The shortlist for the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction included works by two world-famous writers, winners of an impressive array of local and international literary prizes. Yet neither Summertime, the third instalment of J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalised autobiography, nor Ransom, David Malouf’s radiant retelling of an episode from the Trojan War, won the award. The prize went to a lesser-known writer, Eva Hornung (formerly Eva Sallis) for a strange and strangely disturbing fable, Dog Boy, set in a decaying city haunted by feral creatures – both human and animal – which comes to be revealed in the course of the novel as present-day Moscow. Now, after a silence of some seven years, Hornung’s new novel reveals again her capacity to surprise, to follow a direction for which there is little precedent in her earlier work.
At the time of its publication, Dog Boy seemed highly unusual, perhaps even eccentric. It is an extraordinarily powerful, unsettling and at times deeply moving tale of Romochka, a young boy who has been abandoned by his family. He finds shelter and a family of sorts with a pack of feral dogs in their lair underneath a ruined church on the outskirts of Moscow, next to an ever-growing mound of refuse constantly picked over by the city’s vagrants, outcasts and vagabonds. The matriarch of the pack gives him suck, literally. Her offspring become his brothers and sisters.
Complex social relations emerge among the boy and his dog-family, relations that are both tested and strengthened as they gradually come into contact with human beings – at first the vagrants haunting the rubbish-heap near their lair, then the decaying edges of the city and finally, in a tour de force of writing, the great city itself, especially when some of them penetrate the glittering cathedral-like stations and speeding trains of the Moscow metro. Some of the human beings they encounter treat them brutally, indeed bestially; others, like the kitchenhand in an Italian restaurant, with much greater compassion and humanity. Romochka himself is caught between two worlds, and as the other world, the human, gradually encroaches on the love and security he had found with the pack, his world is destroyed: he is forced to face an impossible choice between the two.
Two characteristics distinguish this extraordinary novel. One is the complete lack of sentimentality and refusal to render the animal world pseudo-human. It is free of the anthropomorphism that often mars such literary efforts; these dogs, for all their surprising tolerance of Romochka, remain dogs, hunters, predators at times, sharply distinguished from the occasional simpering pets we encounter in these pages. The second outstanding characteristic is Hornung’s meticulously imagined descriptions of the dog-world and the world of humans, including the sophisticated, well-intentioned but fundamentally destructive paediatricians at an institution for abandoned children. Moscow, the infernal city, casts its pall over the book, nowhere more so than in the opening pages which describe the headlong flight of the occupants of a presumably collapsing tenement block – it is here that Romochka is abandoned by his mother and uncle.
Dog Boy marked a significant change in the preoccupations of Hornung’s work. She emerged – as Eva Sallis – in 1997 when her short novel Hiam (released in the following year) won the Vogel award for an unpublished work by a young writer. Hiam is a striking and unusual account of the life of Arabic people – from Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen – in Australian suburbia. The novel’s structure is simple: we follow the central character, a woman called Hiam, as she drives helter-skelter from the outskirts of Adelaide until, many days later, she reaches the channel country of the north of the continent.
At first, the circumstances that forced Hiam to leave her commonplace but well-tended suburban home and family so abruptly remain shadowy. But the further she travels, and the greater her distress, we learn that she was born in Yemen, settled in Australia and married a Palestinian man – Masoud, an engineer who is forced to earn a living as a taxi driver – to whom she bore a daughter, Zena. Much else remains fragmentary as, with considerable skill and sophistication, Hornung reveals aspects of Hiam’s life, her experiences of Australia and the reasons why she had embarked on that seemingly senseless flight north. By the end, we have gained considerable insight not merely into Hiam’s particular dilemma but also into the nature of the life of Arabic-speaking people living in a perplexing society with unfamiliar, at times shocking, mores and rituals. It is a society that Hiam and her relatives and friends find on the whole contemptible, yet a society with which they have no choice but to interact. The pressures of that society seem at times irresistible, especially to a younger generation, like Hiam’s daughter, who strain against the constraints of traditions that seem so alien to the pragmatic (and at times hostile) outside world they must confront.
Already in Hiam, Hornung’s gifts of observation and her skills of description and evocation are on display. The novel’s structure – episodes of the past wound around what is essentially an anecdote – may reveal a beginner’s hand, yet, with one exception, Hiam established the pattern for Hornung’s subsequent work until the radical change in setting, scope and preoccupation revealed by Dog Boy a dozen or so years later.
Hornung’s next novel, The City of Sealions (2002) consolidated and expanded the fascination with Arabic culture, language and customs evident in Hiam. The City of Sealions may give a hint of the source of that fascination. Its central character, a young woman called Lian, stumbles into Arabic Studies during her university years in Australia. So strong is the fascination that, despite her parent’s incomprehension and dismay, she settles in Yemen and adopts Islamic habits in dress and also to an extent in demeanour. The impact of life in Sana’a, with its sounds and smells, the mysterious beauty of its many-storeyed houses set with glowing coloured glass windows, is vividly rendered in these pages. As are the interactions between Yemenis and outsiders like Lian and other people from far away, from Europe and America in particular.
None of this is to suggest that The City of Sealions is autobiographical in any major sense. The novel is obviously a vehicle for Hornung’s immersion in Arabic culture – here, as elsewhere in her work, we find interpolated stories in the manner of Arabic and Persian tales and legends. Equally important, nevertheless (as Hornung’s later work reveals) is a concern with the outsider, the exile and those who do not fit into or are not accepted by the world in which they live or where they have been cast ashore.
Lian, the focal character of The City of Sealions, is the daughter of an Australian man and a Vietnamese woman, Phi-Van, one of the boat people who arrived in Australia during or immediately after the war in Vietnam. Phi-Van is a tormented creature, given to outbursts of rage and cruelty towards her daughter, yet she is also consumed by a deep though inarticulate love for Lian. The relationship between mother and daughter provides a significant and impressive strand in Hornung’s novel and it illuminates, too, Lian’s status as a double outsider: something of an outsider in Australia because of her appearance and background, and an outsider in Yemen, despite her zeal to adopt Yemeni ways and habits, because in that society (as perhaps in Australia too) someone not native-born cannot hope fully to belong. At the end, Lian is forced to recognise that her predicament shares many elements of her mother’s troubled relationship with Australian society.
This concern with the outsider is already apparent in Hiam, although the theme is much more muted there. It comes into prominence towards the end of Hiam’s journey when she meets by chance a young Aboriginal man at a roadside stop somewhere in the Top End, with whom she senses an affinity even greater, perhaps, than she had felt with her circle of Middle Eastern friends and relations in Adelaide. The preoccupation plays a much more significant role in Mahjar (2003), a series of vivid vignettes of the lives of Middle Eastern settlers in Australia since the 1950s. A preliminary note explains the meaning of the title: ‘The Arabic word mahjar refers collectively to all the lands of Arab, most often Lebanese, migration. It has overtones of separation, renunciation, estrangement and abandonment but, for the Lebanese particularly, it is a place-word redolent with pride of achievement as well as distance from homeland.’ Pride of achievement is occasionally evident in the stories and anecdotes that make up Mahjar, yet the overwhelming impression the work conveys is of people caught in the snare of separation, renunciation, estrangement and abandonment, who long for their distant land.
One of the stories, ‘Music’ is characteristic of the book. Zein, we are told, ‘was tough and known to be tough’. That toughness seemed to stand her in good stead when she was ‘the first to hold a real wedding when her son married an Australian. Half the community boycotted, and the other half sat grim-faced, even crying, at the white tables filled with uneaten food’. Through the ‘nightmare’ of resentment and insults, Zein holds her head high, and at the end she is rewarded with a kind of triumph. Her daughter-in-law is plain and sallow; the girl’s relatives ‘all clung to the other side of the room and were the subject of some savaging in Arabic.’ They behave badly too, ‘haughty and dismissive with the Arabs, drunken and loud with each other’. Despite the tensions and the ugliness, Zein hears music and glimpses ‘a thin white filament stretched between her son and his wife’. And so, at the end of the story, she calls on her reserves of toughness and, clapping her hands, cries out: ‘Let’s dance… This is a WEDDING’.
Hornung turned once more to the tribulations of Arabic people in exile in 2005 with The Marsh Birds. This, in a way, is the most overtly political and even perhaps schematic of her books. It begins as Dhurgham, a young boy, is whisked from war-torn Baghdad to Damascus carrying his family’s wealth sewn into his clothes. The rest of the family hopes to follow him to the safe house in Damascus – all this happened before the civil war in Syria – so that they can all set out on a voyage to peace and safety. The family seem not to have reached Damascus; instead the boy ends up in the care of the apparently kindly Mr Hosni, who grooms the child to be sexually exploited by him and his ‘friends’. The money disappears, eaten up by Mr Hosni’s ‘kindness’. Eventually, alarmed by the prospect of prosecution, Mr Hosni arranges for the boy to be sent to Indonesia and thence on a leaking fishing boat to Australia.
What follows is a predictable though appalling and passionately restrained account of what we, as a nation, willingly turn away from: the plight of those demonised asylum-seekers whom we trap in coils of bureaucratic cruelty, who decline at times into criminality because of our indifference and intolerance. At the end, the now eighteen-year-old Dhurgham is about to be deported to Australia from New Zealand for various ‘crimes’ he had had committed there, particularly during a riot while confined to an ‘Aliens Processing Centre’. As he attempts to escape when he is about to board the aircraft to Australia, Dhurgham hears a shot and feels a sharp pain in his chest while voices urge him to run, and ‘completely happy, he ran’. In her ‘Acknowledgments’ Hornung cites the sources she employed for her novel, a work (as I have said) more polemically inclined than her other books, yet informed by the familiar sensitivity to the culture and aspirations of the Arab world. In the decade since the publication of The Marsh Birds our communal hostility to Islam, has grown immeasurably. That makes The Marsh Birds seem even more controversial, and timely, now than it was a decade ago.
In between Mahjar and The Marsh Birds, Hornung turned to an entirely different preoccupation, while maintaining her concern with those who do not conform to the established patterns of society. Fire Fire (2004), the oddest of her books, prefigures in some ways one or two elements of her latest novel. Set in what is obviously the hill country around Adelaide, it tells of an eccentric family called the Houdinis. The father is a world-renowned viola player, the mother, Acantia, is a painter with very pronounced alternative lifestyle views: home education for her children, no vaccinations or medical interventions, home-grown food and so on. The family settles in a derelict community hall surrounded by acres of farmland, which they more or less neglect. They convert the ruined building into a habitation of sorts; its main attribute is an ample auditorium where the father practices the viola for nine hours each day, even though he had retired from a glittering international career before the family settled in or returned to Australia – the circumstances are never made entirely clear. They attempt to live in isolation from the world, indulging their infatuation with music and with German culture and the German language – as did, I suppose, the nineteenth-century German settlers in that part of South Australia.
There is not much by way of a narrative thread in this novel. Things happen, it is true – conflict between the Houdinis’ numerous offspring, who have German names (Beate and Siegfried for instance) and with Acantia especially, who treats her children with a savagery that she regards as love. A mysterious visitor calling himself Count Ugolini preys on the youngsters. They, in turn, indulge in self-mutilation, start fires and establish close, intense relations with animals: a cow and some particularly shaggy and smelly goats. In that respect, Fire Fire hints at preoccupations that were to dominate Dog Boy: the mysterious affinity that can emerge between animals and children or adolescents. As the Houdini children grow up, the family scatters; some venture into the great world beyond the isolated, decaying house and the close-knit but self-tormenting family. Towards the end there is reunion and reconciliation of a kind, but the eddies of conflict and resentment continue to wash over these tentative gestures. These aspects of Fire Fire are contained by much that remains oblique and mysterious – difficult to comprehend at times, bordering on the surreal and the nightmarish, reflecting perhaps some of Hornung’s deeply private concerns. The novel called to mind Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and Honey, another claustrophobic tale of a family trapped in a house of secrets in an alien world, where music, apple strudel and gemütlichkeit mask dark secrets, just as the geniality of much of Hornung’s latest work, The Last Garden conceals a troubling world.
At first blush, the contrast between Dog Boy and The Last Garden could not be greater. In place of the dystopian world of post-Soviet Moscow in Dog Boy, Hornung’s new novel land us in a cloud cuckoo land pastoral. Of course, pastorals, no matter how Arcadian, always have their darker sides. This is no exception. The Last Garden begins with a murder-suicide.
On a mild spring day, the fifteen-year-old Benedict Orion arrives at his family’s farmhouse near a settlement called Wahrheit – the German word for truth – in the hilly countryside of what is always referred to as the New Land. He has just finished his years at boarding school in an English-speaking town, and is a little surprised to find that his mother has not come in the pony trap to pick him up at the nearby railway station, as she had promised. Unconcerned, Benedict makes the long walk home, pausing on the way to pick up and inspect a discarded piece of farm equipment, throw a few pebbles, carve his initials on a tree. He notices ‘the shiver of sunlight on the late spring grasses under the giant eucalypt…’. When he arrives at his family’s neat farmhouse he is greeted by a terrible spectacle: his father Matthias had murdered his wife Ada, then killed himself.
The community rallies around Benedict. His mother is buried with due ceremony, but his father’s body, the body of a suicide (and a murderer), is disposed of without prayers or ritual. After his mother’s funeral Benedict refuses further help. He moves with a few belongings to the farm’s barn and decides to spend the rest of his days with the horses and chickens. Beyond the barn, the landscape grows more rugged where the ranges begin – ‘folds and gullies and rock ridges laid out like half-uncovered skeletons’. There livestock can remain unseen, prey to marauding creatures like the lone fox that can be glimpsed slithering among the rocks and boulders. Within the confines of the farm there seems to be safety of sorts, despite the terrible crime committed there; beyond lies the danger of the unknown.
As The Last Garden begins to unfold we are left wondering about the nature and identity of this world. Everything seems to speak of rural Australia, most probably in the early years of the last century. Yet the people among whom Benedict spent his childhood and their way of life seem strange, at times like creatures out of European folk-tales. As far as we can tell they are German-speakers and they have given German names to their townships and settlements – a phenomenon already apparent in Fire Fire.
We come to learn that the inhabitants of these farms and hamlets are the descendants of people who had fled persecution and death to this ‘New Land’, where the founders sought to preserve their traditional way of life. They acknowledged that this is, in a sense, an upside-down world, yet they cling to the symbols of their old environment, for instance with the names they gave the months of the year. Benedict returned home to find his parents’ bodies in late spring, yet for him this month was called Nebelung, a derivative of the German noun for fog – November in our parlance. Each of the novel’s twelve chapter bears the name of one of these months: Christmond (Christ-moon, or Christ-month); Ostermond (the moon or month of Easter); Lenzing (Springtide) and so on. An ecstatic extract from one of this community’s holiest texts, the Book of Seasons, heads each of these chapters. Here, for example, is the description of Christmond, December as we would call it:
Christmond was ever the holiest month, filled with wonder and glory. Who among us do not weep to remember the wreaths and candles, the singing and the cradles in the snow?
Our Children do not! For them Christmond is still holy, and they burn the Tannen with their candles, they cleanse the house with its aromatic incense and their fresh ungrieving piety! Let them cleanse your soul of grief too, with the memories of Tannenbaum burning.
Just watch for fires, have a pail of water ready, for the grass is now drying and the sun cruel.
Hearken to me, my children: Christmond there and here is temporary! Amongst us will be born the Saviour, and among us will be a new Maria and a new Joseph. Will you know Him? Will you be with Him for the Time out of Time?
Gradually, a sense of this sealed society – almost completely cut off from the English-speaking world surrounding them – begins to emerge. Their founder laid down the principles – social as well as theological, for there is in truth no difference between the two – by which the community regulates its life. These principles incorporate some curious practices. Names for instance: these are not fixed in terms of familial or patrilineal descent but are fluid, changeable according to elaborate (and not entirely clear) patterns. So, Benedict’s father Matthias had not always been called Matthias Orion: he adopted his new surname, alluding to the constellation, after his return from the outside world. Their theology, too, is a variant of orthodox Christianity. They await the arrival of their Saviour who will establish, or lead them into, the Last Garden, Paradise, of which their carefully tended gardens and crops are merely a foretaste or symbols. Their isolated, modest way of life, their sober garb and their disdain for what we would call modernity seem intended to hasten the arrival of the Saviour, or at least to prepare the ground for his coming.
The community’s present leader, Pastor Helfgott comes to recognise the fraying of these dreams and hopes. That fraying proves the central preoccupation of The Last Garden, yet the novel’s focus is not to be found in its vividly depicted images of the lives of the people of Wahrheit and the nearby, somewhat hostile, communities, but in the figure of Benedict Orion. Much of the novel is taken up with the consequences of Benedict’s decision to abandon – eventually destroy – the solid, comfortable farmhouse where his father murdered his mother and then committed suicide, to live, instead, in the barn with the horses, gradually shedding the outward signs of a civilised way of life – cleanliness, neat clothing and so on – and becoming in some ways an animal too.
In these pages, by far the most numerous in the book, The Last Garden touches on the concerns of Dog Boy and also on some of the thematic strands of Fire Fire. When Benedict abandons human society, he (like Romochka in Dog Boy) develops an intense relationship, akin to love, with his animals. In Benedict’s case these are the horses in his family’s stable, creatures who have known him all their lives, unlike the wild dogs that adopt and nourish the abandoned child in Dog Boy. Two in particular, the mare Melba and the fiery young black stallion Fell, bond closely with the adolescent who lives in intimate physical contact with them. Melba is the more precious for Benedict, she nourishes him in more than a metaphoric sense, but the unruly Fell seems to have a greater hold on his imagination. As with Romochka in Dog Boy, Benedict shares the most intimate details of his animals’ lives. This is particularly notable in parallel incidents in the two novels where the females give birth amidst the dangers that always stalk them. The world of Dog Boy is darker and far more menacing than the world of this later novel. There human beings are, for the most part, dangerous, threatening and even murderous. The atmosphere of Moscow’s back streets and alleys is extremely claustrophobic. Here we are in wide open spaces, a lovingly observed setting of ridges and plains, grazing country that responds subtly to the change of seasons. Danger and threat come on the whole from the natural world, particularly from a lone fox that raids the chicken coop but seems also – in a metaphoric flourish unique perhaps to The Last Garden – to dwell within Benedict himself.
By comparison, the suspicion and misgivings towards Benedict expressed by most of Pastor Helfgott’s flock, especially his wife Hannelore, appear less sinister, until, perhaps the pastor comes to a startling conclusion about the orphaned youth: he might represent the longed-for Saviour. He recognizes the hostility such a suggestion would provoke:
His own wife would be against him. Already Hannelore thought the boy crazy and lost. How many of his flock would believe that the dream that had cost their parents everything was now come to pass? The dream that had pushed them to endure exile, famine, grief and utter rejection, loss of root and soil: who would believe that it was now upon them?
Eventually, the pastor is disappointed in the dream that Benedict might become the Saviour. All around him, he sees the ruins of what he and his flock had tried to build. He cries out in agony wondering whether the Lord had decreed ‘That I must destroy what my father made’. Benedict, too, sees decay and disintegration everywhere. But then, in a mysterious final chapter, where what we might call reality dissolves into illusions and perhaps fantasy, Benedict seem to find the way forward. He kills the fox – who might have been God – that has been tormenting him for the past year, he relives (in a way) his parents’ death and then tries to kill himself. He fails – or, if he doesn’t fail he finds another life, mounts Melba, who ‘won’t stargaze with him’ any more, and rides off towards Wahrheit, slinging the fox over the mare’s haunches and ‘feeling her footfalls reverberate in the world of the dead’.
In her more recent works, Hornung seems to have turned her back on her infatuation with the Arab world and its culture and religion. Yet echoes or traces of it remain in this new book, particularly where the carefully tended gardens of Pastor Helfgott’s flock seem to anticipate or call into being the perfect garden of bliss, Jannah, the new Garden of Eden in Islamic lore. The echoes are, nevertheless, faint here, as they are in Fire Fire and Dog Boy, while the preoccupation with isolation, the plight of the outsider, the outcast or those who refuse to conform to the ways of the world, remains. And there is the apparently recently-found fascination with the lives and rituals of the descendants of German exiles who try to preserve their ancestors’ quaint – at times troubling – traditions.
Whatever reasons underlie the change in concerns and setting in Hornung’s later work, the change itself signals the range of her considerable talent and skill. As Eva Sallis, she embarked on a literary career that explored a largely overlooked niche, so to speak, in Australian letters. Her success there is beyond doubt, but her later work reveals that the impact of her work did not depend on the choice of subject matter in books such as Hiam and The City of Sealions. She has demonstrated that the range of her talent extends well beyond the scope of those novels. It is a great pity that at present only Dog Boy and this new novel remain in print. A writer of Hornung’s stature deserves better.