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Australian Books: No regime change here

The Fable of All Our Lives confirms Peter Kocan’s position as the most powerful and original novelist writing in Australia today.

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

The Fable of All Our Lives confirms Peter Kocan’s position as the most powerful and original novelist writing in Australia today.

The Fable of All Our Lives
By Peter Kocan
Fourth Estate, $39.55, pp 577
ISBN 9780732289928

The Fable of All Our Lives confirms Peter Kocan’s position as the most powerful and original novelist writing in Australia today.

Taking up where his novel The Cure left off, it continues the semi-autobiographical story of Tait, now released on licence after a decade in a high-security mental institution, attempting to build something like a normal life. It is also the story of his role in one of ‘the little platoons’ of the ‘QO’ — the Quaint and Outmoded — in the struggle against ‘the Regime’: the soulless, destroying power of politically-correct modernity.

There are many complexities: Tait has settled in a small New South Wales country town, and joins the local amateur theatrical group in an attempt to overcome the social isolation that has been the bane of his existence. But most of the theatricals are also, in one way or another, ‘damaged goods.’


Tait is a highly gifted poet and is awarded various literary grants, but these offer only a precarious livelihood, dependent on the whim of the Regime, and almost the only outlet for his type of traditionalist verse is the conservative magazine Compact (read Quadrant). He clings to what he knows of the heroic: the Stuart loyalists who followed Bonnie Prince Charlie to disaster at Culloden though they knew their cause was doomed, or the stories of the small victories won by Good that stave off the triumph of absolute Evil down the centuries in The Lord of the Rings.

It is from The Lord of the Rings that the book’s epigraph comes: ‘You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the Western world.’ Kocan not only displays a masterful handling of complex ideas, and along the way tells the story of a community that will have no other chronicler, but writes with a skill that makes the book, for all its length, hard to put down.

The ‘politics’ make the story much more complex than almost all the prosaic manifestos of pseudo-class warfare that are put forward as political novels today. The Regime is present not only in the neurotically philistine probation officer who demands to know how much time Tait puts into writing poetry each day, ready to strike like a snake at the first sign of resentment or distress at this interrogation. There is also the toxic, jealousy-consumed minor academic Sabina Sharpe, but among the worst enemies, striking from a different direction, are the young underclass hoons who terrorise Tait and his friends and are poised to run to the law at the least efforts of their victims to defend themselves. More or less feral, with no trace of romantic nobility about them, they are simply disgusting and savage. The romantic and the noble, the ideal which Tait searches for and the idea he clings to, is somewhere far away.

Is the language and behaviour of political correctness quoted here exaggerated? Not much, I think, and less so all the time if internet postings are anything to go by. They can’t be ignored like some of the sad cases posting their hatreds and neurotic darknesses on the internet, because for the Taits they really are the people with power. There is a paradox here: Tait is sick with longing for the High and Noble as he has glimpsed it in history and literature, but the mundane, often-defeated existence of his friends and he, part of ‘the little garrisons’ of normal life celebrated by Burke, calls for a nobility of its own.

The Fable of All Our Lives is also a human story. Tait, painfully aware of being ‘damaged goods,’ is hopelessly in love with a woman, who, one feels, he should have got away from long before. She uses him, possibly almost unaware that she is doing so, and he falls into a deadly pattern of wanting to be used.

As far as he looks to a decent political order it is to something like Tolkien’s shire, a gentle anarchy — not ‘bearded men with bombs’ as Tolkien put it, but anarchy in the sense of minimal government, tempered by the influence of the Noble and Just. The Regime presents itself as what Tait calls ‘anarcho-tyranny’, poised to crush the innocent — for those looking for real-world parallels the case of Catch the Fire Ministries vs the Islamic Council of Victoria fits right in here — but ready to extend toleration, indifference or even encouragement to the genuinely violent and dangerous who know how to play the game. Charles I is seen by Tait as a noble ‘hero-king’, offset by the wicked king Henry VIII, the two Cromwells being among the blackest agents of the Regime who have warped the culture to which he is heir. Stoked by a mutual hatred of traditional values, the Sabina Sharpes and the feral underclass come together in a violent, ambiguous climax, though with signs that another, subterranean current may still be running the other way.

To say too much about the substance of the book may lead to neglect of the fact that it is also a stylistic triumph, confirming Kocan’s mastery of prose, as well as the fact, demonstrated by his previous books of verse, that he is among the best poets writing in Australia today. The splendid poems which are quoted in The Fable of All Our Lives would make it worth the price even if the book contained nothing else. Looking at the whole body of his writing, I seriously believe there is now a case for bringing Kocan’s work to the attention of the Nobel Prize judges.

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