Lest we remember …
Perusing the Prague Post‘s headlines the other day, I was darkly amused by the Czech Republic’s growing pariah status vis-à-vis the United States. In the “Bloom wears off Czech-US relations” piece, there was expressed by US officials deep imperial disappointment at the Republic’s refusal to accept an anti-nuclear weapon battery just outside Prague, with the requisite stationing of US occupying forces to safeguard it, of course. How could any nation refuse to garrison an exceptional and indispensable soldier from Freedonia? Think of it.
by Peter Carey
Available from Penguin and online retailers
Anyway, the reason for my amusement was because, at the time, I was reading Peter Carey’s new novel, Amnesia, and key to the story is what happens when a client nation state falls out of favor with Uncle Sam: change comes suddenly and shockingly. As Duane Clarridge, the CIA meat cleaver who helped oversee the Allende ouster in Chile 1973, would say, “We’re not going to put up with any nonsense.”
The amnesia referred to in Carey’s title is the long forgotten removal of the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on November 11, 1975 by the British governor-general to Australia, after a parliamentary crisis had seemingly reached an insurmountable moment similar to what the US was facing with Fiscal Cliff fiasco of 2013.
In this context, it seems clear that Zeman has failed to understand his “obligation” to provide logistical support, a la Havel, as the US completes its humanitarian conquest of the globe theatre. With just Syria, Iran, China and Russia standing in the way of star spangled hegemony, now is not the time for backsliding or insolence from client states.
As Kissinger would say, one sees no reason why Washington should tolerate such “irresponsible” behavior, just because it’s a democracy. If Zeman does not already have his bags packed, then he’s drinking too much Švejk juice. (But he’ll be sober soon. Shhh.)
Amnesia is an attempt to wrestle, first, with American imperialism and how makes a mockery of sovereignty, and, second, the available avenues of response in dealing with the globalization of surveillance seemingly designed to provide a Stasi-like omniscience mechanism to make people fear resistance to the system; they are opaque and unaccountable, and we are utterly ‘exposed’ and full of the original sin of private thoughts and free expression.
Carey accomplishes this difficult task by focusing, developing and blowing up two events of Australian history, now long forgotten (and so, largely devoid of active controversy) – the aforementioned coup, and, long before that, the so-called World War II era “Battle of Brisbane,” which saw Australian soldiers battling “Yanks” in the streets of Brissy. As one character reports, “It was about sex,” Celine answered. “The stupid Australians were jealous of the Yanks. The only people in the world who want to help us, and so they shoot them because they like Australian girls.” This is an ironic statement, given the source.
The events are separated by decades, but one thing has led to another, and Carey merges them in a marvelous (and funny) caricature of historical causality and the all-too-familiar blowback of events gone wrong. While the novel has the usual assortment of zany Carey creatures, weird in a uniquely Aussie manner, the two main characters are Gabrielle Baillieux and Felix Moore.
Gaby is the star, a young Julian Assange-like hactivist who has got herself into trouble with the US for releasing the Angel virus, which has the hilarious virtue of releasing prisoners from their computer-secured, American-owned facilities in Australia – and anywhere else that America has private contractors running prisons, which turns out to be around the world, including, of course, the Land of the Free itself.
This act gets her into immediate raving trouble from right-wing TV news spinners and a call by one senator for Gaby to be droned to death, all this reminiscent of the response to Assange and, later, Edward Snowden, for their work in releasing evidence of the dark deeds of the US government at work. But, more importantly, Gaby was born on the day that Gough Whitlam was tossed out of office “by the Yanks.”
And if the birthday coup weren’t reason enough for her to always remember, Gaby is also burdened with the knowledge that she is the product of a rape by an American soldier during one of those Brissy battles. You could even say she’s the product of two rapes – her mother’s and the rape-by-coup of her country’s sovereignty. She was seems born for blowback.
Like Assange, Gaby has an interesting family past, and a passion for the shadowy world of hacking, which Gaby describes thusly: “In the ‘twisty little passages’ of the computer underground … there was a species dedicated to the collection of discarded information, furtive scholars, jesters, fools, hackers, phreakers, practitioners of the black art of recycling who picked the locks of Telecom exchanges and, like dung beetles busy with their ancient occupation, rolled their holy shit into the night.”
Carey employs Felix Moore to tell Gaby’s story, and in a deft touch Carey has Felix an involuntary narrator, having been kidnapped by an underworld figure and told to tell Gaby’s story in an offer he cannot refuse. Felix is an aging, falling investigative journalist, who has just been successfully sued for slander and is in the process of becoming the kind of news he once broke (“Look this way, Feels,” paparazzi call to him).
As the bitter author of lefty “The Lo-Tech Blog,” Felix has revealed Australian government’s lies in the 2001 Children Overboard scandal, during which conservative PM John Howard claimed boat people coming to Australia were intentionally throwing their children overboard to protest being rejected for entry into the country; a lie which, once spread by an uncritical national media, resulted in hysteria. Said Felix,
“Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelesque immensity. The fourth estate made a whole country believe the refugees were animals and swine. Many think so still… Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.”
This secondary event in the novel actually serves to accentuate the amnesia not only of the Gough Whitlam coup, but amnesia as a cultural malady (certainly not restricted to Australians) that leads us to quickly forget over and over these catastrophic events that should outrage a truly democratic citizenry and stir the masses into action. But a nation mired in mediocrity as a positive trait, where lopping tall poppies is a national pastime, strikes one as developmentally disabled. Even the milieu Carey sets his characters in feels parochial and politically disinterested.
No Aussies really seem to care about Gaby and the motivation for her deeds, and this echoes the inexplicable general indifference (and maybe even hostility) to Assange and his work that exists in Oz (I don’t recall even one national publication reviewing his recent When Google Met Wikileaks).
In Felix and Gaby, I felt like I was revisiting previous Carey creations, Harry Joy and Honey Barbara from his fantastic novel Bliss, which, if I recall, was the last time Carey laid out what could loosely be described as a contemporary realist tale. While Amnesia is no tour de force, or even as groundbreaking as some of his other more recent works, it is still a first rate novel.
It contains many of Carey’s now familiar traits, including quirky characters and gorgeous linguistic flourishes, such as this description of Woody, the underworld figure, menacing over Felix, “The Great Wodonga was settles at my desk, fleshy enough for Lucian Freud, his huge thighs pressing against the limits of his tailor, hunched over the laptop which had been obviously removed from my embrace like a teddy bear from a sleeping child.” Nice touch.
In a strange coincidence that one imagines could only have helped Carey’s sales for Amnesia, Gough Whitlam died this past October at the age of 90, a death which briefly brought back to life some of the controversy surrounding the 1975 coup, but few care, once more, although I doubt that that reality would have greatly impacted on Carey’s fiction sales. People are always ready for fresh fictions.