The Picaresque as Australian Political Satire

НазваниеThe Picaresque as Australian Political Satire
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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith’s focus on economic colonisation is centred on the foreign exploitation of Efican natural resources, both material and human. To that end, Carey includes an ‘extract’ from the journals of the discoverer of Neufasie (later Efica), Captain Girard (Carey 1994: 5). Captain Girard’s description of the new land is noteworthy for its emphasis on the natural resources of Neufasie and their mercantile possibilities for the colonialist. “Here there is a high mountain, out of which the finest blue is mined. There are veins in the earth whence silver is mined. The little cactus plant is everywhere so abundant that one might … provide red tunics for all the king’s men …. The fowl is abundant and the fishing good” (Carey 1994: 83f). The neo-imperialist Voorstand continues to exploit Efica’s natural resources in the same way that the original colonialists exploited Efica’s native flora (Carey 1994: 33). The export of natural material resources has an impact on the overall economic strength of the colonial nation vis-à-vis the more developed economy of the imperial nation (e.g. Carey 1994: 231f).

Colonising forces also exploit Efican labour. Not only does the colonising power extract and benefit from the colonial nation’s natural material resources, but it also ‘extracts’ the potential leaders of colonial cultural, political and economic life. The prime example of this is that one of the main impetuses for Bill’s acceptance of the job with the Saarlim Sirkus is financial (e.g. Carey 1994: 49, 51, 53). This suggests that Voorstand’s relative economic strength means that it can attract the best artists from the colonies. This continual extradition of Efica’s intellectual and cultural elite perpetuates the cycle of Efican submission to Voorstand.

  • Cultural imperialism

The power politics involved in narrative is a recurring theme in Carey’s work, but in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith it becomes the central or dominant theme. As Tristan explains to his Voorstand readers, “It was through your charm and your expertise that you conquered us, with your army, yes, and with the VIA, but you kept us conquered with jokes and dancers, death and beauty, holographs, lasers, Vids, with perfectly engineered and orchestrated suspense” (Carey 1994: 294). Carey, therefore, suggests that neo-colonialism is not purely the result of a client state’s fear of reprisals or sanctions from the dominant state, but also involves some degree of co-operation or consent on the part of the colonised (Pierce 1996: 144).

Book One of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, in particular, is concerned with making analogies between theatrical and political life (Fletcher 1997: 53). At a fairly simplistic level, Vincent’s character embodies this link between politics and culture since his twin interests include being a strategist for the Blue Party and avidly attending the theatre. Felicity uses both the theatre and politics as a means of altering society – “When, … my maman found a way to really threaten the status quo it was not through the theatre but in the dirty old fairground of baby-kissing politics” (Carey 1994: 7). The Voorstand Sirkus, too, is seen to be just as political as the Feu Follet’s agitprop (Fletcher 1997: 54). The Sirkus, in effect, is another means by which Voorstand asserts its dominance over Efica. This is suggested in the text by the fact that Felicity opposed the importation of the Sirkus into Efica “as if it were a war ship or subterranean installation…. She said the Sirkus would swamp us, suffocate us” (Carey 1994: 10). Tristan, likewise, explicitly links Voorstand’s political or military imperialism and the cultural imperialism of the Sirkus. He recounts “that shameful period of Efica’s history as armies of our conscripts were raised to fight Voorstand’s war in Burma and Nepal. … I saw the Sirkus Domes spread across our little islands and the Bruders appear to spread their stories, your stories, not ours, in every corner of my nation’s life” (Carey 1994: 311). In short, the Sirkus epitomises the cultural imperialism that accompanies and supplements economic and political domination.

Tristan’s acknowledgement that the Sirkus “was propaganda, of course” (Carey 1994: 165) highlights the fact that neo-colonialism relies on effective narratives of control (Pierce 1996: 141). These narratives of control are fostered primarily through recognisable “symbols of power” (Carey 1994: 5). These symbols of power need not be overtly political or militaristic and, indeed, Voorstand is seen to export its most potent symbols of power through the distillation of its popular mythologies in the Sirkus. Felicity overtly links the zoomorphic mythology of the Voorstand Bruders – the Dog, the Duck and the Mouse – to Voorstandish foreign policy. “She painted the Phantome as a spy, the Dog as a soldier, the sharp-toothed blue-coated Mouse as a paranoid – its white-gloved finger hovering above a button which might destroy the planet” (Carey 1994: 180). The Sirkus, in short, is presented as the vehicle of Voorstand’s cultural domination.

Cultural imperialism in the novel is seen to take the form of a political opiate for the masses in the colonies (Woodcock 1996: 112). Tristan first attends the Sirkus, for instance, as a balm for his depression (Carey 1994: 160). The spectacle, thrills and suspense of the Sirkus can be read as distracting attention away from Voorstand’s depredations. It, consequently, facilitates the political subservience of the Eficans, by desensitising them to Voorstands imperialist agenda. In short, “the Sirkus is thrilling. Would it have captured half the world if it were not?” (Carey 1994: 342).

Voorstand’s cultural imperialism is all pervasive. Eficans are exposed to the Voorstand Sirkus and the folklore of the Bruders from birth. As Tristan explains to his Voorstand readers, “Madam, Meneer, you are part of our hearts in a way you could not dream…. We grow up with your foreignness deep inside our souls” (Carey 1994: 292). Voorstanders “have no idea of your effect on those of us who live outside the penumbra of your lives. [TS]” (Carey 1994: 351f).

The Voorstand Sirkus is a global cultural form. It is not, however, ipso facto, ‘evil’. Felicity, for instance, opposes the Sirkus in Efica, “not there. In Saarlim, the Saarlim Sirkus is just the Saarlim Sirkus. I don’t hate it in Saarlim” (Carey 1994: 49). The concern Carey raises, however, is that the Sirkus’ evolution into a powerful high-tech entertainment system known throughout the world suppresses the emergence of other cultures (Willbanks 1997: 15). The urgency of Efica’s need to produce an indigenous culture stems not from the ‘evil’ content of the Sirkus, but from its sheer dominance. The Sirkus, as every Efican identifies, means cultural death (Carey 1994: 136). The Sirkus relies on creating audience suspense or thrills through amazing feats of athleticism enhanced by an actual risk to the performers life. “We were Ootlanders, but we knew – as all the world knows – that death, the possibility of death, is always on the menu in your entertainment” (Carey 1994: 341). This ‘possibility of death’ has far greater cultural resonance for a member of the audience not from Voorstand. As Tristan explains, “when we Eficans watch the Voorstand Sirkus we do not watch like you. We watch with our mouths open, oohing and aahing and applauding just as you do, but we watch like Eficans, identifying with the lost, the fallen, the abandoned. When a performer falls, c’est moi, c’est moi” (Carey 1994: 136). According to Tristan, Bill’s employment in the Saarlim Sirkus meant that he “would be acting out, with his own body, the surrender of our frail culture to your more powerful one” (Carey 1994: 52).

The sheer size and pervasiveness of the Sirkus threatens to marginalise any Efican cultural activity (e.g. Carey 1994: 10). Its dominance is particularly threatening because Efica has no countervailing indigenous national culture. As Tristan explains, “Our greatest defence is our culture, and the brutal truth is – we have none” (Carey 1994: 231f). Felicity complains, “No one can even tell me what an Efican national identity might be. We’re northern hemisphere people who have been abandoned in the south. All we know is what we’re not. We’re not like those snobbish French or those barbaric English. We don’t think rats have souls like the Voorstanders. But what are we? We’re just sort of ‘here’” (Carey 1994: 117). The “liberal post-colonial conundrum” (Carey 1994: 125f) involved in the attempt to create an indigenous national culture when confronted by the dominance of Voorstand’s cultural imperialism is summed up by Tristan – “Had things been different I might have been a Voorstander, like you, and then there would have been no trouble” (Carey 1994: 6).

Carey explores the complex and often inconsistent negotiations that take place between national and global cultures. In particular, the novel highlights the ambivalent nature of the relationship between client and patron nations. Efica and Voorstand share a common history as settler societies (Carey 1994: 373). Efica is, then, both oppressed and inspired by Voorstand. Tristan, for instance, suggests that the Feu Follet acting style “has its roots in the laser technology of the Sirkus” (Carey 1994: 185). The novel suggests that cultural transference is not necessarily ‘stifling’ for the client culture and that narrative can be “a political weapon of both the oppressor and the oppressed” (Coe 1994: 5).

One of the issues Carey deals with in his treatment of the theme of cultural imperialism is that culture is often resistant to one-meaning definitions. The effects of a cultural form are often difficult to contain. Cultural transference, in other words, is not necessarily unidirectional. Voorstand not only exerts its influence over Efica, but is also seen to be vulnerable to subversion by colonials. Its Bruder mythology, for instance, is adapted to suit differing local circumstances. According to the unspecified editor of Tristan’s work, “Sirkus managers have a habit of changing names and characters to suit what they believe are ‘local conditions’” (Carey 1994: 339f). The Sirkus is, in other words, balkanised in the provinces. While the Sirkus may be an instrument of Voorstandish cultural imperialism, the Sirkus itself is both complex and ambivalent. This ‘organic’ tendency of culture, its openness to localised permutations and adaptations, allows for provincial resistance to hegemonic cultural systems. Carey implies here that resistance to cultural hegemony is not only possible, but in some ways, inevitable.

Highlighting this counter-discursive possibility within cultural forms, Carey provides an insiders critique of Voorstandish cultural hegemony. The most damning critique of Voorstand comes from the most ardent upholder of its traditions – Peggy Kram. Peggy laments the lost innocence and ideological purity of Voorstand. “When the Saints walked Voorstand, that is how it was … We were decent people then. The Sirkus was not just an entertainment. Bruder Mouse was not a clown. We knew him when we saw him…. We did not have all these codicils and revisions to the old laws…. We did not rape and murder. We did not thieve. We were better then” (Carey 1994: 406). The fact that Voorstand and the Bruder myths themselves have deteriorated or been corrupted highlights the idea that culture is not static, but dynamic. Peggy’s plan to capture the past in a ‘Ghostdorp’ or theme-park and force the ‘burghers’ of Saarlim to people it is a betrayal of the principles of Voorstands founding. In effect, Peggy has lost sight of the promises of new life and opportunity that the city offers to immigrants (e.g. Carey 1994: 299).

Peggy castigates Saarlim as “a corrupt and decaying city” (Carey 1994: 407). Saarlim City, however, could be read as a hybrid space, a mingling of different realities ranging from high-tech wealth to low squalor. The neglect and decay of Saarlim City – its “cracks, the weeds, the litter of radiator hoses, broken glass and rusted mufflers” (Carey 1994: 292) – highlights the discrepancy that exists between the images of the metropolis fostered in the colonies and the reality. On arriving in Saarlim, Tristan notes, “The cars around us on the road were not like the ones I had seen with starburst reflections on their chrome works in the zines. They were old, rusting, crumpled, belching blue smoke, dropping black oil” (Carey 1994: 293). The fact that the reality of Saarlim differs from the image it exports to the colonies of itself, therefore, challenges Voorstands hegemony. The dominant culture becomes vulnerable to colonial subversion. This process is metaphorically suggested in the text by Peggy’s seduction by Tristan in the guise of Bruder Mouse. As the upholder of Voorstandish tradition, the agorophobic Peggy is nevertheless infiltrated by an ‘Ootlander’ disguised as one of the central emblems of her own culture (Woodcock 1996: 111). Disguised as Bruder Mouse, Tristan recalls the myth of the Trojan Horse by highlighting the hidden weaknesses within hegemonic forces. The violence of Peggy’s reaction on seeing Tristan as he truly is suggests the seriousness of the threat he poses to Voorstandish culture. By demonising him (Carey 1994: 412) Voorstanders “seek to excuse their own credulity and the friability of their own culture” (Pierce 1996: 147).

The novel revives Carey’s ongoing concern with the vital yet ambivalent role of storytellers and stories in the construction of a meaningful national identity (Huggan 1996: 87). As the stories of the Voorstand Bruder’s show, stories can indeed be exploited. The Bruders have been co-opted from embodying the nature-loving, self-help piety of the nations founding, to now being agents of its imperialism. The fact that Tristan is on trial for impersonating Bruder Mouse, also suggests that the Voorstand mythology can indeed be exploited. At the same time, however, stories also have the capacity to “transform routine perception, to induce ‘altered states’ where we might see anew” (Huggan 1996: 87). Carey, therefore, draws attention to the importance of stories to colonial cultures. The Feu Follet’s raison d’etre is to create an “Efican vernacular”, to invent “the culture of its people” (Carey 1994: 45, 50).

Carey both plays with and takes seriously the idea that “a whole damn country” can be invented (Carey 1994: 53). In particular, he ridicules the ‘affected’ conceits and foibles of the vanguard of the arts community (e.g. Carey 1994: 68, 110). Obviously, however, the text itself takes seriously the idea that new cultures and new nations can be invented. Like Bill on his return from Voorstand, Carey himself seems to suggest that stories and “theatre could still change the destiny of a country” (Carey 1994: 77). The need for an indigenous, vigorous, Efican culture is, in fact, urgent when confronted with the political, economic and cultural power of the Voorstanders.

Felicity began the Feu Follet Collective as a means of inventing “a national style in drama” (Carey 1994: 41). Her authority to speak as the vanguard of Efican culture is, however, complicated by the fact that she was born in Voorstand (Carey 1994: 6). Felicity, therefore, personalises the dilemma facing Efica. It too is a hybrid of various colonial and neo-colonial cultures, and even speaks a hybrid language (e.g. Carey 1994: Glossary). Even the Feu Follet’s committedly nationalistic theatrical agenda could be seen as merely adapting the imperialist classics to its own emancipatory purposes. Even though it sometimes writes its own material (Carey 1994: 55), the Feu Follet consistently performs European classics (e.g. Carey 1994: 7, 55, 64, 70, 95, 110). Despite Bradley’s (1997: 18) comments to the contrary, the Feu Follet does not merely ‘ape’ its imported traditions. Most of the actors in the Collective have “some sort of connection with the indigenous circus and my mother used to like to shape her plays so that they used or developed, wherever possible, these disappearing skills” (Carey 1994: 24). Similarly, the theatre itself adapts imported traditions to create a uniquely Efican atmosphere. The Feu Follet theatre is in the “original configuration, that human circle which the Voorstand Sirkus abandoned but which gave the much humbler circuses of Efica their live, electrically charged audiences” (Carey 1994: 24). In short, an ‘authentic’ Efican cultural heritage may well be heavily hybridised by the political and cultural invasions the country has been subjected to. This ‘hybridity’, however, may in fact, constitute the post-colonial nation’s ‘authentic’ or ‘national’ identity.


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