Silence has the last word

Alex Miller, Landscape of Farewell, Allen & Unwin, 2007, ISBN 978 1741 753 752, RRP $35.00, website.

Landscape of Farewell Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet, prefaces her poem cycle Requiem, with a story. During the Stalinist purges she was waiting in line outside the Lubyanka Prison for news of their relatives. A woman recognised her and asked, 'Can you describe this?' She said, 'I can'.

The question and answer resonate because they conjugate all the senses of silence and words. They ask whether Akhmatova has the skill to break silence about what she sees, the courage, the moral right, the experience, the grace that will give eloquence to good intentions, and the confidence that something can be passed on that will survive this apparently all-pervasive silencing.

The question and answer are echoed in Alex Miller's new novel. Its story is simple enough. The narrator is Professor Max Otto. Having lost his wife, he intends to take his own life after giving a valedictory address on the subject of massacres.

But Vita McLelland, a young Australian academic in Hamburg for the conference, attacks his talk. She later persuades him that he has something to live for and that he should visit Australia and meet her uncle, Dougald, an aboriginal elder, in Queensland. Max does so, and accepts the meaning of his own past through entering and finding words for the story of Dougald's great grandfather.

The energy of the novel comes from the paradox that when people of very different cultures come together words fail them, but out of their silence can come deeper words than either could have spoken alone.The protagonists are bound by similar histories through which they are entrapped in silence. Max suspected his father was complicit in Hitler's massacres of the Jews, but could never ask him. Dougald was brutally beaten by his father who suffered inarticulately the loss of his ancestral place in aboriginal society. Max was similarly oppressed by his uncle, who was equally inarticulate in his mad and despairing attachment to the soil.

The heart of the novel lies in its movement from despairing silence to words that lead to acceptance. At its beginning Max is alone after his wife's death, knows that he was never brave enough to ask of his father the one question that mattered to him, and has capitulated to silence. Dougald has never been able to tell the story of his father or of his great grandfather. Neither has words for the curse at the centre of his people's history. Through their meeting they are finally able to help one another find words.

This is a novel of ideas in which the particularity of characters, places and events is subordinated to their symbolic significance. In a lesser novel this would be a fatal shortcoming. But in this novel they are so vividly described that they remain in the memory. Although Vita, whose vitality dominates the first chapter or two, only reappears in the novel to ensure that Max lives out his appointed role, she is the most strikingly individual character in the novel.

But the ability to hold together ideas and dramatic narrative is seen best in the climactic chapter. In it Max writes the story which Dougald has told him of Gnapun, his great grandfather. His family were counsellors of their people. A group came to him telling of the desecration of their sacred sites by white settlers. He goes with them and makes plans to kill them all and destroy the settlement. Before this happens he has a dream in which he sees the settlement and the coming killing through the eyes of the settlers.

Max tells the story through the lens of his own history, ascribing to Gnapun Agamemnon's instruction to massacre the Trojans leaving no one to grieve them. The founding traditions of Western and indigenous civilisation come together. Much is at stake until the writing is completed, and Max and Dougald remain on edge. Finally Dougald finds his story told well, and Max finds his words accepted. The telling of the story is an emblem of reconciliation.

This chapter is symbolically rich and complex. But the narrative and description are spare and vivid. The conditions of truthful writing are explored and met in the writing.

In the novel Max is as articulate as we might expect a professor of history to be. Through his reflections Miller is able to explore all the reasons why silence might have the last word in a person's life or in a people's history. He makes the reader feel the weight of fear, loss of confidence, shame and the enormity of the challenge to speak and write. In recapitulating the force of the question put to Anna Akhmatova, he also affirms that silence does not have the last word. This is a memorable novel.

Andrew Hamilton SJAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.



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