Illywhacker / Peter Carey (1985)
More than two decades ago, when Professor Noël Debeer set Peter Carey’s six-hundred page novel Illywhacker on the Pacific Literature course curriculum at the French University of the Pacific, along with Albert Wendt’s novella, Pouliuli (1977), and an eclectic collection of New Zealand contemporary short stories half the size of Illywhacker, it would never have dawned on me that I could grow fond of Australian novels, let alone that I would instantly fall in love with Carey’s saga. The bulkiness of this magnum opus, which gave Carey’s career an international radiance, would surely put me off before I could even read the opening line.
But out of curiosity, I read the first paragraph, and the first pages, written in Dionysian style, swiftly morphed into engrossing chapters that revealed a fabulist’s fertile and free-flowing imagination whose originality would make Illywhacker my coup de coeur. Beyond the admirable aesthetics of the novel, Carey has the gift of engaging readers’ attention through intellectual stimulation by avoiding well-worn paths.
This picaresque narrative about three generations of Australians told by a self-confessed compulsive liar has truly entranced me through its truculence, whacky plotline and historical fresco. Carey makes this all the more interesting through his underlying bold critique of contemporary Australia, which he depicts as a society of tricks and tricksters.
Through his unreliable narrator’s richly eventful life, Carey spans a century and a half of Australian history: from the 1850s gold rush and the lynching of the Chinese at Lambing Flat, the shearers’ strike in the 1890s, the Great War, the arrival of aviation in Australia with the celebrated Charles Ulm, the Great Depression, the Second World War, right up to a multicultural Australia that Carey perceives as pluriethnic. Like the majority of his novels, Illywhacker culminates in the poetic metaphor of Australia as “the Best Pet Shop in the World,” which, on a societal level, symbolizes the country’s ghettoisation.
Domestication is omnipresent in this epic whose original title—Pets—illustrates the postcolonial condition of Australians who, according to Carey, have “historically...mostly behaved as pets.” After being under British protection, Australians finally turned to the United States in 1941, knowing that they could rely on the Americans for protection, before giving in to the economic conquest of Japan. If the Bacchus Marsh-born author courageously refuses this subjugation, it is because notions of dependency, servility and passivity inherent in domesticity may restrain the creative imaginations of his compatriots.
Jean-François Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel will be released in February 2016 by Wakefield Press.