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‘The Great Australian Story is of loss, death’

Australian author Peter Carey has won the Booker twice over and is acclaimed as the sharpest voice of Antipodean sensibility. A resident of ...

February 17, 2003

Australian author Peter Carey has won the Booker twice over and is acclaimed as the sharpest voice of Antipodean sensibility. A resident of New York since the last ten years, Carey is currently touring India and spoke to Renuka Narayanan about homespun heroes after attending the Katha Litfest in Delhi. Excerpts:

You like William Faulkner because he gives ‘‘rich voices to the poor’’. Is that what you’ve tried to do with Ned Kelly in The True History of the Kelly Gang, your latest Booker winner?
It’s a very Australian thing. The majority of Australians identify with the poor, the rural underclass harassed by the colonial police, like Ned, who get deeper and deeper into trouble. But he proves braver, more resourceful and fundamentally more decent than his oppressors. We began as a penal colony, so there’s this longstanding historical judgment on us from ‘‘decent society’’ in Britain. Perhaps it was necessary that the convict seed paid a blood debt to redeem itself, like a sacrifice.

Sort of ‘‘loser’’ stories? Does this identification with Ned Kelly go deep in your country?

He’s the hero of mainstream Australia, and looked up to and admired. And ‘‘loser’’ is an American term. The Australian word for it is more positive, we say ‘‘battler’’. Ned is a great national story.

What are the other Australian foundation myths, the big things in collective emotional memory?
Firstly, the British law of ‘‘terra nullius’’ (unused land), that Australian land was up for grabs because it was not being ‘‘farmed’’. So the whole of modern Australia is built on a lie, it’s one of our great lies, because of course it was being used in their own way by people whose culture was 5,000 years old (the Aborigines). So it’s a fundamental lie: everything is built on it.

Loss and death? Is that the Great Australian Story?
All the great stories of Australia are about loss and death! In America, the colonisers went west to wealth. In Australia, they went west to get lost and die on drought-leached soil. Take Bourke and Wills, two explorers who set off from Melbourne, west to the Gulf. It’s a tale of great folly. Bourke was a policeman from Ned Kelly’s area, he was always losing his way and finally they died of starvation, though surrounded by Aboriginal people. They did eat some grain called nadoo but though it was filling, it wasn’t sustaining.

Why is Gallipolli such a big Australian story?
It’s one of Australia’s great, great, great stories, of courage and stupidity. This was the planned beachhead invasion of Turkey, planned by Winston Churchill, and Australians went to fight that war. It went wrong and we gave up our lives for the British. Then, there was this pitiful little rebellion about license fees for gold prospectors in Ballarat. The judge who wanted to hang the rebels was Peter Lalor, who judged Ned Kelly. He went on to become an MP. Of course, there’s Phar Lap, the greatest racehorse in the world. It’s a typical Aussie story. He won everything and then he was poisoned. He’s been mounted and exhibited in the Victoria Museum (since 1933) and I loved looking at him in his big glass case. (Phar Lap won 31 out of 51 races in which he started, including 14 in a row in 1930-31. He was the only horse to have been the Melbourne Cup favourite three years in a row.)

Why did you refuse to meet the Queen of England in 1998 after winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize? Is it because you’re a Republican?
I was busy, there was family stuff happening, and I thought aloud, which was a dangerous thing to do with British journalists around. They made a big deal of it, this chippy Antipodean. My wife and I did meet the Queen eventually and she said, with typical British understatement, ‘‘I believe you had a little trouble getting here’’. Look, the majority of Australians really want to be a republic. The monarchists are just keeping Australia in chains. But a conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, has cleverly divided the Opposition on the issue.

Why do they call you a science fiction writer?
People call me a fabulist, a surrealist, even a historical novelist. My favourite sci-fi writer is Ursula Le Guin, I call her a speculative anthropologist.

Did you like Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as ‘‘Oscar and Lucinda’’, your 1988 Booker winner made into a film by director Gillian Armstrong?
I liked them. I didn’t want an arty Australian film and it wasn’t. But once you sell your book, you must not care.

If you were to stroll into Barnes & Noble, whom might you buy?
I’d check first if they had my books! Then I’d buy Anthony Powell, (Dance to the Music of Time), and travel writer Ryzard Capuschinzki, he’s fabulous.

Aussie writers?
Lots of fine ones! Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Kim Scott, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, poet Les Murray.

You’ve been saying Indian writers are your friends. Have you read them all?
Salman and Rohinton (Mistry) for sure. I haven’t read A Suitable Boy or The God of Small Things. I really like Gita Mehta!

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