Archipelago of Souls
by Gregory Day
Published August, 2015
Archipelago of Souls is Gregory Day’s fourth novel since his prize-winning debut, The Patron Saint of Eels, first appeared in 2005. But despite this significant output in fiction, various short-listings and awards, and Day’s regular contributions as a reviewer in the mainstream press, his writing seems to have been largely overlooked by contemporary Australian literary criticism. While the publication of each of his novels has been met with the usual flutter of reviews in the pages of major metropolitan newspapers and review magazines, they have not been taken up in wider literary-critical discussion. Perhaps this is not so surprising in view of the increased focus on transnationalism in Australian literary studies that practically coincides with Day’s emergence as a writer. This so-called ‘transnational turn’ with its imperative to map the relay of influence between Australian literature and overseas contexts, authors, readers, critics and so on involves a shift away from what is cast as an internalising kind of ‘cultural nationalism’ to an ‘outward-looking,’ international model (see, for example, Robert Dixon and Michael Jacklin’s discussions of this idea). It is easy to see Day’s fiction falling outside the notice of this critical trend. The Patron Saint of Eels (2005), Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds (2007) and The Grand Hotel (2010) are all set in the small rural township of Mangowak on Victoria’s south west coast. Although the town’s name is fictional, the drive to cultivate an authentic regional Australian sense of place and home—specific, mindful and local—is central. Day’s writing, in a good way, buys into a sort of literary equivalent of the slow food movement.
With Archipelago of Souls Day leaves the town of Mangowak behind, but his interests remain resolutely provincial. His protagonist, Wesley Cress, is a returned soldier—a damaged and disillusioned second world war hero who has fought with the resistance on Crete. He arrives in the small community on King Island as a maladjusted settler, and the book unfolds in alternating sequences between establishing his new life there—finding land, building a home, pursuing a halting romance with local woman Leonie Fermoy—and flashbacks to the traumatic wartime experiences that continually threaten to undo his capacity to integrate. The wider frame for these episodes is Cress’s first-person narrative from a much later perspective. By now married to Leonie, he is moved by the death of their long-time friend, local postmaster John Lascelles, to write the story of those earlier, troubled days. This narrative forms the novel itself, in other words, as we are reading it now. ‘I’ve gotta set the record straight,’ Cress tells Leonie as he begins writing his account. ‘The record’s never straight,’ she replies, leading him to muse tha
truth, by its nature, cannot be clean and straight. It is not the events or the memories of the events creating my condition but the conditions of the island creating them. The life we’ve lived since the war. The two islands I inhabit.
Multiple written versions of events inhabit the text and this essay will return to the question of writing later on. But first it is worth teasing out the preoccupation with pairing and mirroring that flows through the novel —not only in terms of bringing two disparate sets of memories or moments of time into dialogue with each other—as Cress reflects above—or coupling the two islands, though this comparison is the most obvious; but also in terms of character, sets of experience, the major with the minor, the human with the non-human, one manuscript with another and writing with ecology. The island mythos sets up this logic of pairing with the island itself already acting as a miniaturised double of the mainland. As a literary space it is naturally contained by the surrounding ocean—the narrative is defined by its inward focus. On the one hand Cress ‘escapes’ to the relative isolation of island living—embracing the minor and liminal and turning his back, in a sense, on the major and the national. On the other hand he is almost as trapped by King Island’s insularity and social introspection as he had been on wartime Crete after finding himself cut off from his battalion. Soon after his arrival he lashes out at some locals in the pub:
Before I knew what I was doing I’d suggested that islanders are habitually patronising to all outsiders and inveterate liars because of it…
There is some kernel of truth in even the worst of delusions…but this errant rant of mine also set in train a further and even more extended ear-bash on how islander eyes equate their horizon with the end of the world, and thus with death, and therefore prefer to stay at home in order to stay alive.
Although Crete offers a European counterpart to King Island that might be seen as adding an international perspective, it nonetheless functions as a kind of dreamscape—a place of nightmares—and its evocation doesn’t carry the same geographical and ecological specificity as the Australian setting. Crete is, in any case, overlaid with memories and projections of Cress’s childhood on a rural property outside the Victorian town of Colac that are tied to regional identity and the characteristics of the landscape. His past there increasingly haunts him as he tries to come to grips with the dislocation of being alone, guilty, grief-stricken and under siege in a foreign land. Towards the end of his wartime experiences, Cress reflects on the irreconcilability of a minor, vernacular and nostalgic kind of local Australian identity (defined by an ‘authentic’ experience of place and history) with the major, patriotic, national identity imposed on Australian young men:
I saw, for the first time I believe, how we’d in fact lived like animals on the lake after our mum had died. We had land, it was good rich land, and in that both ourselves and our sheep were privileged, but in no other way. The closeness we were allowed as kids to the old family stories and songs, to the bandicoot and the bluetongue, was countered now by the way our lives were presented back to us. The identities we had foisted on us in the aftermath of our mother’s death. Shrill identities. ‘Upstanding. Hardworking. Australian.’ As opposed to ‘Amoral. Deep Feeling. Stateless.’
Cress’s name itself perhaps gestures to a valorisation of the minor character over the national type—pitting a small green shoot against the tall, vigorous stem of ‘Tommy Cornstalk,’ the name for the typical Australian soldier that had filtered through the first and second world wars from the Boer War. (Earlier in the nineteenth century, too, ‘cornstalk’ was applied to any native-born colonial Australian.) Elsewhere—in one of Day’s most striking phrases—a soldier is described as having a ‘Riverina face’, capturing precisely this sense of a minor, regional type subsumed and displaced by the nationalistic narrative of war. At other moments, however, this critique falls away and national clichés are casually embraced: ‘I scoffed loudly, then, in full larrikin volume’; and,
As as rule, the Australian go is to take things as they come, with the underlying presumption, born from the first days of the convicts, that mankind’s basically a bastard. Once you accept that, everyone can get on with things and feel a sense of common justice in most predicaments. On any farm and by any river in Australia you’ll find men and women whose hard slog and dry humour is driven by such cynical logic…
This willingness to embrace competing or even contradictory positions is also played out in Cress’s relationship to soldier settlement on King Island, as other characters call upon him to justify his resistance to taking up government-allocated land. Buying his own property, he sees himself as ‘beating the soldier settlement scheme. I felt proven in my selfimage as a man for whom the scales had fallen from the eyes’. By refusing government assistance, in other words, he wants to reject the same system that has taken him to war and co-opted his identity—to reject the sovereignty of the state over his personhood. Elsewhere he notes ‘I’m not a soldier settler … I’m far from settled,’ pointing to his personal anomie and possibly to larger questions of land settlement in a colonial nation. Neighbour Brian Robinson and Leonie’s uncle True each criticise his position: one for his inability to recognise that the soldier settler scheme offers hard work instead of charity (the opportunity to become an Aussie battler), and the other for his refusal to occupy that familiar position/character type (the soldier settler), which keeps him as a stranger and possibly a threat (‘and he somehow seems to lurk all the more’).
Negotiations around place and identity on King Island are also tied up in the novel’s investment in species and ecology. If Cress’s performance of the reluctant hero or post-traumatic war veteran rehearses yet another familiar logic of character, his connection with the non-human is the point at which he becomes much more compelling. His refusal to join the soldier settlement scheme intersects with this ecological impetus. In a recent essay on literary representations of island culture, C. A. Cranston articulates a confluence between military service and the participation in soldier settler agricultural projects. ‘Where, in 1802, [the French naturalist] Francois Péron had described almost impenetrable forests on King Island,’ she writes,
the clearing and harrowing—or ecocide—of land was accomplished with military precision… these farmers were bona fide military, and [here] the word Digger reinvents itself.
Cress, by contrast, does not cultivate his land and later participates in Leonie’s ‘rewilding’ project to reinstate and preserve local native vegetation which is further motivated by ‘the gashes being dozed through the centre of the island for the SS houses’. The sale of Cress’s family farmland in Colac is what funds and enables this project, perhaps allowing the novel to sidestep difficult questions of class, finance, and ways of sustaining rural livelihoods.
In addition to its structural investment in the ecological, Archipelago of Souls repeatedly turns to the natural world to express moral dilemmas and human emotions and predicaments. Soon after arriving on King Island, Cress relates his vulnerability:
even out here I wondered where I would hide, with no one left and nothing still or solid to hold onto. A surge of giant bull-kelp over the side expressed it too. Humbled I felt. Again. Unlike Crete, this island is a raw and level place, and I, like the paperbark trees, felt I’d be sticking out like nobody’s business.
The final phrase in this passage is interesting—grammatically emphasising an affinity between both Cress and the paperbarks’ feeling of sticking out over the fact of it. Everywhere in the novel these kinds of reciprocal sympathies are traced: bird life, plants, climactic forces, animals, landforms and oceans double and reflect – and approach being doubled and reflected by – human experience. At its most intense, this process becomes a form of animal witnessing that recalls Jacques Derrida’s often-cited lines from The Animal That Therefore I Am: ‘The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking, perhaps, begins there.’ If there is something elusive in this statement, it only points more evocatively to the unknowability of something (some form of ‘selfhood’) in the non-human other that simultaneously registers (or reawakens) the possibility of otherness within the self.
In Archipelago of Souls, Cress repeatedly finds himself reflected in the watchful eye of ruminating animals: ‘a stray Jersey cow’, he notes at one point, seems ‘somehow… perceptive of my state of mind’; on Crete a pair of goats shelter with him in an old mill during an air raid and he is ‘unnerved by their stillness as they stood motionless… staring straight at me.’ Meanwhile, ‘Simmo’ a donkey he names for the legendary first world war hero, John Simpson, has a ‘stillness and a stare [that] were unnerving. As if all we had between us was a truth as bare as the mountain.’ Such instances often catalyse intense crises of guilt or horror for Cress as he experiences his own impulses and actions laid bare. At other times, unfortunately, this device of pairing the human with the non-human falls victim to the novel’s wider tendency to vulgarise and sentimentalise its own themes. Asked about his religion by a solitary monk in a Cretan monastery, for example, he later recalls:
All that came to my mind in that instant was sheep. Poor dumb sheep. The sheep I saw through my bedroom window every morning as a child… Speechless sheep, thoughtless even, on the slopes of our paddocks. The lambs of god. The soldiers of war.
Cress is also paired with the character of Leonie, whose earthy and enigmatic qualities reinforce her synecdochal relationship to the island itself—she is ‘a child of the island, [born] out of the barrel of a filthy storm’. Revealing the story of her past to Cress, her uncle True likens her roaming, wildness and invariable return to her violent father to the force of the ocean crashing on the island shore: they were ‘powers we learnt how to live with’. Through her feral history, the burs and animal hair woven into her clothing and her devotion to preserving and protecting local species, she is figured organically and associated with the non-human. In one mixed metaphor, for example, her ‘laugh was unfettered, in its openness as full and replete as the wet brown stare of the Jersey cow.’ Her suffering, her silence and capacity for mute witnessing unleashes Cress’s own trauma in a way reminiscent of the gazing animals cited above. ‘It was as if her own darkness had brought mine to light,’ he says,
She was still in her listening, as if she could have sat there for a thousand years, till I’d told the whole of it, till even her [bruised] eye and the anguish behind it healed.
Leonie and True mirror another niece and uncle pairing on Crete: Adrasteia and Tassos. Both nieces facilitate Cress’s emotional release in ways that run the risk of reproducing wartime stereotypes of a woman’s duty of self-sacrifice—Adrasteia by offering sexual succour and Leonie through a self-effacing willingness to bear witness. Leonie’s fraught childhood history befriending traumatised first world war veterans only reinforces the novel’s strange gender politics, as does the fact that Cress’s recuperation is partly achieved through his marriage to Leonie, a woman who has suffered an act of sadistic violence identical to one Cress had inflicted upon another weaker, and distinctly feminised soldier (‘he stroked my arm with the tenderness of a girl’) in a moment of vengeance—so that, through her acceptance of him, both Cress and her father are symbolically ‘forgiven’ for their past brutality.
Leonie and Adrasteia are the only notable female characters in Archipelago of Souls and all of the main characters’ mothers are dead —‘You see,’ the narrator makes plain, ‘We were all motherless, all three of us, right through those growing days of our friendship’. This might suggest a critique of Empire, of Britain as a bad mother who abandons her colonial forces (‘if the Great War was any guide, dominion troops were sometimes considered more expendable than others’). More pressingly, however, the novel uses this trope to reiterate its characters’ connection:
Lascelles and Leonie and I were just different facets of the same refracting shard. It was only I that was the returned soldier, only I that could command the official sympathy and the national applause, but we were all in the same situation. We were islands of the same archipelago, adrift in a sea of unknowing.
The writing here seems to strive after a potency of affect that can sometimes produce the opposite—moreover this is the second time the novel invokes its own title, betraying an anxiety to underscore poignancy and significance where it could be more subtly left alone.
The ‘refracting shard’ (which depicts a dolphin carrying a man on its back, carrying a child on his back) is another example of the novel’s tendency to overdo things—thematically as well as poetically. This archaeological fragment left behind by British Intelligence officer John Pendlebury becomes over-determined by the insistence with which it is invested with pseudo-religious, historical, mystical, and personal significance. In a vision brought on by grief over his missing brother Vern (another character pairing; a figure that haunts the book) Cress sees:
a child being flung. His hands were outstretched in desperation, his face alarmed and forsaken, as he fell helplessly off the man and the dolphin, slewn awkwardly through the air.
The child was me.
This revelatory mode punctuates the novel; it wants to reach into Cress’s interiority—to surrender up his emotions—in ways that threaten to undercut another central theme of writing as a treatment for repressed trauma. Cress seems continually to liberate reserves of emotion—through sex, through violence, through dreams and in confessional dialogue with other characters—even before he releases the ‘beast’ within him through writing. Further, the direct invocation of Freud through the character of Lascelles has little complexity and the idea of the ‘writing cure’ is laboured.
Far more successful is the continuing theme of a correspondence between writing and ecology—Cress’s early drafts are written in cuttlefish ink harvested by Leonie, he burns his first pages and they become ‘the first layer in a type of composting.’ ‘These words I write now,’ he notes, in a nominative coupling of manuscript with self, ‘are the new green shoots.’ Leonie, too, is drawn into this equation; her restoration of native vegetation becomes ‘her own version of this very text, the tiny plants the grammatical units in her own living statement…’ Overall, Cress’s narrative voice is rather inconsistent in terms of fluency and eloquence. One moment everything is ‘bloke’ and ‘s’pose’ and ‘dunno’ and the next there are ‘clouds…seeking the east, and airy florets of moisture anointed them as they passed, the solid ground they were on as brief a reprieve as life itself from the sea of a deeper time.’ This perhaps reflects an inherent difficulty in choosing a first person narrator with limited education and idiomatic leanings.
At other moments, nevertheless, this sense of language or vocabulary exceeding the character’s brief works brilliantly—as when Cress sees Leonie at the local races: ‘This was her demesne, her people, her race meet on a rock in the ocean.’ Here a lordly or manorial way of occupying land, instead of feudal ownership, refers to a subject’s ecological sensitivies and feelings of custodianship. The impact of this genteel and somewhat archaic term, through its contrast with the otherwise simple statement and parochial context, offers a compelling gesture toward a different relationship to place—a theme that is so crucial to Day’s writing, and which provides the key to the possibility of its wider significance.
C A Cranston, ‘Islands,’ in The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and Their Writers, ed. C A Cranston and Robert Zeller, Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 2007.
Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry, 28.2 (Winter 2002).
Robert Dixon, ‘Australian Literature—International Contexts, ’ Southerly, 67.1/2, 2007.
Michael Jacklin, ‘The Transnational Turn in Australian Literary Studies’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature; Australian Literature in a Global World, 2009.