FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Lost Souls in Sydney

Sydney becomes absolutely iridescent in Gail Jones’ Five Bells, the story of four hapless characters whose lives converge and overlap in Australia’s gorgeous city on a warm summer day.  If you’ve been to the city, particularly its vibrant center, you understand how mesmerizing the environment can be: Circular Quay, the bridge, the beaches, above all the opera house: “It was moon-white and seemed to hold within it a great, serious stillness.  The fan of its chambers leant together, inclining to the water.  An unfolding thing, shutters, a sequence of sorts.  Ellie marveled that it had ever been created at all, so singular a building, so potentially faddish, or odd.  And that shape of supplication, like a body bending into the abstraction of a low bow or a theological gesture.”

Ellie is in Sydney to meet her lover from twenty years ago, when they were both fourteen and the innocence of their sexuality had a purity because of its singularity.  There was nothing else to compare it to, no other people—certainly none of the later partners whose identities have long been forgotten.  She can hardly control her excitement, and she doesn’t understand that the past is another country, that it’s almost impossible to recreate.  We are not what we were.

Pei Xing knows what Ellie hasn’t learned, probably because she is much older and a survivor—many times over.  We first observe her, tucking a ten dollar note into the “waste space that was Mary’s,” a homeless woman whom Pei Xing usually chats with, but Mary is clearly out scavenging.  A refugee years ago from Mao’s Red Guards, Pei Xing is on her way, crossing Sydney, to get to her weekly rendezvous.  It’s a most unusual encounter because the woman she will visit, Mrs. Dong, is confined to a nursing home and is not much more than a vegetable lying in her bed.

The encounter introduces one of Five Bells’ major themes: forgiveness.  Years ago, before Pei Xing fled China (after the murder of her parents by the Red Guards) when she herself was in prison, it was Mrs. Dong who was her tormentor, her sadistic guard.  But such is fate that both of them eventually fled to Australia, where Mrs. Dong one day knocked on Pei Xing’s door, asking forgiveness.  That was years ago before Mrs. Dong became so infirm, and all these years later with their roles reversed, it is Pei Xing who visits her former tormentor each week and reads to the voiceless woman, helps feed her, comforts her.  As Pei Xing muses, “It was something difficult to explain…that there were forms of forgiveness that make life go on, and forms of reproach that hold history still [and we need] to live in the aura of forgiveness.”

It is only Pei Xing who understands the past, and her past was the more horrific than the others’.  She is sustained by moments of transcendence much like Virginia Woolf’s characters, with whom she shares a certain affinity.  Here, for example, a moment from her childhood, when hunger and poverty were always present:

“And when snow at last came, fitful at first, in the faintest disappointing sprinkle and then—oh yes—in a dense overnight fall, she believed that in some way she was personally responsible.  She had woken and there it was, layering the roofs and the trees, lining the handlebars of bicycles and piling the edges of the laneways, caught on stall awnings in the yard of the Elementary School.  Whiter than rice powder, with a bluish-mauve luster.  Softer than leaf-fall and more wind-dispersed.  You could taste it.  You could drink it.  You could swallow the sky.  Flakes settled in her mouth and on her open dazzled eyes.”

Then there’s Catherine, a Scottish journalist, briefly in Sydney, and still mourning the recent death of her bother in an automobile accident.  Another survivor, of course, but one of the walking wounded—far from at peace with herself and, in the midst of her peregrinations around Sydney, witness to another tragic event and a reminder how close we all are to random violence and gratuitous acts.  She’s as burdened by the present and the past as is James DeMello, Ellie’s former lover, who will finally meet up with her for the encounter both have felt with such heavy anticipation.  But James, too, has the burden of a recent tragedy and though he has ached to tell Ellie about it, hoping that she of all people will somehow succor him, he is unable to reveal to her what it is that has happened, what will make it impossible for the two of them to come together as they did in the past.

Sydney’s own past is also central to Gail Jones’ lush novel—especially the country’s Aboriginal heritage.  Historical sites, museums, Aboriginal paintings but above all the almost hypnotic dirge of the didgeridoo, a fitting atmosphere for these mostly lost souls.  And Sydney—like London in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, New York in John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, and any number of memorable “city” novels—breathes on every page, permeates the consciousness of Jones’ characters whether they are newly transported arrivals to the metropolis or denizens with a lengthy connection to the unforgettable city.  Five Bells is an indelible account of four characters caught in time and space, in one of the world’s most memorable cities.

Five Bells
By Gail Jones
Picador, 224 pp., $15

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.   

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

July 19, 2018
Rajai R. Masri
The West’s Potential Symbiotic Contributions to Freeing a Closed Muslim Mind
Jennifer Matsui
The Blue Pill Presidency
Ryan LaMothe
The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals
Paul Tritschler
Negative Capability: a Force for Change?
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations
Rev. William Alberts
A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret
Raouf Halaby
Joseph Harsch, Robert Fisk, Franklin Lamb: Three of the Very Best
George Ochenski
He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”
Ted Rall
Right Now, It Looks Like Trump Will Win in 2020
David Swanson
The Intelligence Community Is Neither
Andrew Moss
Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy
Kim Scipes
Where Do We Go From Here? How Do We Get There?
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail