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Creation stories from inferno Australia

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

'The Garden of Sorrows' by John Hughes - book coverBarry

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 Uncle Remus; or the foolish emu, Echo, 'shaking her tail feathers' at a thieving goanna.

The Garden of Sorrows is also a visual feast. I found the purest joy to be the artwork of Marco Luccio, who modelled his arcane Australiana on zoological excursions. This work would not be out of place in graphic novels and explorations of the macabre, as suggested by the artist's acknowledgement of Hughes' 'powerful, wicked and inspired stories'. This is an absorbing but puzzling work.


What are we to make of The Garden of Sorrows? This earnest, lingering rendering of Aesop's Fables — with the solemnity of The Brothers Grimm and inventiveness of Roald Dahl — is respectfully mindful. Each story, skillfully retold and illustrated, had me in two worlds and two minds; troubled by the question: Who is this handsome book's intended audience?

As you write, Barry, these 'reverse fables' by author John Hughes 'cast us back to the flux at the beginning of the world ... in a state of formation, Australia, the garden and the inferno'. No wonder I sensed the ghost of Dante flitting between those well-crafted lines.

Hughes, himself, is not only a wordsmith, but something of a conjuror and alchemist, as the following passage from the turtle's fable 'The Making of Time' attests: 'We are all aggregate, alloyed and silicate, living mudstone ... I am myself mixed, she thought, with sea pebbles tossed up by the surf, with chalcedony, carnelian, crystallised gypsum, spar, quartz, chalk and even that black blood, through which living mater returns to stone.' Bravo.

While I gladly lost myself in the luxurious, gothic prose (even minus the assistance of caffeine, Barry), I share your delight chancing upon the inclusion of, if not outright humour, then an unexpected lightness and buoyancy.

What Hughes fashions with words, Luccio, renders in his evocatively charged etchings. You can see why artists are thought to have direct links to God; these line and charcoal etchings find a unique balance between the almost forensic precision of botanical art and the vivid, ethereal lucidity of a Michelangelo.

You're absolutely right Barry; there's much to digest and not just admire here. It's undeniably refreshing (not to mention gratifying) to see such an investment in the skills, talents and insights of a storyteller and illustrator. This is temerity not only writ large, but in hard-back and recycled stock.

Dubbing the fables 'New World stories' seems to me, however, wishful thinking. The truth is that modern society has moved on — rapidly. The world we now live in isn't only less tacit and tactile, it's markedly less fearless.

Is there room for The Garden of Sorrows on our book shelves? I hope so. A touch too dark and impenetrable for younger children, it's unfortunate that those for whom these stories could truly resonate are perhaps too preoccupied with iPads, smartphones and Miley Cyrus to venture into such a garden of possibilities.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Book Chat, The Garden of Sorrows, John Hughes



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Give me Garden of Eden anyday.

Father John George | 18 October 2013  

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