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It’s easy being with Greene

THE MAN WITHIN MY HEADBy Pico IyerBloomsbury, $35
Nanjing Night Net

THERE has been a recent growth in books about writers that are neither criticism nor biography but, rather, use both to deal with the writer and their works as some kind of shadow self, or even role model. There's Janet Malcolm reading Chekhov and Robert Dessaix's books about Turgenev and Gide. Geoff Dyer turned the form into comedy with Out of Sheer Rage, a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence; and in equally downbeat mode, there is Malcolm Knox's On Obsession, about how reading Proust may not necessarily do your life much good at all.

These are books about the relationship between readers and writers, and what reading can do to a person. They are often books that challenge received ideas about form as they also ignore the demand that criticism - writing about writing - try to reduce the merely subjective or personal.

Having a man inside your head is about as personal as it gets - it's how one might describe a lover - and the man in Pico Iyer's head is Graham Greene. Iyer starts out by wondering why he should have lit on someone as unheroic, as interested in compromised and damaged humanity as Greene: why choose as an ideal self someone as distrustful of ideals as Greene?

As the book proceeds though, the portrait he paints of Greene makes it more obvious that for Iyer, this is exactly where Greene's attraction lies. The interest in doubleness and divided characters, the ambiguity, the self-doubt and self-criticism: it's Greene's lack of moralising that attracts Iyer.

It's also Iyer's own background that sharpens his appreciation of Greene, the novelist who spent his career writing about displaced persons. Iyer's parents were Indian and he spent his childhood between England, where he went to public school, and California, where his father was an admired college teacher. His girlfriend is Japanese, which makes him rather defensive about the criticisms levelled at Greene for the depiction of Phuong in The Quiet American.

Iyer, of course, has made a living as a journalist and travel writer, and the reflections on Greene here come interspersed with his own travels, from Bolivia and Mexico to Saigon, places where Greene has preceded him or where he finds people like the characters from Greene's books: an Indian shopkeeper in the middle of nowhere in Mexico; a Vietnamese girl in an internet cafe writing to her Western lover.

The memoir and travel sections curiously come punctuated by disaster: there are two car accidents - one in Ethiopia and one in Bolivia - and Iyer returns to the time when his parents' house was destroyed by bushfires. Iyer finds a way to approach Greene's Catholicism through his own friendship with Louis, from his old school, who lives a life of Christian compassion, one considerably more cheerful-seeming than Greene's own rather dark faith.

''I couldn't quite explain to Hiroko, as I finished this book, which man within my head I was addressing.''

The other figure inhabiting the book is Iyer's father, R.J. Iyer, the distinguished scholar of Plato. Born in a poor family, he was a brilliant young man, who, by 18, was teaching at the University of Bombay and later benefiting from the colonial system of scholarships that sought either to improve the lot of the colonised or remake them in their colonisers' image, depending on how you look at it.

If a comparison between the two men is meant, it's not so easy to know what conclusions to draw: Greene gets much more attention and there is not much sense that Iyer's own father was lacking.

''You're writing about your father?'' Iyer's girlfriend asks him at one point. ''Well, not exactly. There's too much I don't know or couldn't say about him.'' That ''couldn't say'' is tantalising.

If Greene is a father substitute for Iyer, this book leaves undone the psychological work of showing just how the substitution worked and bringing Iyer's relationship with his real father into the light. But then one of the things Iyer seems to have learnt from Greene is not to judge too dogmatically or too soon; not to try to be too neat.

■Pico Iyer is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Hope springs eternal

Morris Gleitzman concludes his series about a young boy during the Holocaust with After.AFTERBy Morris GleitzmanPenguin, $19.95
Nanjing Night Net

THIS extraordinary novel brings to a conclusion the series in which Morris Gleitzman has taken the Holocaust as his subject and told its story through the life of a small boy, Felix. It began with Once, moved through Then, took a leap to Now and has returned to After.

This fourth book draws Felix's story to its end by filling in the space between Then and Now. Even so, all four novels in the series can be read as individual works and not necessarily in sequence.

To say After is one of the finest children's novels written in the past 25 years or so is no idle statement. It is narrative at its gripping best - nail-biting excitement, tears and affirmation of all that is good, noble and dignified about childhood. Out of the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, After offers a celebration of life and survival.

The opening is assured and exquisitely paced. It is 1945 and Felix, now 13, has been in hiding for two years in a barn on the farm belonging to his friend, Gabriek. He mistakes a party of men who arrive at the farm for Nazis. Polish partisans are fighting the retreating Germans and unbeknown to Felix, Gabriek is an explosives expert and a partisan.

Gabriek is taken away. Felix pursues him and the two join up with a partisan group in a forest. Here he meets Yuli, a fearless young woman who realises that Felix needs protection not from the suspicious partisans but from his desire to stay with Gabriek.

There are many poignant moments, handled with great poise by Gleitzman. Felix's parents have disappeared in the round-ups of Jews and he has kept a faint flicker of hope that they will have survived. Gabriek is wounded and sent away.

In counterpoint, Gleitzman does not resile from portraying the Holocaust in all its savagery. People are shot, farms are burnt and many people sent on forced marches starve to death.

Yet he never allows the candle of hope to be extinguished. As a partisan recruit, Felix helps a doctor tend the wounded. And the maternal Yuli shows him the kind of tactile affection, restrained as it is, that he has longed for from his mother.

It is a measure of Gleitzman's awareness of his audience that he brings the context of family life into sharp relief. There is much for readers to identify with. The action of the novel is unwavering. The setting changes frequently as Felix, Yuli and the partisans attack or escape the Nazis, search for food and encounter Hitler Youth fanatics and hiding Jewish children.

But nothing can prepare readers for one of the most moving and unexpected conclusions. That we do not see it coming makes it all the more powerful.

There are no weaknesses in this brilliantly imagined and unforgettable story. At its heart, After is about love and we are edified by reading it.

■Morris Gleitzman is conducting a workshop in writing for children and young adults at the Melbourne Writers Festival. mwf南京夜网.au

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Different shades

Chloe Hooper found returning to fiction liberating.''I HAD a dark night of the soul after this book went to the printer,'' Chloe Hooper confesses. ''I thought, 'Don't tell me I've just done a literary Fifty Shades of Grey'.''
Nanjing Night Net

Let's be clear about this. Hooper's second novel, The Engagement, is not a sadomasochistic romp designed to titillate millions of women readers. It's a sophisticated, many-layered work that combines the headlong appeal of a thriller with a nuanced mystery about our darker sexual and romantic desires.

What it does do, however, is pose much the same questions as everyone is asking about the extraordinary Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon: what is it that women fantasise about, and why? Do they want to be their dream man's bride, or sex slave?

Hooper, a tall, slim woman with clear pale eyes, is best known in Australia for her acclaimed 2008 non-fiction book, The Tall Man, but started as a novelist (her first novel, A Child's Book of True Crime, came out in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for women's fiction). She did her homework after she finished The Engagement and read Fifty Shades of Grey, which she found very formulaic.

''I don't think it's that different from what's been out there as erotic romance for some time,'' she says. ''But there's something interesting to be said about the nature of fantasy. Are most fantasies inherently conservative? Do they spring from some deep well? Is it like myth - are there a limited number we're calling on or find ourselves lost in?''

We wonder if it's possible for a woman to have a progressive-feminist fantasy, and we burst out laughing at the idea.

''I'll have to get back to you on that,'' Hooper says. ''Fantasy can take you to places that aren't politically correct. And I'm not talking about a cheesy, 'Bring on the manacles, Christian Grey'.''

The Engagement is about an affair between Liese, a young Englishwoman visiting Australia, and Alexander, the blandly handsome scion of a family that made its fortune off the sheep's back.

At the start of the novel, they are driving to Alexander's ancestral pile in the Western District of Victoria for a naughty weekend. The reader senses at once there's something odd about this couple. Alexander pays Liese for sex, Liese takes his money and encourages him to believe she's a professional.

In the grand tradition of the Gothic novel, Liese gradually finds herself trapped in the spooky family mansion and also in Alexander's fantasy. Or is it her fantasy? The borders ripple and blur. ''It's a story where two fantasies collide and it's difficult to know who's in charge,'' Hooper says.

''I do love all those Gothic classics - Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Castle of Otranto, those stories of women trapped in big houses.''

The cover design suggests a period setting and there's a forced betrothal, anonymous letters, knives, guns, gutted animals and a vicar who comes to dinner, but it's a contemporary tale and Hooper has been at pains to make it seem authentic. Alexander's house is based on real homesteads: ''I was lucky enough to enjoy some old-fashioned Western District hospitality. It's fairly Gothic around that area.''

She plays with two classic fantasies: the whore and the bride. ''I like the idea of a fantasy that seems harmless but is actually dangerous. Marriage is one of the last fantasy rituals: you put on a white dress and hire a vintage car and get a cake, and there are reasons to be quite frightened of doing that when a third of marriages end in divorce.

''Even though we talk about people marrying less, and more children are born out of marriage, there still seems to be such a lot of pressure on women to formalise things. Girls grow up with a picture … do you ever get over reading Cinderella?

"We live in times where we think we're very progressive about sex and everybody's reading Shades of Grey

and what's meant to be a whole lot of gymnastics. But, actually, we're mediaeval in our attitudes to female desire and sexuality."

She also liked the idea of writing a thriller. ''When you read a good thriller, you feel a surfeit of emotions. Your shoulders tense up and your hairs are meant to stand on end. But you enjoy feeling anxious. It's almost an S&M experience. That's what gives the genre its spark - and it's also a very good medium to look at the ambivalence about marriage.''

Does this ambivalence extend to Hooper's personal life? Her partner is writer Don Watson, and they have a baby son, Tobias.

''Marriage is not out of the question, but there do seem always to be other things to deal with,'' she says.

They manage parenthood in Fitzroy with help from Hooper's mother and father and a part-time nanny. Do they help each other with their work? ''He reads my work more than I'm allowed to read his. I guess that's just the way it is.''

Her best-known work, The Tall Man, has the narrative pull and urgency of a thriller, but it's a non-fiction account of the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, and the subsequent trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. It won the Western Australian Premier's Book Award and the respective New South Wales and Victorian premiers' literary awards for non-fiction, and had glowing reviews here and overseas. Robert Drewe called it ''the country's finest work of literature so far this century''.

Hooper had started work on The Engagement when she became involved with the case, following Brisbane criminal lawyer Andrew Boe and writing a Walkley-winning report for The Monthly magazine. Then she decided so much compelling material should go in a book, which meant putting her novel aside.

Returning to fiction was ''a terrific freedom … One of the first days I was back, I closed the door on my study and nobody could get me. This character wouldn't hop off the page, there wouldn't be a lawsuit, nobody would ring me and abuse me. It had been so long since my first novel, I almost had to learn how to write a novel again … but writing The Tall Man probably made me a better writer. I've used different muscles.''

There was, however, an interruption - although a very welcome one. Ten months ago, Hooper gave birth to Tobias. She had hoped to get the novel done by then, but it didn't work out that way. ''The book was hopelessly overdue; I had to finish it. In the beginning, I would write when Tobias was asleep. When he was awake more of the time, we needed help in the house. I was lucky that this book was at a place where it was kind of writing itself, so I would … know what to do.''

Hooper's career to date sounds like a dream run for a young writer. She had short stories published while at the University of Melbourne, then at 23 she won a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University in New York, where she studied creative writing. Her first novel was written as part of the course.

But there was a dark afternoon of the soul. She couldn't find an agent for A Child's Book of True Crime and was running out of money. Philip Roth suggested she show it to his agent, the famed Andrew ''the Jackal'' Wylie, and she sent the manuscript as a last resort. Convinced he wouldn't want it, she spent the afternoon weeping and making plans to fly home. ''I was calling up friends and offering them my sleeping bag. And then he rang that night.''

Wylie sold the novel to 13 countries, including Australia, and did a double book deal for The Tall Man and The Engagement for a reported $300,000 advance in Australia (a figure Hooper's publisher, Ben Ball, has since said is wrong). Hooper doesn't offer a comment on the money, but she's wry about the gossip the deal sparked: ''One of the reasons I wrote this novel was I was interested in writing about women and money and their price. It got me thinking a little about this world we're in, where everything is commodified.

''I've been very fortunate that the stars aligned and I was able to make a career out of writing. It keeps the baby in Huggies. Just.''

Hooper is keen to keep working, although she also loves being a mother: ''It's terribly tempting just to play with blocks and crawl around on the floor.'' She would like to write another non-fiction book, though learning about indigenous lives in the far north of Australia was often a harrowing experience.

''You forget the pain of a book, like childbirth. What's left in terms of pain is the inequities that book details. I think of my son: he's had the best prenatal and antenatal care, he has clean clothes and a safe place to sleep, and that's not the case for a lot of kids I know.''

So what to write next? ''For me, the new challenge is I can't just get on a plane - with a small child, that kind of travel is far more difficult. I have lots of ideas, but they're in far-flung places. I need a non-fiction story in Melbourne CBD between the hours of 10am and 11.30am and 2pm and 3.30pm.'' She laughs. ''That's when he sleeps.''

■The Engagement is published by Hamish Hamilton on Wednesday. Chloe Hooper is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Unmatched terror in the children’s crusade

BENEATH THE DARKENING SKYBy Majok TulbaHamish Hamilton, $29.95
Nanjing Night Net

READERS of Beneath the Darkening Sky, Majok Tulba's graphic and gruesome depiction of the enlistment of child soldiers in Sudan's civil war, will sup a book full of horrors. Tulba begins with the sacking of the village of young Obinna. Shock forces clarity of observation from the boy: ''The only things moving slowly are the soldiers.'' Their faces are shiny with sweat and ash - ''it looks like face paint for the village dances''. A boy decapitates an old man. From his temporary vantage in a tree, Obinna can only think of how ''the old man knew so many songs''.

Obinna's role as spectator is wrenched to an end. Lined up with other boys from the village, his height is macabrely measured against an AK-47 rifle. Just tall enough, he is impressed into the rebel army.

Tulba draws on his own terrible story, save that he was just short of the rifle's height. His brother was not. Their village was destroyed by forces of what would become the army of South Sudan when that country achieved a fragile independence in July last year. Both sides in the war used child soldiers. Free for the time being, Tulba joined tens of thousands of refugees in camps along the border of Uganda and Sudan.

In 2001, when he was 16, Tulba was granted refugee status in Australia. Settled in Sydney, almost unimaginably far from the land of his childhood, he is now chief executive of LifeCare Sudan, a writer and filmmaker. Beneath the Darkening Sky, his first novel, has a dedication that explains his cause: ''For the children who died in battle, the villages that were burned, the rights that were lost, the lives not lived, and the voiceless everywhere.''

''Soldiers are dreamers,'' Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote. As often as he can, Obinna (renamed Baboon's Ass as part of abusive and demeaning induction rituals) conjures the future as a doctor for which he had wished, as well as returning to memories of the ''gunless'' life he had known, with its hallowed and now forever-lost patterns of work and of ceremony.

As he says, haltingly, ''the village can just be in my head and I can visit it at any time''. Gradually, though, he is deadened by, and towards, his experiences: ''I've been a soldier for years. Countless first days.'' He has seen deaths from shooting and cholera, his brother's castration so that he can join the rebel commander's eunuch bodyguard, death from mines: ''The boy is covered in cloud. The pebbles fly so fast they gouge into his skin, then exit the other side.''

Tulba's novel is in crucial formal respects a version, or maybe a ghastly parody, of one of the most familiar kinds of war narrative: the initiation of a recruit, a litany of first things. To begin with, he joins the unit (but by violent coercion), then he meets his comrades. Some are children like him. Others are seasoned adult fighters - Parasite, Priest, Mouse and the malevolent Captain, who ''looks like he's been made in the wild, out of earth and darkness''.

Obinna has already seen his first bodies - in his own village. He undergoes training (with wooden guns, then the AK-47). Not long after his initial sexual encounter, he takes his first life. Baboon's Ass has been transformed, for the sake of the unit's morale, into People's Fire. Now he helps to inflict the terrors that had been visited upon him and his family: ''Once this village had a name. Not any more, not since we came. Now it's just chaos.''

The title of the novel comes from the wishful words of a song that the young soldier sings (and, for doing so, is tortured): ''The world will carry us home beneath the darkening sky.'' Tulba's is a blackly eloquent tale, one that seems altogether without consolation. Perhaps its most terrible element is the loss of childhood for so many, Obinna the emblem for them. The storytelling is not without awkwardness, as unfailingly sharp as its images. Tulba's materials are not easily subdued to anything ordered or - from this distance - comprehensible. Nonetheless, he has written a war novel of an originality and fidelity that has scarcely been matched in Australia.

■Majok Tulba is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival. mwf南京夜网.au

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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