By Maria TumarkinNon-fictionBrow Books

Axiomatic

The past shapes the present – they teach us that in schools and universities. (Shapes? Infiltrates, more like; imbues, infuses.) This past cannot be visited like an ageing aunt. It doesn’t live in little zoo enclosures. Half the time, this past is nothing less than the beating heart of the present. So, how to speak of the searing, unpindownable power that the past – ours, our family’s, our culture’s – wields in the present?

Stories are not enough, even though they are essential. And books about history, books of psychology – the best of them take us closer, but still not close enough.

Maria Tumarkin's Axiomatic is a boundary-shifting fusion of thinking, storytelling, reportage and meditation. More than seven full and long years in the making, and utilising her time as a Sidney Myer Creative Fellow, Axiomatic actively seeks to reset the non-fiction form in Australia. 

Portrait of Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin is a writer and cultural historian. She is the author of three acclaimed books of ideas: Traumascapes, Courage, and Otherland. All three were shortlisted for literary prizes; Otherland, most recently, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award, NSW Premier’s Award and the Age Book of the Year. Tumarkin’s essays have appeared in The Best Australian Essays (2011, 2012 & 2015), Griffith ReviewMeanjin, the MonthlySydney Review of Books, the Age, the Australian, and Inside Story.

Tumarkin is involved in wide-ranging artistic collaborations with visual artists, theatre makers and audio designers. She was a 2013–14 Sidney Myer Creative Fellow in humanities and is a member of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s programming committee. Maria teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

Judges’ report

Axiomatic is a book that can only be met on its own terms: an unrelenting pace, the idiosyncratic use of language, and the sharp pivots between detachment and internalisation. It is Maria Tumarkin in full flight, with her typically penetrating gaze set on the things we think we know about trauma and virtue.

The axioms that lend structure to the book are at once illuminating and deceptive, and it is a simultaneity that holds throughout. The lives carried in the pages – those that end in suicide, or emerge from war, or are entangled with the courts – reach for but also repel meaning. In Axiomatic, life is precious and dispensable, time can be static in motion, freedom is a trap. It is a restless book from a restless mind. 

Perhaps as a result, it achieves the opposite effect of axioms (adages, aphorisms, sayings); it does not soothe. The central question – of what it means to be a human who survives – is left to linger.  

Extract

This morning, that morning rather, two men in my carriage lift their heads – two men in their fifties in silky understated ties – then there is a little snap, like a red light camera going off, and even before the next stop gets announced they’re leaning into each other laughing how long has it been? Must be forty years give or take. What’s been happening? They run through their classmates: two cancers (one mid-chemo, one cannot hack chemo), a property development fraud, one guy (just the other side of a protracted settlement) with too many ex-wives (stupid bastard, he and them deserve each other). A pause. Please don’t tell me it’s all there is. Fraud, cancer, bad marriage picks, being caught, extricating yourself, chance encounters on city loop trains; can you remember the last time life felt long or kind, or like it was yours and mine?

My phone vibrates: one time only for texts. ‘Make sure you don’t have scissors, nail files, anything sharp.’ It’s Vanda. Thank you Vanda.

Shhh.

In front of me is time. Time is not a river. It is two strangers on a train whose briefcases touch as they hold each other. Two men who’ll never ride the same train again.

I don’t remember getting off or walking. Somehow I reached the courthouse doors on William Street where my bag was screened, nothing sharp in it, and the structure that looked dull and huge on the outside, a building without qualities, was alive and brown inside with wrappers pulled off chocolate bars, doors slamming, others opening, kids in school uniforms who were not, as I’d guessed, witnesses to inexplicable suburban crimes but legal studies students bored on a field trip. Several of the magistrates looked like Karl Heinrich Marx. In a lift I stood next to a lawyer with the face of someone who some- times forgets he has not, yet, seen it all. I looked at him. He looked at the crease in his hardworking pants.

What is the Court 8 clerk wearing today? Orange jacket, there you go, bold choice for the setting. And what is Court 8’s loudest sound right now? My fineliner pen making notes about courtroom silence. Big silence in a roomful of busy-looking people is jarring. Then the magistrate appears – once he’s seated, that silence is gone – and to a man on the stand whose second drink-driving offence is the day’s first matter he says, ‘I cannot take your past away,’ and it is like some subterranean conversation underneath the one everybody can hear is flowing about how to be alive is to be caught in one web or another. ‘I know your first offence was twenty years ago but your past doesn’t disappear. If police stop you, they’ll test you.’ The magistrate means it’s your last chance, your cufflinks can’t save you, the taxes you pay won’t save you. He also means: nothing is more human than the experience of feeling trapped. And everything’s a trap, your past, family, genes, addictions, loneliness, that feeling that pretty much everyone else is galloping gaily ahead while you are crawling backwards like a lobster or lopsided baby.

All morning I wait for something but nothing much happens. After the man on drink-driving offence #2 comes a retail manager from Elwood who’s drinking because her IVF is failing. Next is a well-dressed Somali man charged with not wearing a seatbelt and accompanied by a well-dressed Somali interpreter. After that it’s a Turkish taxi driver caught going 105 in an 80 zone. I move courts. Sit in on an aggravated burglary hearing. Go to the room where a meth syndicate (most lawyers I’ve seen all day) is being sentenced. ‘There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable.’ So said Goethe. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. That – ‘I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me’ – is what the Roman playwright Terence said. ‘There are no fairytale endings.’

Vanda says that. How come, I ask her.

‘Because people are people.’

People wear ugg boots to court. You may find yourself one day staring down at a court floor and seeing ugg boots next to high-heeled, calf-extending leather numbers worn by female lawyers, and this image might lead you to believe that lines have been drawn and you will always be able to tell who is who. Don’t believe it. Sometimes it is like that and other times – not at all.

That morning, this morning, I walk back to the station past the cafe where a week ago a deputy chief magistrate, Jelena Popovic, was telling me how it took her years as a magistrate before belatedly understanding that the people appearing in front of her were, in the main, neither offenders nor victims of their own circumstances but rather people at the point of crisis. The crisis was the hopeful thing. ‘It started crystallising for me during a late 1990s heroin scourge. It seemed to me we were doing nothing to help people when we should have been capitalising on this point of crisis.’ The word, when she said it, had a nobility, a scale, and seeing myself so struck by it I thought about how this word, crisis, can recast a human life’s brokenness. No laughter spilled out of my half-empty afternoon train home, nobody was falling into an old friend’s lap. Each one of us was alone. With our bags, jackets, leaking umbrellas, wandering eyes, with the big unringing phones we were kneading in our hands.

I have always dreaded movie sequences in which a human life – a normal, long life, unshortened by illness or war – gets condensed into a few emblematic scenes. A child, carefree and pure, becomes a young adult with shining eyes, then in no time is a parent of someone whose eyes are soon-to-be shining, and when next they’re beaming out of your screen they are the same only their hair’s greying, eyes woolly, and their frame is thicker or perhaps slighter, it’s as if their form and content are pulling away from each other, and you know where it is headed, where else, and despite these characters being fictional and this life-to-death-in-three-minutes business being just some hillbilly director’s device there is something intolerable about seeing life with time sucked out of it like the air from an air mattress. A few occasions, bumping across a movie sequence like that, I’d put both hands over my chest.

For a long while I could not work out why it hurt. Until I understood: time. Time is what makes everything OK. How it flows forward and circles round itself, both; how life, suspended, zero gravity, in time consists of so many things repeating. Getting up, the brushing of hair, toasting of bread, sun shooting up in the sky, taking keys out of your pocket to open doors. Seasons. In the benign repetition of daily acts an invisible net is cast, holding people up, protecting them. Because the things being repeated – ‘non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities’ so said Deleuze – are never the same. That imperceptible difference, same damn thing, same blessed thing, is what rescues it. So yes those movie sequences hurt. Time as a straight line is a monstrosity. Sometimes though what’s being repeated is hope’s absence. A child comes into a world that is like a tar pit, a tar pit of prehistoric ferocity, the kind that could suck a Columbian mammoth in. In this world a little creature still sorting its hind legs from its front legs does not stand a chance. Cannot stand. Time is not a river pushing people forward as they lunge at floating branches – inelegantly, so what? – but an oily, seeping substance. Black and sticky.

Most of Vanda’s clients come from a tar pit. The term regularly used, ‘entrenched disadvantage’, is ugly like much of the language to do with people who don’t get to do much choosing in their lives, and whose every creep forward – in a good year every couple of creeps – gets followed by a bone-splintering triple tumble backwards. Poverty, abuse, addiction, mental health stuff, they are what’s in the tar, the sticky parts.

We met by accident in North Melbourne Town Hall’s corridors the spring that I was pregnant with my second child and Vanda was volunteering at a fringe festival. She was checking tickets at the door, helping out with shows. The shows (as you’d expect) were of varying quality. I wondered what she was doing here, this woman whose big polymath mind was straightaway apparent even to me who was sick with a round-the-clock morning sickness and not noticing much. I remember thinking I don’t get the whole community volunteering thing. Thinking also that in another time/place this woman could have led armies to battle. I did not know then that she loved theatre, directing, actors – actors especially – and years before had started a theatre company for young people which had a policy of turning away no one at auditions. The result was large, happy casts and full houses. I wasn’t aware then that after a disheartening year doing articles at a suburban law firm she needed to feel surrounded by theatre to feel OK. And I was there why? Involved in one of the festival shows if you must know. In a non-performing capacity and due any minute to alight on the discovery of how lucky writers are compared to the men and women of theatre. Writers are not required to be present at their trials.

That first time we talked it occurred to me that with Vanda being a community lawyer the two of us could even be in the same taxation bracket. Not until years later in a St Kilda legal branch foyer, me waiting for Vanda, she running late after a client appointment, did I seconds before she appeared (wearing black and white) write in my notebook, quickly, as if somehow I’d forget it

            DECREPIT
            SHODDY
            FALLING APART
            ALARM CODE ON A STICKER
            HEATERS EVERYWHERE
            COLD


and then deeper inside that building, Vanda’s office was like a room from my childhood, windowless, boxy, held together as we’d say ‘by an honest word’. Closer to an anti-office. Not long after that in the Magistrate’s Court I overheard a young female lawyer say to Vanda, ‘I couldn’t do what you’re doing,’ and although it was mostly clear what she meant – couldn’t be so near other people’s shit and misery, couldn’t have the office you have – I tried hard, tried and failed, to figure out if she meant it as a compliment.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist