My Life and other Fictions
By Michael Giacometti
Spineless Wonders, 2017
By DANI POWELL
Michael Giacometti’s first collection of short stories was launched by Dani Powell in the Art Shed in Alice Springs on 4 December. Presented by independent publisher Spineless Wonders as part of their Fiction Plus series, the collection comprises 20 stories as well as a personal essay in which the author shares his reflections on how the stories originated and evolved.
Giacometti has twice won the NT Literary Awards for poetry and recently launched a collection of haiku inspired by the landscape of central Australia – Portraits of Country. His stories have been published in several Australian literary journals and anthologies.
Powell is a writer, performance-maker and Director of the NT Writers’ Festival in Alice Springs in 2015 and 2017. The following is a slightly edited transcript of her launch speech, which started by acknowledging “the Arrernte story holders of this country we are in, Mparntwe, a place steeped in story”.
At the time Michael asked me to read the manuscript for this launch, I was reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. A few stories into Michael’s work, I turned back to the start of Solnit’s book, for there was something I’d read that found resonance in these pages.
“What is it like,” writes Solnit, “to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?” Then, she continues, “A place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storytellers’ art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”
This movement “from here to there”, as Solnit puts it, occurs on many levels within Michael’s stories but is magnified by the collection as a whole, as each story shifts dramatically between disparate places of habitation and imagination. Those who like their fiction to flow might be thrown by these shifts, but for me it became intriguing, as I wondered each time where we would be going next and what it was that bound these worlds together.
The collection begins with ‘My Abb’d Life’ – a story told from the dead, narrated in the voice of an Aboriginal female child. Knowing the writer (right) is male, of European descent, it is a bold position from which to start – an extreme habitation of a kind. But this story sets up what will follow. As we move through the collection we witness the writer shifting beyond binaries of black and white, male and female, past and present; taking various perspectives and positionings. Indeed, moving “from here to there”: from the ‘here’ of the writer to the ‘there’ of the other.
From this first story we move to ‘At Failure Creek’, to the perspective of a “land explorer”, recognisable as Captain Charles Sturt: a man in a “weakened and near blind state”, perhaps close to death himself. So how do we, as readers, get from here to there? The answer, in Michael’s work at least, is language. It is language that transports us in all of the stories; that takes us closer to the time and place and tongue of another. That enables the act of inhabitation, opening doors into other realms and imaginings.
I found myself quite swept up in the language of this second story – a language that tells the time but also gravitates more and more towards the feverish subject, until the reader is immersed in the mental state of someone teetering between the conscious and unconscious. Language, so haunting in parts, lured me in, in particular, to the dream of the dying man – of a glorious imagined parade down Rundle Mall which turns sour, transforming into a kind of funerary procession with a prone “living skeleton”. Then again, at the end, when Sturt is examining the shell – a metaphor perhaps for the physical landscape he has ended up in, or the spiral-like nature of the human condition, in which “there is nowhere to go, nowhere, a dead end”.
These themes of desire, fate, transcendence and cycles that won’t be broken recur throughout the stories and become what bind together the seemingly “unconnected impressions” (a term taken from the Pessoa quote in the book’s epigraph). In his essay, Michael states that he did not consciously plan to write a themed collection, but reflects how coming from the same source or unconsciousness they can be read as if they were a continuum. Perhaps ironically it is the writer’s own destiny to return, again and again, to the same themes.
Michael writes that for him most of his stories are Buddhist in nature. I quote his website: “Buddhist in the sense that the main character is either caught in the cycle of suffering, of samsara, or makes some effort to transcend and break free from it.”
While his themes may be spiritual, the stories are grounded in the grit of human experience; immersed in the visceral. Take the opening paragraph of ‘Encounter at Kalayakapi’. Here “flies mass on the unexpected feast – to maggotise, to multiply. The native cats, sated on the guts, juicy eyes, gristly ears, and meagre flesh, sleep through the interminable summer heat, leaving the carcass to improve in the outdoor oven.”
Indeed, it is the harshness of the elements, the barrage of camp smoke, ants and flies, and the stench of death from the meat of the last of their packhorses as it cures in the makeshift smokehouse that remind the protagonist Mr Whyte “of his own mortal existence”. Through language Michael moves the reader between here and there: here being the ‘mundus’, the worldly; and there, the ephemeral – dreams, the mythological, the realm of ghosts.
The third story ‘Ulysses of the Pacific’ takes another dramatic leap in place and time and character, signposted by a profound shift in language. Don’t be put off by the length of this story though I recommend one sitting to stay with this incredibly dramatized account of a ship sailing to claim the Biblical Isle of Mt Purgatory in the south Pacific.
Left: Giacometti at the NT Writers Festival in Alice Springs in 2017, with festival guest, writer Michelle Cahill who has endorsed his book.
This epic piece abounds in evocative images called forth by the strength of Michael’s fresh descriptions and commitment to come close to the vernacular of his subjects. It is almost like a painting, populated by “emasculated clouds”, “sails that spread like frozen lakes”, or a night that “fell like the lid of a coffin”.
“What kind of world is this?” is a line from the story ‘Encounter at Kalayakapi’, muttered by an explorer as he surveys the landscape, the hunting fires of Aboriginal people. It’s a line that might have appeared at the start of each story. What kind of world is this? And what time is it? For many of these stories appear untethered to a particular time, or are placed next to others from such a vastly different time that history is blurred with the present. Or as Michael puts it in the essay, “they appear contemporary, but that could be contemporaneous present, the past, or even the near or distant future”. Their setting, he describes as “anywhen”.
Sometimes, I admit I wanted to stay in the throes of one of these worlds longer. ‘Encounter at Kalayakapi’ is one such story. It is the tale of two men, an explorer and an old Aboriginal man. It is the story of two camps, two cultures; an encounter pulled in compelling tension by the writer who skirts around them and brings them to bear upon each other.
“They must have blind eyes,” says the old man, for they cannot see what surrounds them in this country. Or cannot read the country itself. I was taken back to Sturt in the earlier story ‘At Failure Creek’ – not only because of the obvious links of explorer and country, but because of the description of Sturt as a man in a “near blind state”. Here I started to appreciate themes of sight and seen, illusion and delusion; of mirages, phantoms, mirrors and myopia that track through many of the stories.
Not only are things unseen, they are also disappeared. The sweeping of the tracks by the old men in ‘Encounter at Kalayakapi’, to effectively disappear themselves, is recontextualised in a later story about stolen identity ‘AKA’. In ‘The Unnameable’, the unnameable become the disappeared and we reflect how history, unspoken and unnamed, can be forgotten.
As well as references to times and places and historical events, Michael’s fictions reference historical, literary and mythological characters: Elijah Upjohn, the Victorian hangman who hung Ned Kelly (and is revealed to have been a murderer himself); Charles Sturt, already mentioned, Edward Kelly himself, Leonardo Davinci, Italo Svevo, Raymond Carver. This raises the question, of course, of fact versus fiction. How much is based on research? How much imagined?
Of course, the writer had provided an answer in the book’s title: My Life and other fictions, so we could be reassured that whatever facts he may have used the telling would be his own. Michael goes into this question of reality versus dream in his essay, which he begins with a quote by Borges: “The mere telling of story removes it from the presence of historical fact; the act of telling creates a new genre of fiction.” (He does also write in the essay that he may have misquoted Borges or made the quote up, according to what he thinks Borges would say on the matter.)
Despite telling myself this, after a while I succumbed to curiosity and did reach for Google on more than one occasion. But I found this to be pleasurable – shooting off in myriad directions down the cavernous tunnels of research. And when I came back to the book I appreciated the richness of the writing all the more.
It wasn’t that I needed to know the backstory to appreciate or ‘get’ the stories. But the ample references and allusions to historic, religious and literary texts or figures, invite curiosity. They offer the reader another journey, if you’re up for it. The overall effect is one of layering. Rather than a linear narrative, the book is like an onion, each story representing another layer or skin, which invites further thought and incite as it is peeled, or read.
About half way through the collection, which I came to feel was a journey of a kind, we arrive at a more familiar landscape – ‘Sisyphus of the Simpson Desert’. I appreciated the return to home ground and had a sense of the writer also returned. There is a levity in this story, pardon the pun, for he writes of the ups and downs of the dunes, all the time questioning why he is dragging the cart through the saddles, like Sisyphus of Greek mythology.
Maybe knowing about Michael’s crossing the Simpson Desert in 2008, a solo 24-day journey in which he actually did pull a cart weighing twice his own body weight, was part of my appreciation of this piece. I relished this window into the person who had so far inhabited so many other characters, and who of course was the presence holding them all together. Maybe too it referenced the act of writing, or the burden of it. “Was there an end to all of this?” asks the writer, compelled perhaps to write on and through his own questions.
And so we continue up and down the saddles of these stories, from here to there and back again – while never straying from the human terrain. Then at the end, the essay, “shining a light on illusory worlds”, as Michael describes it. The essay is a good read in itself and it’s a treat to be let into the processes and inspirations of the writer and his own reflections on what the collection amounts to. There is hesitancy about its placement and Michael warns not to read it in the same sitting as the stories themselves. I also agree to let the stories simmer inside you first, before you read Michael’s reflections. Who knows, you might, as he suggests, go back and start reading again because now, having read the essay “the stories should shimmer with a somewhat altered appearance…”
What kind of world is this?
My Life and other Fictions