'all nature turned to blade'.

Jen, I found myself delighted by incidental humour, such as Meta the mozzie tormenting an anonymous wombat and declaring 'I'm going to suck you dry' before Hughes borrows muddily from the tar baby of