by Martin Edmond
Published February 2019
To Rae Desmond Jones
Isinglass is a prose narrative written around a beautiful conceit. A meditation on the interdependence of history and fiction, the work is set in the destruction of the Ur-city and of four other cities. All five are called Isinglass, successively of the Waters, Dust, Fire, Sky and the Last. Waves of migration are an essential part of this ficto-prehistory of creation and destruction.
The narrative begins with a man, ‘Asian, in his thirties, perhaps’, found washed up unconscious and with a head injury on the ‘pale ochre sand’ of an Australian beach. Further up, sand dunes rise like ‘the sliding pyramids of a forgotten city’. This is the setting in Section I, ‘Dark Point’, a remote dreaming site of the Worimi people on a promontory jutting somewhere in the Tasman Sea.
Section II, ‘Thursday’, is where the narrative names that man. Fictional and non-fictional elements combine to detail his story in the here and now of Operation Sovereign Borders. If the fiction were not grounded in reality, it would be incomprehensible. What is uncommon in Isinglass is the degree to which both the fictional and non-fictional elements tend to keep their detailed form.
The reunion of the ageing Sydney writer narrating the story and a former lover from student days in Auckland is before us. The two had studied psychology at university there in the 70s and, now, she, C, wearing hearing aids, is in Sydney on some refugee business. Rekindled in the coffee shop at Sydney’s Mitchell Library is what remains when lovers part, something described faithfully in Isinglass, one feels, as ‘whispering ghosts’. Thursday is the child of the meeting.
Seemingly mute, as well as deaf, Border Force has detained Thursday in Berrimah House, an immigrant detention centre near Darwin. Who is he? Where does he come from? Since few individuals get washed up alive on a beach like him, Border Force seeks to find out whether he is who and what he appears to be.
Lee is the link between C, the narrator and Thursday. Formerly an idealistic Australian colleague of C and the narrator, Lee is now a Border Force psychiatrist, who has been given Thursday’s case. Motivated as much by his formerly unrequited passion for C as by her professional expertise, Lee has recruited her to help with the investigation. Interested in Thursday and sceptical of the official suspicion hanging over him, C has plans for her old lover to write a history of Australian detention centres, which he spurns. Such is the novelistic opening of the prose narrative he chooses to write instead.
This narrative is underwritten by researched non-fiction passages. We have a quick history of Serco, the service company that, from 2009, managed Australian migrant detention centres. A detour into art history connects ancient Egypt and Australia and relates to a mural Thursday paints at Berrimah House. The centrality of hearing and voice in storytelling yields fine writing on the physiology of the ear and on the transmission of sound. The passages recounting the biography of Julian Jaynes and his work on consciousness are constitutive of the fundamental point in Isinglass that all storytelling is about ‘remembering’.
The point is that, what whatever else Isinglass is about, it is written as a demonstration of the elements of storytelling itself. Section III, ‘Isinglass’, is the central ficto-critical element, the conceit that imagines in the rise and fall of the five cities and in the associated stories of migrations the ancient antecedents of Thursday’s appearance on the beach near the Worimi dreaming site. Section IV, ‘Darwin’, brings the dreaming down into a sadly compromised present. Section V, ‘Crescent’, sets Thursday’s deep past in eternity.
Unified by the author’s fine writing and lively, non-judgemental voice, we have a narrative of transience that poses an elemental challenge to the demarcations of fiction and non-fiction and, in that way, to the politics supporting the inhumanity of the Australian migrant detention system today.
In 2015, my late friend, the poet Rae Desmond Jones referred me to Martin Edmond’s book Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011). It was not until two years later while on a cruise to New Zealand, far south in the Tasman Sea, that I began reading it, the night before the cruise ship circled a glacial gash in the southern face of the country’s South Island, Milford Sound.
In 1984, on the occasion of a major exhibition of Colin McCahon’s work in Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, the painter went missing from the nearby Botanical Gardens. Dark Night thus provides a definition of Korsakoff’s syndrome: ‘a degenerative condition that is the result of a vitamin B (thiamine) deficiency and frequently afflicts long-term alcoholics’ – causing a certain form of amnesia. McCahon was found a few days later over five kilometres away by a routine police sweep in Sydney’s Centennial Park, where he reportedly ‘seemed OK, but was a bit vague’. Still, for some time in hospital, neither he, nor anyone else, knew who he was.
We ploughed on from Milford Sound through the heavy southern seas. By this stage, Dark Night was crossing the bridges and reaching the far horizons in McCahon’s art, imaginatively recreating his lost wanderings, from the Botanical Gardens through Darlinghurst to Centennial Park. ‘All McCahon’s works are bridges of one sort or another,’ the book says, ‘just as they are also gates and journeys.’
Not long after my return to Sydney from New Zealand, Rae Jones passed away. A week later, I met someone at Rae’s wake who seemed to me to have come from far away. That person turned out to be Edmond himself. Knowing him, it is now incumbent on me to declare a possible conflict of interests in writing about Isinglass. Let me also declare, however, an argument that a form of relatedness is at stake, which is as constitutive of this essay, as it is of Edmond’s work.
Self is always part of a kind of relatedness that, in its mature form, Paul Fitzgerald, following Russell Meares, calls ‘analogical relatedness’. Both writers are referring to the state of one’s consciousness of a structure or order arising from the resemblance between two objects, scenes or stories, a resemblance that creates recognition. Fitzgerald calls it a ‘fit’, evoking positive feelings he believes are further generative of self. Either way, if stories arise from such self-conscious recognition, as we will see in more detail they do, there is no reason why book reviews should not too. The fact that my experience had drawn me gradually into Edmond’s work may have been accidental. But especially if Fitzgerald is right that recognition can be generative of self, scientists may find a foundation for my sense that the reverse was true.
Isinglass, derived from the Dutch word huysenblas, meaning sturgeon’s bladder, is the English term for the translucent gelatine used in the making of jellies and glue. It is no great surprise, then, that Isinglass is about how we relate to the world in the impermanence of our experience of it and also, in our stories about that experience. One might even suggest that Edmond’s writing generally is about the limits of the self-awareness into which the countries, people, books, theatre and art of the world they canvass reflexively draw him. ‘From a very young age,’ his narrator writes in Isinglass,
I have imagined the archaic folded away within my unfolding consciousness and have always wondered why I do not have better access to it. Why we do not. There is no answer except that which may arise in the quest to find out
His 2004 book Chronicle of the Unsung is a ‘living obituary, recording life from the point of view of death’. This autobiography begins on a summer evening in Amsterdam and ends at a secret lake near Ohakune where Edmond spent much of his childhood in New Zealand. The end is in the beginning and the beginning in the end: the work travels restlessly through the pain of art, penury, a crumbling marriage in Sydney and the death of a sister, who is the ‘unsung’ of the title. We gather from the accuracy and detachment of the writing – and its graceful voice – that, even as the experience is precarious, it does not seem random. The book cover features some words wisping in lines like smoke from the chimney-like structure standing on a stepped-back foundation that could be an unfinished pyramid lost darkly in space:
whirling spheres forming worlds
triangulate gases igniting the sun
a tide of crescents pulled by the moon
the labyrinth of blood
Edmond’s following book Luca Antra: Passages in Search of Australia (2006) presents another concatenation of world, travel, book, art, astral and erotic events touching the archaic and arcane. The author’s biographical blurb in Isinglass also describes Luca Antara as the ‘prequel’ to that prose narrative. The first of the four Sections in the ‘prequel’ is called ‘Castaway’.
Speaking of analogical relatedness, there is a clear point in Section II of Isinglass, where the Sydney writer-narrator decides to write about Thursday. It is also where, in the narrator’s determination not to write a staid history of Australian detention centres, Thursday’s story makes its own move into ‘the self-indulgent wandering tracks’ the narrator says he likes to follow in his writing.
The narrator asks C why the detention authorities did not call Thursday Friday. ‘Presumably because his Crusoe was missing,’ she replies. ‘Or yet to be found.’ At that moment, he realises he might have a story, which has him: ‘I felt, unaccountably, in that moment’, the narrator thinks to himself, ‘as if I was, or might become, his Crusoe’. The allusion to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) centres the solitary survivor of a shipwreck on a deserted Pacific island. Shocked by the invasion of his solitude, Crusoe is gripped by paranoia in the famous passage wherein he spies a footprint on the beach. Crusoe adjusts to the intrusion and bonds with his intruder, naming him Friday, after the day he saw him. In the allusion to that adjustment, we have the analogical ‘fit’ for the self-awareness that constitutes Isinglass.
Thursday’s story or, more precisely, its incommunicability as a result of his unconsciousness, is constitutive of Isinglass. So, equally, is the author’s fascination with the archaic in his own consciousness, because gradual realisation of that dimension becomes the mindfulness of the story of what he imagines Thursday can’t communicate.
Because memory is inseparable from the struggle to find ‘truth’, a touchstone for Isinglass is The Good Story (2015), the dialogue between Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee about psychotherapy and the art of storytelling. Therein, Coetzee represents the problem of memory: ‘the settler societies of today,’ he writes, ‘ought to be riven with self-doubt but are not.’ They are uninterested in reconciling their past and present selves; their convict-migrant-cum-genocidal pasts and present selves, we might specify. ‘I write not in a cool, scientific spirit but under the sway of feeling’, Coetzee goes on to say, in the aftermath of the Australian government’s ‘draconian’ legislation of 2012-2013 to detain unauthorised asylum seekers indefinitely on ‘some hellhole of an island’.
Certainly, in Isinglass the narrator and C discuss the cruel and outrageous Border Force treatment of Thursday. Unlike Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy (2013-2020), in which B.D. McClay notes that ‘everyone … is a refugee, seemingly from history’, Edmond’s work drives into history; there is an early reference in ‘Dark Point’ to ‘The Lords of Fear’ in Mayan astronomy and, conversely, to the resonances between Mayan and Western astronomies, wherein we are guided to our goals by lodestars, not least in the Milky Way. We learn that ‘dreams’ are as integral to the refugee story as ‘fears’. At the bottom of the same page, there is a nice idea of how our species once left the Rift Valley ‘in order to see what they could find on the rest of the planet.’
C says Lee tells her that he doesn’t think Thursday is wordless or catatonic. She rather thinks Thursday might be a ‘bicameral’, a reference to Julian Jaynes’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). The narrator quotes the following passage from Jaynes:
subjective conscious mind is an analogue of what is called the real world. It is built up with a lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogues of behaviour in the physical world … like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or a repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.
Before such analogical consciousness, Jaynes understood ‘bicameral man’ to be ‘noble automatons who know not what they do.’ For those automatons – ancient Aztec, Inca, Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek and so on – there was no inner life, no self, no ‘subjective conscious mind’. According to Jaynes: ‘human nature was split in two, an executive part god, and a follower part called man’; ‘the bicameral mind’ is modelled on ‘the double brain’, in which the ‘hemispheric differences in cognitive function echo the differences in god and man.’ The gods were auditory hallucinations that bicameral man took as commands. In Isinglass, the narrator emphasises that, as in Jaynes’ commentary on The Iliad, those hallucinations were ‘as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by schizophrenic patients today.’
With Edmond’s interest in the origins of storytelling, Jaynes’ pivotal point for Isinglass is the emergence of ‘subjective conscious mind’ in the breakdown of the bicameral one – partly as a result of natural climate and geo-physical changes of immense power and proportions in ancient times. Rather than the conditioned responses of behaviourism, with its system of punishments and rewards, the narrator thinks that subjective or analogical awareness involved decisively what Jaynes described as ‘the difference between what others see of us and our sense of our inner selves.’ According to the narrator in Isinglass, this is the mystery, ‘which is irreducible to terms not its own (the analogue I, the metaphor me, the silent you)’. As anticipated, these terms are the aspects or instruments of self, which the narrator is saying, and I do not demur, constitute stories that ‘we sometimes call history and sometimes fiction, which might both be rendered otherwise simply as recognition. Or memory’ (my emphasis).
Walter Benjamin had already understood that ‘memory creates the chain of tradition’. ‘Memory starts the web which all stories together form in the end,’ he wrote. Leaving aside the case of modern novels, which explicitly reach The End, Finis, there is ‘no story’, for which Benjamin reasoned, ‘the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate.’ What of Edmond’s ‘sometimes’ history and fiction? To interlace genres as Edmond does in Isinglass is not necessarily to mistake or confuse them, as some might think.
The assumption that the distinction between history and fiction changes ‘sometimes’ is elementary. It is the bread and butter of modern historians to reclassify as fiction events their predecessors once believed were true. History is grounded in epistemological uncertainty, because an historian cannot be sure he or she is aware of all the evidence. The teller of all stories, about which we may ask how they continued, is in a related position. Modern novelists are again placed separately, because they dictate what happens. Still, history and fiction, including novels, arise from memory, in some moral-political as well as analogical self-awareness of the real world, reality, the ‘truth’.
C’s fictional journey to Darwin to see Thursday in situ at Berrimah House fits within the frame of such shifting histories. Therein, in fact, something important happens to him: he becomes at once more invariable and overarching than a fully-fledged fictional or historical character. He becomes a McCahon-like bridge between, in this case, official illusion and historical reality.
C watches Thursday over four days as he paints on a wall of the detention donga. The mural featured a green hill and blue sky. In the foreground, built on an estuary supporting white birds, ibis, lily pads and black boats, she imagined a surrealist ‘Max Ernst or Paul Klee city, a city of the mind or antiquity. A dream city.’ Thursday’s fellow detainees also admired the emerging gated city, a ‘pile of flat-roofed ochre buildings scaffolding upwards like a ziggaurat towards a high red palace floating resplendent just below the summit of the hill.’ Hieroglyphic devices appeared on some of the walls. As if suspended in perpetual motion, the figures peopling the beautiful mural were:
Tall red strangely elongated figures which were out of scale too big for the place in which they lived; they were elaborately coiffed, or else wore elaborately high headdresses, extravagant girdles around their waists, and long tassels fell from their armpits and from their girdles almost to the ground … these elegant long-limbed men and women were as if stilled in the midst of dancing; many were just stick figures …
‘Bradshaw figures’, mutters the narrator, not wanting to interrupt C’s account of her trip to see Thursday. The reference is to the pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw, who, in 1891, discovered galleries of such figures in the ancient, 12,000-year-old rock art of the north-west Kimberly region of Western Australia. He also linked those galleries aesthetically with the art of ancient Egypt, a link Edmond had followed up in his book, Fenua Imi: The Pacific in History and Imaginary (2002).
In this work, Edmond distils in oceanic awe and wonder some images that might be described as ‘Egyptian-Pacific’. The Preface mentions prints of some of Gaugin’s Pacific island paintings that hung in his New Zealand childhood home. In one of those, five women in long gowns sit on a bench and a couple of boys carry two large fish on a pole. ‘It is like an Egyptian frieze’, he writes. Another tableau depicts a boat with ‘a high prow for cresting waves’, ‘long beaked birds’ and ‘spectacularly kinetic and elegant’ Bradshaw figures detailed in elaborate terms, close to those quoted above with Egyptian associations from Isinglass. For Edmond, as for McCahon, it may be out of as well as against a sense Anglo-islanders have in New Zealand of vast Pacific isolation that their art erects world-bridging structures.
Built on the story of migrations, Isinglass is, in any case, such a structure. When Thursday finished painting the painted city, that is what he named it: ‘Isinglass.’ That single, mysterious word was all he would say. Then, suddenly, comes the most shocking moment in the book: before C could get a photo of the finished mural, Thursday rapidly painted over it. He submerged the city in a tsunami of ascending blue – not in anger, C observes, but ‘to show what happened.’ The cataclysm. The biblical account of the deluge may occur. Or, the Indic stories of creation that describe the churning of the seas.
The narrator muses romantically that, before Isinglass was submerged by the sea it was, perhaps, the ‘Ur-city, the place before all other places, where humans came together for the first time to make of themselves more than the sum of their parts.’ He also mentions the ancient arc of ‘Ishango’, the coast stretching east from Africa through India to Southeast Asia and the shores of Western Australia. This route drew the earliest emigrants east, as they fanned out of the rift valley and, one can perhaps imagine, attracted the survivors of the African Ur-city.
To Operation Sovereign Borders the mural was a breach of security. It had excited other inmates, which alarmed the authorities. The guards removed Thursday from the detainment donga. C and Lee were ordered to leave the facility. (Lee had breached security by showing his report on Thursday to C, who did the human thing and, insecurely, sent it on to the narrator).
We come to the book’s central conceit: Section III, ‘Isinglass’, is the most clearly fictional Section in the book. As if oriented by the stars, the conceit is organised around the narrator’s earlier suggestion that Thursday was both a sailor washed overboard from a passing freighter and a bicameral who has brought a survivor’s memory of the Ur-city into the here and now. To tell Section III, a new narrator is appointed, whose name is Anabi.
Anabi is a ‘Rememberer’ in the ‘House of Stories’, one of the 200 survivors of the seventeen families that were the original ‘remnant’ of the time when ‘the disaster came upon us.’ His voice is inclusive, ‘We came from the Gate of the Crossing’. The trajectory, we presume, is across the great arc of Ishango, where Anabi remembers the rise and fall of the five cities of Isinglass.
In so far as each city becomes established and has a history, Section III reads something like the bas-reliefs dating from the late eleventh century on the outer terrace of the Bayon temple-mountain at Angkor Thom. The stories chiselled on that sandstone gallery are of divinities and gods paying homage to the god-king at the cosmic centre of the city. They are of fish and boats and elephants and wars and hunting in the forest and agriculture and settled city life. In this stone vision of history, fixed sometimes in parallel rows like comic strips on the gallery wall, the scenes shift suddenly, yet remain set in their interminable parades around the centre of the city, the temple-mountain. In Edmond’s textual vision, the story rides the with less enduring assurance the waves of natural disasters, hunger, tyranny, horror and conflict that destroy again and again the re-risen city. It also rides the waves of the open sea, carrying the tattooed people who ‘lived entirely on their boats as they sailed endlessly from island to island’ – directed, lest we forget, by a ‘bowl of stars’, not envisioned in the building of the Bayon.
It was of course in search of food, water, security, variety and a better life that people moved around. And with the trembling cities and literary genres set in isinglass, an intimate link between them becomes clear. Those who moved had no settled urban hieroglyphic archive. They could only record their movements in fictional remembrance – and miscegenation.
Though ‘starving’, Anabi remembers that the remnant remained long on the ‘original shore’. Like refugees today, it was caught ‘between two fears’; fear of persecution and extinction on the one hand and fear of drowning and of the grey sharks that ‘slid like ghosts’ through the water and the unknown on the other. Eventually, pushed by ‘fear’ of extinction and pulled by ‘future dreams’ of a place of ‘abundance and felicity’ where ‘our children would grow fat’, the remnant took to its boats. Experiencing more terror and losses and endless transformations – people turned into fish and trees and stones and back again – the survivors eventually find new places to settle.
Stories glorify the living and the dead. But, because stories have their source in memory, they do something more: represent continuity in change, which is as good a definition of history as any. Are we in dream yoga? Is the story the only continuity? Is the world illusion? There is reality. I am. The ‘House of Stories’ stands in our self-conscious recognition that stories survive death.
Like Thursday, into whose consciousness of Isinglass Edmond’s marvellous conceit delivers Anabi at the end of it, Anabi is beyond his own suffering. He is an archetype, bridging history and fiction. He bobs to the surface and comes to a ‘conflicted’ shore. Although not exactly at a Worimi dreaming site jutting into the Tasman, Anabi found some black people, who gave him another woman. Like Thursday, this did not help him to forget who he was. Still, he went with her people to the ‘galleries’ in the ‘red cliffs’ country, where they painted with the ‘pigments of the earth itself’. This was ‘to show themselves’. And this was ‘as they danced, or hunted, or feasted, or made love, or performed the rituals’ as they always had so that, unabated and continuously, they always would.
‘In time’, Anabi learns to paint on ‘the walls of the ancient galleries’:
Not a log of the life I led in that land, but images of the time before, when I lived in the city of Isinglass, the last city, which lies now beneath the waves and exists, if it exists at all, only in memory.
With this word, Section III ends in the scaffolding of both Isinglass the Ur-city and Isinglass the book.
The book ends with two short Sections that skilfully complete its scaffolding and flashbacks to the earlier ones. Years after the narrator last saw C and read Thursday’s story, Operation Sovereign Borders still gets to him; ‘its manifest absurdities, its hypocrisies and its hidden atrocities’ remain insufferable.
Section IV, ‘Darwin’, takes the narrator to the top end to see Lee and find out what happened to Thursday. ‘Heavy shit,’ says Lee, in an arid masculine encounter over beer and dinner with three bottles of wine. Long since dismissed from Border Force for his unintended breach of security, Lee had spent time living unemployed in a one-bedroom flat ‘down’ in Fannie Bay. Now, at dinner, still constrained by an official confidentiality undertaking, he outlines ‘a spy story’, anyway. ‘That’s absurd,’ says the narrator. ‘Absurdity is the stock and trade of those people. It’s Kafka, mate,’ explains Lee. They thought, ‘he was an agent of a foreign power … sent here to cause disruption, panic and fear’ – for ‘Indonesia’, it seems. (Lee had gotten some ‘Bahasa’ out of the visitant-refugee, before he was relieved of the case.) So, ‘they deported him’. Like ‘a messenger from the beyond,’ they sent him ‘back into whatever dark continuum he came from.’
After dinner, the narrator retires to his motel to watch a video on the Bradshaw figures. He remembers that Aboriginal people called them Kujon or Gwion Gwion, after the long-beaked birds, which are said to have created them with their own blood on their bills. Or, was it the blood of our own hearts, which is shed for ‘our equivocal, fleeting presence in this place that is no place, this Isinglass’?
The final section of the book dissolves the shabby official fiction of Thursday, in the archaic narrative of him. The shadowy, self-serving fictions of Operations like Sovereign Borders cannot change the historical reality that people move around. The book ends with Thursday, now an old man, washed up on another shore, a beach on one of the islands in Eastern Indonesia. He lives in a shack on the edge of a village, a ‘Rememberer’ in the ‘House of Stories’. His past is the future; only children come to listen to his stories. These were ‘elemental’. ‘He told them as if there were no other truth.’ At night, the ‘stars crackled and burned’ into eternity over the empty beach. ‘In the morning, the children came again.’
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nicolai Leskov’, 1936, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1969.
Martin Edmond, Fenua Imi: The Pacific in History and Imaginary, A Bumper Book, Wellington, 2002.
—, Chronicle of the Unsung, Auckland University Press, 2004.
—, Luca Antara: Passages in Search of Australia, East Street Publications, South Australia, 2006.
—, Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, Auckland University Press, 2011.
Paul Fitzgerald, ‘The Heart of Psychotherapy’, unpublished paper, 2018.
Julian Jaynes, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976, Mariner Books, 2000.
Arabella Kurtz and John Maxwell Coetzee, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, Penguin, 2016.
B.D. McClay, ‘What would J.M. Coetzee’s Jesus do?’ On faith, memory and trying to understand a trilogy’, The New Yorker, 22 July 2020.
Russell Meares, The Poet’s Voice in the Making of the Mind, Routledge, 2016.