By John A. ScottFiction Brandl & Schlesinger
N is a fantastically inventive alternate history of Australia during World War II, that plays with ideas, genre, language and (of course) history itself.
John A. Scott takes both the facts of our history and the mood of our political present as a springboard to imagine a not-implausible world where an emergency right-wing wartime government surrenders to the Japanese for commercial advantage. This sparks a full-scale attack on Sydney reminiscent of that on Singapore, and an occupation of most of Australia, in which business interests are complicit.
Meanwhile, artists (and art) are under attack. And high-ranking public servant Telford is approached by the wife of the MP whose death resulted in a hung parliament; she asks him to investigate what she believes was murder on her behalf.
Scott says he has ‘written over’ including Erle Cox’s 1939 novel Forgotten Harvest to imagine the Japanese invasion of Sydney and has treated other fictional imaginings of Australia’s invasion as ‘non-fictional (historical) texts’. He also invokes other, classic, literature of the past, including Swift, Joyce and Poe. For all its serious intent, this is also an intrinsically playful literary enterprise.
N tells its sprawling, multifaceted story in a variety of forms, interweaving the main narrative with diaries, Hansard excerpts, newspaper clippings, intelligence files, letters and play extracts.
In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Craven calls it ‘a huge prose epic in ambitious high gloss often poetical prose … it is like nothing else on earth’.
A sprawling alternative history of Australia during World War II, Scott mixes real and fictional figures in a narrative that’s chillingly plausible and dizzyingly dystopian. Impeccably researched and wildly ambitious, N explores collaboration and resistance, love, politics and art. Scott displays a striking facility with literary ventriloquism and his book’s byzantine structure recalls the paranoiac visions of Thomas Pynchon. Yet this is a text deeply steeped in Australian history and literature, even as it’s strikingly different from just about anything else on the local shelves.
TELFORD ON ESTHER COLE
—Then I remember that I once was young And lived with Esther the world’s gods among.
Of my first meeting with Esther Cole, two things will stay with me the rest of my life. First, a clear sense of the times, that time, near to Christmas, in the first months of the State of Emergency, with its shifting chaoses of paper, its hasty signatures, its reordering of lives; a time of madness, of abandonment and, behind everything, seen or unseen, the terrible black-red face of war. More tangibly, it was the echo of those upper corridors at Teffont; the smell of the outer office where I sat so many days with Parrot and Bronwyn Orr. And second, the simple sight of Esther standing at the open doorway. Unforgettably so, for the circular window across the hall which gave vantage of the foyer below was, that moment, suffused by late-morning light from the glass dome above and, from where I sat, it seemed that I had been visited by an angel; though I doubt an angel ever to have been so slight, or so handsome, or, as she approached and a more reasonable illumination played across her face, to have had skin so pale. Overall her bearing was drained in an aristocratic manner—I would come to find this fitful strain of melancholy quite inseparable from her every movement and her every mood and her every word, which came that first time, simply, thus:
So she made her enquiry (though in retrospect the manner of its asking betrayed the barely audible bass beat of certainty; an undertow which might as well have been the quickening of my heart at the sight of her) and she stood there with her narrow, gloved hand extended.
“It is Mr Telford, isn’t it?”
Her eyes were fixed upon me, as if daring me to be anyone else—that should this person Telford not exist it would be vital I play his part in the drama of it all. Not so much an enquiry then, as an invitation. Otherwise I might well have denied it, swore the fellow had moved on, and referred the whole business to Parrot. How different it might have been. But such things are no more possible in fantasy than they are in fact. Besides, I imagine it would have ended the same in any case, for it bore the stamp of inevitability.
“Yes,” I replied and stepped forward two paces and placed my hand in hers.
“Esther Cole,” she announced, “I’ve come about my husband.”
“You’ll be wanting to speak to Mr Gelder,” I responded, moving back a step or two. “I’ll see if he’s available.”
“Don’t disturb him,” she came. “It’s you I’d like to speak to, if that’s possible?”
She looked young. I had, of course, never before considered her age or appearance; but now, knowing who she was, I would have expected someone older. From the little experience I had of it, she appeared very much ‘in the fashion’: a simple pale mauve dress made of no war fabric that I had ever seen—not at all what one might expect of a grazier’s wife from the Western District of Victoria. Her tallness certainly I remember. And from the drop of the material from the low waisted dress and the glimpse below its lowish hem, she possessed the straight legs I have always, and quite irrationally, I suppose, associated with women who play recreational tennis. Subsequent meetings allow me now to offer a fuller portrait of Esther. I have already spoken of slenderness and of her pale complexion. Add to this, then, that her hair was dark brown with a hint of redness. Her eyes, grey. Some months further on, when the weather turned cold, I recall her in a fox-fur stole, the fox’s face set unnervingly close to hers; and I remember thinking that her eyes, her grey eyes, were no less relentless in their gaze than the fox’s. If she possessed any flaw in her appearance it was here—for one eye, the left, was cast ever so slightly astray, as if there were always another thing which might need to be kept under observation. Her mouth was full and any sense of properness would disappear the moment it fell slightly open. Her lips, her mouth, plum-dark. I found it near impossible to draw my eyes from the look of her. So it always would be—my gaze upon her till it became affronting, embarrassing, unhealthy to look any longer… and when I turned, my world slumped, vacuous, immediately the poorer.
As to her character, I am certain there was a pattern, an overarching order to her actions, her opinions. But what of the tincture of surrender? The trace of disdain? What of the rashness, the persistence, the wilfulness, the despair? What blend of history, whim, obfuscation, downright lie (for I am absolutely certain such moments happened, perhaps frequently so) or, though I am tarred a fool to even suggest it, love, might account for those later months enlivened by the glimpses of fear, of anticipation, of sickening terror, she led me into?
I came to her, in short, callow. I departed, what? Hardly stronger, hardly wise; no gentleman of the world. No, none of this. I came from her wounded. And with a suspicion, born of pain, which stayed with me in my few subsequent, short-lived, relationships. In the language of romance: she ruined me. That sounds damning—but, if nothing else, she led me to Reginald Thomas. Briefly, Thomas was a novelist and a well known radio dramatist at the time. More significantly, and I have ample proof of it, he was a seer. It was from him I learnt that sometimes only what has been imagined is the truth.
“It’s you I’d like to speak to, if that’s possible?”
“Of course,” I replied, indicating the chair at the front of my desk where she might sit.
She continued to stand, however, and cast a swift regard in the directions of Parrot and then of Bronwyn Orr. And in case I had not grasped her meaning, she added: “Somewhere more private?”
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist