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It’s a bit off — all these criticisms of Malcolm Fraser for winning the NSW Premier’s non-fiction literary award.

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

It’s a bit off — all these criticisms of Malcolm Fraser for winning the NSW Premier’s non-fiction literary award.

It’s a bit off — all these criticisms of Malcolm Fraser for winning the NSW Premier’s non-fiction literary award. Yes, his Political Memoirs has its self-serving biases, errors and omissions. (I noted a couple in these pages in March last year.) But it will be read, consulted and debated for decades to come as the memoir of a prime minister during some of the more portentous years of our history. All the books in the non-fiction shortlist are fine achievements, but hands up anyone who would have given the award to one of them instead to Fraser and his narrator Margaret Simons. Point out its shortcomings by all means, but let’s at least also congratulate him on his win.

The retiring ambassador to Beijing was right to criticise some of Kevin Rudd’s interventions in Chinese life and politics. But he was ill-advised to sneer at Rudd’s reading the Analects of Confucius. To claim to understand China without fathoming Confucius is like trying to understand the West without knowing about Jesus and the Bible, or Western history, art and literature. By implication the ambassador also dismissed Pierre Ryckmans, who not only taught Rudd Mandarin but translated the Analects. It was Ryckmans who in several books (Chinese Shadows; The Burning Forest) published in the 1970s and 1980s under the name of Simon Leys, told the world the truth about the evil horrors of Mao’s totalitarian Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Analects turned out to be a much better guide to China than Mao’s Little Red Book or the grovelling reports at the time of so many journalists and diplomats.


Two cheers only for Premier Ted Baillieu in releasing Victorian ministers and public servants from the obligation to begin any public meeting with an acknowledgment of Aborigines’ prior ownership of the land — a fatuous, useless and sanctimonious piece of political correctness. Yet the Premier’s new formula acknowledging ‘all those past and present, including our indigenous communities’ is little better. Why can’t we get back to the traditional word or two of welcome from the chairman — and then get on with practical help for Aboriginal causes, like the Northern Territory Intervention, without pious humbug?

The Prime Minister took the opportunity to celebrate Australian multiculturalism in her ‘community Cabinet meeting’ in Adelaide last week. It has indeed been a great success — as much due to Australian liberalism as to the selection of immigrants with ‘the right stuff’, at least for most of our history. But Julia Gillard still ignored the elephant in the room, even when an English immigrant pointed it out to her: the problem raised by immigrants who on principle treat women abominably, observe sharia law, and will not be integrated into a country they despise. Any speech that does not address this confronting issue is too evasive to be helpful.

Everything was against him, Howard Jacobson told the Sydney Writers’ Festival in answer to the question why it took him so long to become a celebrated novelist. He was conservative (in a way), getting on a bit (born 1942), heterosexual, Jewish and male. He even had trouble finding a publisher for his enormously successful The Finkler Question. One problem is that he is a male-centred writer when almost the whole of literature is women-centred. Women regularly savage him. (He calls it the Curse of the Reading Group.) Another is that, as a comic novelist who looks back to Rabelais and Cervantes, he shuns ideology, progressive or reactionary. (‘A novelist who believes in something is a bad novelist.’) A comic writer may be politically incorrect, homophobic, misogynistic or even anti-Semitic, and (he adds in an aside) ‘perhaps should be’. Doctrine kills comic inspiration. (‘You can’t believe in an afterlife and be funny.’) But as Baudelaire said, it is a matter of vision, not vengeance. That is what was wrong with his Australian novel 25 years ago, Redback. It embarrasses him now. He wrote it to settle scores. He should have been larger-spirited. His next novel is to be about failure, although he fears that winning the Man Booker may have sapped his English gloom. All literary people are thin-skinned and believe they are failures. That’s why we go to festivals instead of playing golf. ‘Failure is the highest kind of success,’ says Jacobson the master aphorist.

One of the best books published by an Australian this year has nothing to do with the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It is The Cage (Pan Macmillan) by Gordon Weiss, about Sri Lanka’s civil war. Sri Lanka! Who cares, some knockers may ask? But the book is written in blood. Weiss had worked abroad for 15 years, including several years as UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, before returning to Australia to write The Cage. He does not apportion blame for the Sri Lankan horrors. He details the atrocities of both the corrupt and savage Sinhalese government and the totalitarian Tamil Tigers. He notes the geopolitics of the story, as China turns Sri Lanka into a client state. But the book is also a personal statement, a sort of parable of the World, the Flesh and the Devil. Himself the grandson of a man who was murdered in Auschwitz, Weiss is aware of the thin line that separates civilised societies from those that sink into collective madness governed by hatred. His is a bleak vision. There are no formulaic solutions — only eternal vigilance. John Dowd, the former Attorney-General and Supreme Court judge, launched The Cage in the tiny, side-street Hollywood Hotel, one of the few remaining pubs in the city. It was a moving event.

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