Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Book Review - Street fight in Naples by Peter Robb

Street fight in Naples : a book of art and insurrection by Peter Robb

Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010             ISBN 9781741754124

Peter Robb is a unique voice in Australian letters. From his first book Midnight in Sicily, he has delved into odd corners of the murkier side of human nature by looking at art, food, and the other vices that beset us. From the title it's obvious that this work's focus is that Queen of Cities, Naples. Robb lived there for many years although it was only after he returned to his native country that he could write this book, which in true Robb fashion combines his own memories with snippets of history and speculation to create a great work of literature.

As it is for the rest of Robb's oeuvre, it is hard to briefly describe this book . A type of history, mostly of Spanish Naples; a critique of Neapolitan artists both famous and less so; with the climax a retelling of the rebellion led by Masaniello in 1647. The book is much more than this, all anchored by Robb's reflections on his own experiences from his time there.

What Robb is really writing about is human nature, and the character of the Neapolitans themselves: ever-adaptable; proud; foolish; and violent. Robb describes how the painters of the seventeenth century not only were daring in their use of the poor as subjects for their religious paintings, but that they also resorted to threats, violence and perhaps even murder to ensure that no outsiders came in and took commissions away from them and their studios.

The natural beauty of the city and its surrounds barely hides the squalor of many of its inhabitant's existence, something that has not changed for millennia. Another constant is outside control of the city: Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spanish, French have lorded it over the city and surrounds, and even the Italian State at times is seen as an occupying power. Naples has rarely been master of its own destiny, except for brief periods of rebellion, which were mostly crushed within a short period of their outbreak.

Robb however is uninterested in giving the reader a mere narrative history. As is often the case in his work, he explains by allusion and side-tracks: we may learn the history of fishing in the Bay of Naples through his description of a painting of the marketplace, or the legend of the founding of the city via his description of a sweaty train journey to a popular beach. The reader can never be sure in Robb's work just where he's leading, or what might be imparted by the end of the book.

It is this style of exposition, and the exact choice of words used to "expose" (I use the word deliberately), that makes Robb a unique writer. While I love his work (even his lighter-weight magazine pieces are great), I can readily understand why some people may find his work wordy, obtuse and almost deliberately obscure.

I think that, to Robb, the way he layers these stories and snippets is how he feels he can get to the real kernel of what Naples is, now and 350 years ago. The way he juxtaposes his subjects shows how much has stayed the same even in the midst of revolutionary change. The reader's mind is drawn into this web of stories - as labyrinthine as the streets of Naples themselves - and is never sure whether what is being discussed is an historical event or a painting; something that happened in 1400, 1647, or 1980. But it doesn't matter, as it is one story, of a city and that city's people.

There is no doubt that Robb has a deep and abiding love for Naples, even as he shows us the corruption and venality of those who have governed it. He also has a deep respect and affection for the workers and peasants, even as he acknowledges their vices and foolishness.

Like Midnight in Sicily and A Death in Brazil, Street fight in Naples is a work of massive craftsmanship, created by a unique mind.

This rather pedestrian review does it no justice whatsoever.

Highly Recommended

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Book Review - The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2005                         ISBN 1920885757

I kept reading this book waiting for it to "take off": it never did. I picked it up as I'd never read Kate Grenville - an award-winning writer - and the blurb seemed interesting.

Unfortunately for this book Grenville has a barrow to push, and it has affected both the story and the story telling. The book is obviously about the early destructive relations between settlers and Aboriginal Australians. The vehicle for telling the story is William Thornhill, a waterman of the Thames who is transported to New South Wales for theft. He gets his ticket-of-leave, is assigned to his wife and together they go into business in Sydney, he working for a boatman running the Hawkesbury River trade, and she as a publican. Thornhill is intrigued by the River, and soon selects one hundred acres on the River to set up his own farm.

The book then revolves around the relations of the Thornhills (and other settlers) with the local tribe, with misunderstandings leading to thefts, spearings and a terrible massacre. The massacre is the central point of the story, with the book ending decades later showing Thornhill a wealthy and successful man, sitting on his verandah searching for the Blacks that are no longer there, and contemplating his past and future.

The problem with the work is that Grenville is so set on describing the history of the treatment of the Aboriginals that she neglects to develop any of the characters. Even Thornhill himself rarely moves beyond being a cardboard cut-out, moved hither and yon by thoughts and feelings that are not clear to this reader. Portrayed as whip-smart early on, later in the work he is too dim to decipher obvious communication from the Natives. At the climax of the book, when the Aboriginals orchestrate a co-ordinated attack on the settlers farms, and Thornhill takes his speared neighbour to the hospital in Windsor, he then spends some hours in the pub while insurrection mounts and a vigilante band is formed - would he not be desperate to return to his wife and children, alone on the farm? It's unfortunate that most of the action in the book is similarly forced and woodenly written.

In some ways this book puts me in mind of the early Mad Max movies. The story is brutal, obvious and fast-moving, the landscape is beautiful, but the characters are merely figures acting in a landscape.

I think that, at approximately 350 pages, Grenville has made a bit of an error with the length of her book: it's either too long, or too short. To develop her characters more, she should have looked to Xavier Herbert. Her characters (apart from the Aborigines) are in some ways Dickensian creations, as were Herbert's, but she hasn't given them the space to fully bloom into their potential. If Grenville went down the Herbert route with her book it may have been twice as long, but would have had more to recommend it as a truly rollicking read of colonial times, while still keeping her central message intact.

If, on the other hand, Grenville cut the story back to the bone she could still get the message across by looking for inspiration from someone like Randolph Stow. She then could have produced - like he did - a polished gem of a work, where the lack of character development adds to rather than detracts from the story.

But, she didn't do either of these things, and we are left with a middle-of-the-road novel that gives us a moral, but fails to provide us with much more enjoyment than a history book. Much of the character writing is clunky, although some of the landscape description is good writing.

There is not much to like about this book, but there is little to actively dislike. It has left me flat.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell