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Essay

Such is life in Beijing

SUNDAY, 3 APRIL 2011: Crossing the Hay Plain at 30,000 feet.

Underway at last! I didn't sleep well last night. In part it was the normal anxiety that precedes international travel, exaggerated by the fact that I haven't been overseas for years and that this is my first trip to China –a country so big as to be almost inconceivable.

But I blame my disrupted night mostly on Joseph Furphy, AKA Tom Collins. I don't recommend Such is Life:Being Certain Extracts from the Diary of Tom Collins (1903) as bedtime reading. For one thing, the novel is too bloody stimulating – or, as Furphy/Collins would say with his mock concern for propriety, 'too (adj.) stimulating'. Furphy's 'somewhat discursive style' makes for a narrative that is anything but direct as 'one idear sort o' fetches up another'. The story meanders, branches and eddies like the Murray River, around which parts of the novel are set, but it also plunges you into pools of philosophical reflection. Am I the architect of my destiny – here on 'my present holiday' as a result of my own independent decisions and actions – or are my present circumstances just the working-out of a complex set of chemical, physical and biological processes set in train with the Big Bang, when 'a scrap of fire-mist flew from the solar centre to form our planet'?

Furphy set my brain swirling and the cadence of Tom Collins' voice floated my dreams along curious currents. So reading Furphy is not conducive to a good night's sleep. Nor is it the easiest thing to do in a cramped economy-class seat on Air China flight 178.

 

MONDAY, 4 APRIL: Tuanjiehu District, Beijing.

We arrived close to midnight. The taxi ride along multi-lane expressways to our apartment gave us an impression of the immensity of Beijing, a city home to almost as many people as the continent of Australia: nineteen million, depending on how you count (fewer if you don't include the migrant workers who lack official residency permits). Despite the long journey, sleep remained elusive, so I resorted to Furphy/Collins while my family slept. Predictably, Furphy was of little help in navigating a path to the land of Nod. Such is life.

In the opening chapter Tom Collins runs across a group of bullock drivers. He is travelling around the Riverina as a 'Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector' for the New South Wales Civil Service, 'a Government official, of the ninth class' – a reference to the nine tiers of the Mandarin class in Imperial China. It's not a job that involves much work: Collins is paid according to grade rather than merit and 'not by any means in proportion to the loafing' required. He camps with the bullockies for a night – the night of Sunday, September 9, 1883, to be exact. It's a date chosen at random, if we are to believe Collins, from one of his 'twenty-two consecutive editions of Lett's Pocket Diary' with a week to an opening and 'all filled up'. At the outset of the book Collins promises to extract the diary entries of each day in the chosen week and to amplify them 'to the minutest detail of occurrence or conversation', in order 'to afford to the observant reader a fair picture of Life'.

So while the action in Chapter One ostensibly involves the bullock drivers' efforts to steal grass for their 'carrion', while avoiding detection by the station owner, much of the narrative is devoted to campfire conversations, recounting the yarns the men tell. The presence of the well-bred but impecunious Willoughby, who is 'travelling loose' with two of the bullock drivers, prompts an extended dissertation on the nature of class and education. Collins deplores the tendency of the Australian novelist to place 'the bookish student, or the city dandy, many degrees above the bushman or the digger or the pioneer', for it is, without doubt, 'easier to acquire gentlemanly deportment than axe-man's muscle'.

Willoughby is a 'whaler'. This is not a reference to time spent hunting giants of the deep, but to his vagabond status: like Bassanio in the Merchant of Venice, 'all the wealth he had ran in his veins'. As the editors of the annotated edition of Such is Life helpfully explain, a whaler was 'a tramp of particularly indolent type, who often camped for long periods where fish could be caught, especially along big rivers like the Darling, the Murrumbidgee and the Murray'. (The 'whale' in question is probably a Murray cod.)

'Whaler' is one of many expressions that have me flipping from the front of the novel to the endnotes, another reason why Furphy is not a good soporific: 'Cornstalk' (a young person born and bred in New South Wales), 'the Cabbage Garden' (Victoria), 'beef-bag' (shirt). I find some expired Australianisms worthy of resuscitation: 'please the pigs' (if circumstances allow), 'gives me the wilds and the melancholies' (gives me the willies) and 'ain't the clean spud' (has a bad reputation). Then there are technical details from the lost art of bullock driving: what is a 'Wagga pot', for example, and why is 'deference always conceded to wool'? (A Wagga pot is a type of bullock bell. Wool was more valuable than most other commodities and also more bulky, which tended to make for unstable, top-heavy loads so drays carrying other goods would give way to it.)

Above all I turn to the notes to appreciate the range and extent of Furphy's magnificent language. He is playful, erudite and witty, littering the text with references and allusions. The Bible and Shakespeare are favourite sources but Furphy also quotes Swift, Cervantes, Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson and many, many others. When Collins lies down to sleep he commits himself to 'sore labour's bath' (Macbeth), grateful that insomnia is not among 'the thousand natural ills' that his flesh is heir to (Hamlet), a fact he attributes to the operation of 'a mind at peace with all below' (Byron's 'She Walks in Beauty').

But enough, my family is stirring and Beijing awaits. Go to, then.

 

MONDAY, 11 APRIL: Tuanjiehu District, Beijing.

A week has passed. When I began this diary I intended to commit word to page each day but I can see that, like Furphy/Collins, I must amend my plans. When he opens his account Tom Collins promises to provide the record of seven consecutive days, confident that 'a rigidly faithful analysis of that sample would disclose the approximate percentage of happiness, virtue, &c, in Life'. But at the opening of Chapter Two he sees 'an alpine difficulty looming ahead'. His next evening was spent with a group of sheep drovers named 'Splodger, Rabbit, Parson, Bottler, Dingo, and Hairy-toothed Ike', and delicacy prevents him from 'getting the dialogue of such dramatis personae into anything like printable form'.

Instead, Collins decides to dip into his diaries at monthly intervals and so his account jumps forward to 9 October 1883. I will follow this example and provide weekly, rather than daily, instalments of our exploits in Beijing. The narrative thread of the journey will be broken but, like Collins, I hope a wider scope of observation might provide a fairer picture of our experiences.

But I must digress. Like Furphy I commenced my record without providing essential background information. Furphy's characters suddenly appear in the narrative as they might in Collins' diaries, without any contextual introduction. Equally, readers of this diary might wonder what brings me to China: my wife, Julie Shiels, has an artist's residency in Beijing and – together with our son Leo – I am helping to carry her bags. So while Julie works, Leo and I entertain ourselves as we see fit. As a journalist I am uncomfortable 'eating the damper of idleness', and like a busman on holiday I cannot help but engage my trade and provide some account of our time. Yet I cannot do so professionally, as my visa is restricted to tourist class. Like Collins I am compelled to take an 'enforced furlough', which gives me the leisure to undertake the 'pleasant task of writing out these reminiscences' and extend 'a ray of information, however narrow and feeble, across the path of such fellow-pilgrims as have led lives more sedentary than my own'.

It also gives me the time to reacquaint myself with Such is Life. This sprawling novel, first published in 1903, may seem an odd reading choice for a trip to the Middle Kingdom but there is method in my madness. I have decided to read the novel once every ten years, to mark the anniversary of the death of my father, Tim Mares, and his partner, Robin Eaden. Tim, and more especially Robin, were devoted Furphyists who worked with a team of fellow editors to produce The Annotated Such is Life (Halstead Classics, 1999). Recognising that the novel 'is not one that yields all its pleasures at once' the editors felt a guide would be 'as useful for Furphy as for Joyce or Chaucer'. The first annotated edition took sixteen years to prepare and appeared in 1991. Having completed the task, the editors, like painters on the Harbour Bridge, started over, and spent another eight years revising the work. This was a labour of love, with no prospect of monetary reward, external funding or career advancement. Julie and I would visit Tim and Robin to find the dining room table littered with scraps of paper, handwritten notes, card indexes and piles of opened reference books: an ordered chaos. 'Sorry about Furphy,' Robin would say. 'We'll have to eat outside.' I regret to say that I didn't pay much attention to the project and had only the vaguest idea of what the novel was about. I assumed it must have had something to do with Ned Kelly.

When the 1999 edition was finally ready, Robin proudly presented us with a copy. In the flyleaf she wrote: 'Love to Julie and Peter, who had to suffer the page proofs!' It was a reference to another visit, during which piles of Furphy had occupied most of the furniture, and much of Robin and Tim's attention span. It was an alarmingly thick volume. I promised myself I would read Furphy – one day – and stuck him on the bookshelf to be forgotten.

He might be there still, but not two years later, in early 2001, Tim and Robin died in a car crash. Horrible months followed, and in the fog of that year I opened up Furphy for the first time. At first I was bewildered, as many readers are, but I persevered, initially out of a sense of obligation to Tim and Robin but eventually with a slow-dawning enjoyment. I gradually began to appreciate why they had been so passionate about keeping this novel alive. I marvelled then, and marvel now, at the dedication, the huge amount of work, the scrupulous attention to detail, that Robin and her fellow editors applied to the text.

Shane Maloney reckons that Such is Life is a novel 'which nobody reads and even fewer comprehend'. He is echoing the late Manning Clark, who described Furphy in The Australian Dictionary of Biography as 'the author of a classic which few were to read and no one was ever to establish clearly what it was all about'. I've been told that Chris Wallace Crabbe warns students at Melbourne University that 'no one should have to read Furphy for the first time'. Tongue in cheek and unfair, such assessments contain an element of truth. The novel is long and complex, boldly experimental for its time, packed with (sometimes obscure) references, and told by a charming but unreliable and infuriatingly prolix narrator. It is a novel that cannot be rushed; it richly rewards the observant and judicious reader. As The Bulletin's literary critic Alfred George Stephens wrote, after reading the first draft of the manuscript in 1897: 'Rather long-winded, yet Such is Lifeis good. It seems fit to me to become an Australian classic, or semi-classic, since it embalms accurate representations of our character and customs, life and scenery which in so skilled and methodical a form occur in no other book I know. I think the book ought to be published and would find a sale.'

It did find a publisher, but sales were modest and have remained so. In 2010 Halstead Press ran out of stock of The Annotated Such is Life and ordered a reprint, but the annual turnover of the novel runs to tens rather than hundreds of copies. There are occasional upward blips in the sales chart when a brave or committed lecturer includes Furphy in one of the ever rarer Australian literature subjects in our academies. (Students at the University of Melbourne were so disappointed with the lack of local writing on offer last year that they established their own informal Australian literature course without any academic involvement.) It is disappointing that Such is Life is not yet finding a new generation of Australian readers but perhaps fresh interest in the novel can be kindled by the centenary of Furphy's death, this September.

Reading Furphy the second time I discover great, slow pleasure. But I must interrupt myself – Leo is waiting for me to join him in a game of table tennis. Beijing's housing estates are dotted with free public tables –concrete, with metal nets – an admirable example of urban planning. Hitting the ball around is not only fun for young and old but leads to some enjoyable interactions with the local citizenry. I will have to record more details of our life in Beijing on another occasion.

 

MONDAY, 18 APRIL: Tuanjiehu District, Beijing.

Rereading my account I realise that I have said a great deal about Joseph Furphy/Tom Collins and Such is Life, and almost nothing about China. But I am finding strange, unexpected connections between the book and my location. The novel was first published in 1903, but the narrative is set in the early 1880s, a turning point for Australia's pastoral industry. After hitting a high in the early 1880s, wool prices began to decline. According to some accounts of the country's economic history this boom-bust sequence was partly self-inflicted: high prices led to over-investment and over-production, then pushed down the price paid for the wool clip in London. I cannot help wondering if we are headed for a similar fall. Today, Beijing is our London, and the record-high commodity prices that China has been paying for our resources have stimulated a massive expansion of the mining industry in Australia and around the world. Should too much mineral production come on stream, or should China's economy falter, or should both these things happen simultaneously, commodity prices will plummet. Australia will be far more exposed than it was during the global financial crisis.

As I travel around Beijing, I cannot help but wonder about the longevity of China's boom. After admiring the architecture of the Olympic stadiums, Leo and I ventured into a new, upmarket shopping complex. It was clean and cold and almost deserted. We have now seen several such temples of marble and mirror, stocked with exclusive designer brands and well-manicured sales assistants but empty of customers. At the other end of the retail scale there are countless multi-storey covered markets, with row upon row of small, tightly packed stalls selling identical T-shirts, belts, dresses, bags, accessories. China may have 1.3 billion people but how much Rolex, Dolce & Gabbana and Lacoste (genuine or knock-off) can one country consume before reaching saturation point? It is little comfort to find that the renowned American professor Nouriel Roubini agrees with me. One of the few economists to predict the GFC, Roubini has been visiting China too and found a country 'rife with over-investment in physical capital, infrastructure, and property', evident in 'sleek but empty airports and bullet trains (which will reduce the need for the 45 planned airports), highways to nowhere, thousands of colossal new central and provincial government buildings, ghost towns, and brand-new aluminium smelters kept closed to prevent global prices from plunging'. Roubini says China is headed for a hard landing. If he's right, there is trouble down the track for Australia too.

The Australian economist Saul Eslake has a much more positive view of how long the China boom has to run. He reckons if you predict doom as often as Roubini, then you're bound to be right every now and again, just as a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day. Eslake's confidence in China's ongoing demand for Australian commodities is based on historical observations of the path from developing to developed nation. He says it will be at least another ten to fifteen years before China's per-capita income reaches the benchmark of around US$18,000 per head, the point at which a nation's consumers start shifting towards buying more services than goods. Until then, the economy will remain heavily geared towards energy-hungry heavy industry, manufacturing, construction and infrastructure development, with a matching appetite for coal, iron ore and gas.

There's a long way to go before most household incomes reach $18,000. We spent the weekend in the countryside, about two hours' drive north of Beijing, an area where the steep hills are terraced to grow chestnuts and where fish are farmed in backyard ponds (concrete tanks, really). It was dry and dusty and scrappy-looking, a flinty landscape that speaks of a hardscrabble existence – not the verdant green of rice paddies that you might find in better-watered parts of China, the type of country that inspires silk paintings of trees clinging to the edge of rocky promontories.

I marvelled at the industry required to survive in such a harsh environment. Part of our journey involved a visit to a section of the Great Wall, but the real wonder of China is the latticework of dry-stone terraces that extends high up into the hills, creating tiny patches of level land, sometimes barely big enough to cultivate two trees.

Our accommodation was a home stay – an arrangement encouraged and approved by provincial government to boost local incomes and preserve village traditions. As foreign tourists, we are not the primary target: the home-stay program is designed to entice Beijingers to get reacquainted with their rural roots and to share some urban wealth with their country cousins. The house was enclosed in a courtyard, the whitewashed walls adorned with red-painted characters for good luck and happiness – a lovely place to perch on a low stool and drink a beer, kept cool in a brick-lined underground pit, along with vegetables from the intensively cultivated courtyard garden. Everything had to be fished out of this cellar with a long metal hook.

Our hosts were a retired couple who spoke not a word of English, but who made great efforts to communicate. With rosy cheeks and rolled-up sleeves they resembled characters from a revolutionary propaganda poster – she in her apron strings, he in a boilersuit – cheerfully preparing to build the glorious socialist future as the sun rises in the East. On Saturday night they treated us to a huge feast of home-cooked dishes – including local fish, fetched from a neighbour down the street, and char-grilled with sesame seeds and Szechuan pepper; various types of fried dumplings; soup made with bean-thread noodles and dried vegetables (snow peas, mushrooms and cabbage that had been dried for storage through the cold winter months); fatty pork cooked in a clay pot with tofu; and some delicious wild greens that our host had picked from the mountain that day. At breakfast the next morning there was another spread of local specialities: congee (rice porridge) with red beans, eaten with salty pickles; and steamed buns filled with bean paste, ingeniously shaped to resemble hedgehogs.

After reading Furphy overnight, I found the hospitality almost shaming. China may not have been an emerging superpower in the nineteenth century, but it still loomed large in Furphy's day. Front of mind was the perceived threat of Chinese labour to Australian workers. To a twenty-first-century reader, the depiction of the Chinese in Such is Life is confronting. They are 'Manchurian lepers', 'yellow agony', 'foreign devils', 'pagans', 'heathens', 'Chinks' and 'Chows'. The Chinese gardener at Runnymede station is derided as 'Sling Muck'. At least he gets a name. Collins has repeated encounters with a Chinese boundary rider, Paul Sam Young, who he insists on calling 'John', a generic moniker as all Chinese look alike. When Collins meets the boundary rider for a second time he observes: 'though it is impossible to recognise any individual Chow, I fancied that this unit bore something more than a racial resemblance to the one from whom I had recovered Alf's bullocks. Moreover, he was riding the same horse (horses being far more easily distinguished from one another than Chows).'

Assuming the boundary rider is too stupid to understand English, Collins addresses him in a bastardised pidgin ('suiting my language to his comprehension'), showering him with abuse and bullying him with threats. Collins warns Paul Sam Young that he'll 'pull-um off you dud; tie-um you on ant-bed, allee same spread-eagle; cut-um off you eye-lid; likee do long-a China; bimeby sun jump up, roast-um you eye two-tlee day; bull-dog ant comballee, eat-um you meat, pick-um you bone; bimeby you tumble-down-die...' (Strip off your clothes and tie you spread-eagle to an ant bed, and cut off your eyelids like they do in China; by and by the sun will come up and roast your eyes for two or three days and the bull-dog ants will eat the meat from your bones until you fall down dead...)

This is coarse stuff and at first glance it is in keeping with the attitudes of the day: Furphy's bias is 'offensively [white] Australian'. But such ideas sit uncomfortably with Furphy's erudition and temper democratic; they stand in blatant contradiction to Tom Collins' frequent philosophical musings on universal brotherhood. When the down-and-out Andy Glover approaches his camp, Collins comments that the swagman's 'personal value, judged by the standard which I, for one, dare not disown, was certainly as high as that of the average monarch or multi-millionaire'. Andy may be unable to spell a word of two syllables, yet he too has 'thoughts that glow, and words that burn'. A long discourse on the nature
of status follows, in which Collins (or rather, his favourite Meerschaum pipe, which he is in the business of smoking at the time) espouses an Enlightenment faith that the spread of education and egalitarian ideas can overcome the 'petrified injustice' of entrenched privilege, wealth and class: 'I cannot think it is anything worse than a locally-seated and curable ignorance which makes men eager to subvert a human equality, self-evident as human variety, and impregnable as any mathematical axiom.'

I'm not looking to excuse Furphy or disown his support for white Australia, just to point to a level of complexity. Furphy is not Tom Collins, though he published under the name, and the writer assiduously alerts us to his narrator's shortcomings. Collins' abuse of Paul Sam Young is exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness and reflects poorly on him. In the end it is the boundary rider who proves the sharper of the two and gets the last laugh. Paul Sam Young encourages Collins to grass his horse in a paddock where he knows Collins will be caught trespassing and fined. Although the trick conforms to the stereotype of a cunning Asiatic, it is the white station boss, not Paul Sam Young, who conspires to set the trap. And there is a moment in which the typecast is broken, when Collins compliments the boundary rider by calling him a Christian, which draws a proud response from the not-so 'heathen Chow': '"Me Clistian allee same you," he replied, not without dignity. "Convelt plully long time. 'Paul' Clistian name. Splink' wattel, all li."' ('I'm a Christian just like you. I converted a long time ago. Paul's my Christian name. I was sprinkled with [holy] water, all right.')

 

MONDAY, 25 APRIL: Tuanjiehu District, Beijing.

Something strange is happening in our neighbourhood: there are people on the street sporting red armbands with yellow lettering that reads (in Chinese and English) 'public security volunteer'. Some are staffing intersections, waving little red flags to ensure that turning traffic gives way to pedestrians. We've seen public security volunteers sweeping the pavement, picking up rubbish and painting out graffiti. I saw one berating shiny-suited staff at a real-estate agency about the number of cigarette butts littering the footpath outside their office. Nothing to object to, but such vigilance is a little unsettling.

More disturbing is the sudden disappearance of Leo's favourite snack food: a spicy, pizza-like flat bread cooked on a griddle near the local market. When we went to get some we found not only that the stall was gone, but so were all the other pavement vendors. No flat bread, no steamed buns, no old man selling temple votive money, no old lady selling shoelaces and inner soles. Traders without an official permit or sufficient connections are being swept from the street. Clearly there is a clean-up going on, but we've been unable to discover the motivation for this sudden beautification campaign. Perhaps a zealous local party committee has ordered a spring clean or perhaps a dignitary is about to visit.

It's much like the lopsided contest between the bullock drivers and the station owners in Such is Life. The squatters need the bullockies to cart in their supplies and cart out their produce, but they don't want to share the grass in their paddocks or the water in their tanks with the contractors' hungry, thirsty beasts –particularly not in a drought year like 1883. Bullocks found illegally inside the squatters' fence lines were impounded and the drivers were forced to pay hefty fines for the release of their teams (and the return of their livelihood). Furphy had been a bullock driver himself, until the '83 drought ruined him, and his sympathies are clear.

The bullocky Steve Thompson sums up the dilemma well: 'If you want a problem to work out, just consider that God constructed cattle for living on grass, and the grass for them to live on, and that, last night, and to-night, and to-morrow night, and mostly every night, we've a choice between two dirty transactions – one is, to let the bullocks starve, and the other is to steal grass for them. For my own part, I'm sick and tired of studying why some people should be in a position where they have to go out of their way to do wrong, and other people are cornered to that extent that they can't live without doing wrong...'

Were he in Beijing, Furphy would sympathise with the footpath vendors, independent contractors like the bullock drivers. With little hope of establishing a formal right to trade on the street, but with the imperative to earn a living, they have no choice but to break the rules, and suffer at the whim of those with power.

 

MONDAY, 2 MAY: The Astor House Hotel, Shanghai.

Shanghai is a study in contrasts: on one side of the Yangtze is the elegant architecture of the colonial era; on the other, the gleaming skyscrapers of Pudong, towering follies stamped out of rice paddies and river mud in only fifteen years.

It is a reminder of how quickly the world changes. Furphy was born in 1843, just after the first opium war and just before this hotel was built. The British East India Company was smuggling opium across the border from Bengal to counter a trade imbalance with China. Alarmed by an increasing loss of revenue and growing rates of addiction, the emperor sought to crush the trade. The British retaliated with an expeditionary force and the war ended in the one-sided Treaty of Nanking, which forced the emperor to open up Shanghai and five other cities to European powers as trading ports. The colonial buildings that grace the Bund are a testament to the indifferent power of capital. They were built in the years when Furphy was trying his luck on the goldfields or at driving bullocks, before he moved to Shepparton to work in his brother's foundry and write his masterpiece in the back shed.

A few days ago we caught the train from Beijing to Shanghai, travelling through a flat landscape as intensively cultivated and densely occupied as Tom Collins' beloved Riverina was sparse and empty. With Furphy on my lap, I watched the Chinese fields and factories fly past the train window and contemplated what it means to be Australian.

As he traverses territory between the Lachlan and the Darling, Collins delights in the 'monotonous variety' of the 'interminable scrub'. It has 'a charm of its own; so grave, subdued, self-centred; so alien to the genial appeal of more winsome landscape, or the assertive grandeur of mountain and gorge'. Despite tacit acknowledgement of prior occupation – through the character of the half-caste Toby, who says, 'Why, properly speaking, I own this here (adj.) country, as fur as the eye can reach' – Collins describes Australia as a 'virgin continent' and sees the landscape as the crucible of a future nation: 'It is not in our cities or townships, it is not in our agricultural or mining areas, that the Australian attains full consciousness of his own nationality; it is in places like this...'

In our highly urbanised immigrant nation, I am suspicious of romantic theories about the Australian character being moulded in the experience of the bush. Yet, as the locally born child of Irish parents who emigrated in 1841, Joseph Furphy appears to have had little trouble sinking roots deep into Australian soil. As the first-generation child of English migrants who arrived more than a century later, I am more ambivalent. Beyond a preference for milky tea in the morning, I have never felt myself to be very English, but nor do I identify easily with the Anzac legend or the outback myth. I have no convict antecedents, no pioneering forebears, no links to diggers who fought on the Kokoda Track. I do not feel that I can lay claim to these stories any more than I could lay claim to stories of the Dreamtime. Yet I inherit some part of all these things, by virtue of my place of birth, and reading Furphy helps me to connect, to feel the history, to let it get under my skin.

 

TUESDAY, 3 MAY: At 30,000 feet, on the plane approaching home.

At some point in the night our flight crossed over the edge of the Australian continent. I should be asleep, but I've had Furphy to keep me company. At the conclusion of the novel the loose threads of Tom Collins' disjointed diary come together and links are established between his apparently random characters. A picture emerges from the complex tapestry of the narrative, although Collins doggedly fails to see it. For all his erudition, for all his book learning, our literary guide claims not to see the links in his own story.

Tom Collins tells us that he is 'fatally governed by an inveterate truthfulness'. We must take this statement –like his 'fixed resolution to avoid the very appearance of digression' – with a large pinch of salt. He vests his work with the authenticity of the eyewitness account, the 'limpid veracity' of individual experience – and Furphy did work with bullock teams, so he knows of what he writes. Yet memory is an elusive and unstable thing. Besides, Tom Collins is a pseudonym and not one chosen at random; in Furphy's day the name was an idiomatic reference to an imaginary person. This is the 'characteristic perversity' of Such is Life, a work that constantly attests to its truthfulness while alerting the reader to its artifice. It launched a broadside against the romantic conventions of the nineteenth-century novel and revelled in realism – from references to contemporary scientific debates on evolution to accurate descriptions of the plant life of the Riverina. Collins is 'a mere annalist', he claims, 'and a blunt, stolid, unimaginative one at that' – when in fact his diary is an elaborate, intricate fiction. This is the joke that runs through Furphy's book, and it is a reminder to readers to always pose the question: can I trust this author?

Such is life.

 

References

Joseph Furphy The Annotated Such is Life edited by Frances Devlin Glass, Robin Eaden, G.W. Turner and Lois Hoffmann, Halstead Classics 1999

Manning Clark 'Furphy, Joseph (1843-1912)' Australian Dictionary of Biographyhttp://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/furphy-joseph-6261

Shane Maloney 'Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy' The Monthly Sept 2009http://www.themonthly.com.au/encounters-shane-maloney-miles-franklin-joseph-furphy--1928

Stuart Maintyre "Temper democratic: Bias Australian" The inaugural Overland lecture, Melbourne Trades Hall on Wednesday 21 March 2001 http://evatt.labor.net.au/publications/papers/18.html

Nouriel Roubini 'China's bad growth bet' 14 April 2011 http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/roubini37/English

Australian Dictionary of Biography (online) Furphy, Joseph [Tom Collins] (1843 – 1912)http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A080618b.htm

'The state of Australian literature at our universities', The Book Show, ABC Radio National 25 August 2011http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2011/3301849.htm

Saul Eslake's comments about Nouriel Roubini and China's continuing demand for Australian resources were made in October 2011 at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in the panel discussion 'Resource rich or dirt poor: is Australia making the most of the mining boom?', subsequently broadcast on The National Interest on ABC Radio National. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/nationalinterest/stories/2011/3370570.htm


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review