Jewish author Down Under pens 'cli-fi' novel in Australia, with a U.S. edition released June 21 from Bloomsbury in NYC
in Australiapens 'cli-fi' novel
by Dan Bloom
CHIAYI CITY, Taiwan --
If there's one continent on Earth where the twin impacts of global warming and climate change are very much on the minds of the people who live there, it's Australia. It's doesn't help that the Australian government is lagging behind on legislating progressive climate change policies, but
there's something about living on a massive island nation so much of which is desert which makes some novelists there think about climate change, too.
In recent years, a small army of novelists Down Under have taken up the topic in a variety of ways, including Jewish-Australian author Mireille Juchau, author of a cli-fi novel titled "The World Without Us" published in the U.S. this month.
Juchau shared with me an essay she
about her grandmother, noting in one anecdote: "At the back of her pocket 'Collins German Dictionary,' in the looping Suetterlin script once taught in German
my grandmother has written: 'This dictionary bought with the last money exchanged into English currency and bought on departure from Europe. Liverpool 1939.'
''The tattered relic with its broken spine and fraying, Sellotaped edges was one of the few possessions she carried when she left Europe as a German Jewish refugee. It's become symbolic of two things about my grandmother: her determination to be identified as Australian -- never speaking German outside the home even once it was safe to be German, and Jewish -- and the sustaining role that writing played in her life
A deep thinker and literary artist in her mid-40s who is concerned about climate change much more than most people, Juchau says that one power that novels
have is that they can ''address a hunger
wemight not realize we possess.
If there's one continent on Earth where the twin impacts of global warming and climate change are very much on the minds of the people who live there, it's Australia.
"At the back of her pocket 'Collins German Dictionary,' in the looping Suetterlin script once taught in German schools, my grandmother has written: "This dictionary bought with the last money exchanged into English currency and bought on departure from Europe. Liverpool 1939," Juchau began her essay, adding:
''The tattered relic with its broken spine and fraying, Sellotaped edges was one of the few possessions she carried when she left Europe as a German Jewish refugee. It's become symbolic of two things about my grandmother: her determination to be identified as Australian -- never speaking German outside the home even once it was safe to be German, and Jewish -- and the sustaining role that writing played in her life.
''More than 60 years after the end of the Second World War books by Holocaust survivors are still being published in Australia. Recent examples include Sabina Wolanski's Destined to Live and Auschwitz survivor Jacob Rosenberg's award-winning East of Time and Sunrise West . Yet the declining number of those who've directly witnessed the Holocaust means the event will increasingly be portrayed by younger writers -- children of survivors in Australia, the so-called "second-generation.
When asked in an Australian interview for a Jewish Writers' Festival in Australia in May 2016 who her favorite Jewish character is in a work of literature, Juchau replied:
"Tateh, the socialist silhouette artist in E.L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime.' Tateh's ascendance from tenement slums to Hollywood mogul is galvanized by a tender love for his daughter. This makes him pretty progressive in 1920s New York. But he also shows the complex forces that drive the immigrantss entrepreneurial spirit."
"Mireille Juchau is unsure whether her novel 'The World Without Us' should be classified as "cli-fi", an emerging genre of fiction that puts our changing climate squarely in the middle of a story.
Bees are dying, properties are being sold off to mining companies, there's a sense of despair amongst the farmers; it's a near future that rings too true.
But, like books such as Margaret Atwood's ''Year of the Flood'' and Barbara Kingsolver's ''Flight Behaviour ''which have both been placed in this genre, the real story here is about people and the things that bind them together in the face of adversity.
Juchau says she read an interview with American environmentalist Bill McKibben who said one of the best things we could do, in preparing for climate change, was to live somewhere with a strong sense of community.
"I have always been really interested in how our communities support us when everything around us is shifting and changing," she told the reporter.
"I love novels of ideas, where the ideas take centre stage, but I felt here I wasn't trying to convey one single message, one particular thing to get across, but rather involved myself in the complexity of these questions.
"I think if you want to be true to the subject [of climate change] you have to acknowledge its complexity. No one has a single solution to what's happening to our environment. There are many competing voices, competing stories."
Juchau, in her mid-40s, has two children and she said that ''looking at climate change from their point of view was an interesting part of the process with this novel.''
"How do we talk to children about the world that they're inheriting and what do they think about these narratives that are constantly surrounding them about the world ending, this very apocalyptic narrative about what's going on in our environment?
If you have time and an interest in how Australian novelists take on climate change in their own private, artistic ways, read "The World Without Us."
I did, and I 'm glad I did!
Literature seems to be mainly about absences: giving words to what we can’t quite grasp, to what we wish were there, to what we fear we’ve lost. The Latin expression “verba volant, scripta manent” (“the spoken word flies away, the written word remains”) can be read as a profession of faith in the power of the text to hold on to what is fleeting. And yet, there are presences that every literary text seems to require: the writer who describes these absences and the reader who acknowledges them. To imagine the word or the world without us as witnesses is an almost impossible exercise.
This unbearable absence lies at the heart of Mireille Juchau’s 3rd novel. In an idyllic Australian landscape, now polluted by the chemical emissions of a gas mining company, a family falls apart. Stefan, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, and former artist Evangeline, his wife, are the survivors of a commune called The Hive, founded by a psychotic leader in the aptly named Ghost Mountains of New South Wales and destroyed by an unexplained fire. The couple have three daughters: two adolescents, Tess and Meg, and the infant Pip, who has died of leukaemia before the novel begins. Pip is the central absence of the story. Around her ghost, the other family members mourn: Tess by refusing to speak, Evangeline by constructing a totemic monument hanging Pip’s medicine bottles and boxes from a tree, Stefan by drinking. Meg alone attempts to lend coherence to her crumbling family, knowing that she cannot but fail. Other characters form a fragmented tragic chorus around the protagonists: Jim, Tess’s teacher who left Sydney under a cloud; Tom Tucker, an apocalyptic figure warning his neighbours of impending ecological disaster.
These absences – of language, of art, of reason, of cohesion – are set in a natural framework that is also failing. Monstrous creatures such as a double-headed fish appear in the waters, clear-cut logging turns once verdant areas into deserts, the air itself appears to become poisonous. Above all, the bees are disappearing. Stefan is a beekeeper. He inherited the vocation from his grandfather, harvesting honey in a bombed Berlin after the war. Now, like a public emblem of his private loss, his bees are swarming but fail to build new colonies, the queens become feeble and cannot nourish the hive, the workers and drones can’t seem to fulfil their tasks. When Meg asks her father whether the vanishing bees were theirs, Stefan can only answer in broken English and in cosmic terms: “The bees are belonging to the earth and then came the interfering of man. We should give up trying to control them.” And then Stefan, in the voice of God, quotes from the Midrash, the Jewish traditional compendium of biblical stories: “And everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world – if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
As befits a book whose theme is so explicitly absence, mysteries abound: hints of unanswered questions, clues to unasked riddles. Whose body is it found in an abandoned car wreck? What tragedy caused Jim to leave Sydney and seek refuge in the wilderness? What incident during her time at The Hive left such terrible scars on Evangeline? What deep connections seem to bind all the many characters together?
Juchau’s style is perfectly poised, elegant and restrained. Almost any page of this astonishing novel offers proof of a writer of great poetic power. Here is Evangeline, pregnant with Pip, leafing through Tess’s school notebook: “Evangeline stands at the table now, head bent, wet hair glued to her neck, and turns the pages. She gnaws a fingernail, shifts from foot to foot, redistributing baby weight, easing the sacral muscle spasms. She’s ticking, on the verge of a cry or a scream, full of anticipatory restlessness. She reads it over again, lips moving, one finger travelling beneath each word, this account of a time she’d not been part of, this glimpse of Daughterland.”
There is a term from the visual arts, “reserve”, that denotes the empty space on an otherwise populated canvas or paper, kept by the artist for a later completion that is often never realised. This visible absence, the promise of something essential and as yet unfulfilled, allows viewers to construct their own mental picture and in a sense collaborate on the work presented to them. The World Without Us is built around just such a “reserve”. The result is an extraordinarily vivid novel, elegant, convincing, intelligent and profoundly moving.