Observer, January 7, 2001
At first sight, Ned Kelly is an odd choice as subject for Peter Carey’s seventh novel. Not that he has not used history in the past (most impressively in Oscar and Lucinda ); not that he has not used existing stories wonderfully well ( Jack Maggs , plot courtesy of Great Expectations
But Kelly is different. Biographies abound and, anyway, he is a character everyone thinks they already know; the poor Irish bushranger who stole from banks and gave to the poor, who never harmed women and children, who made himself a suit of armour with a bucket on his head, and shot a lot of policemen. A folk hero whose violence has been sanctified – the Australian Robin Hood. A cliche.
What is there here for a serious novelist to do? Perhaps tackle the story tangentially, perhaps find some unpredictable Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern slant and use the familiar tale as background? No. Carey tackles Ned Kelly head on. His life story is narrated chronologically in the first person, with uncanny faithfulness to the facts: from the arrest of Red Kelly (Ned’s father) for stealing a heifer in 1865, through young Ned’s apprenticeship to Harry Power, bushranger, and his subsequent tangles with the law, on up to the ghastly and well-chronicled scene at the Glenrowan hotel in 1880 when the Kelly gang’s plan to derail a train full of policemen is foiled, and Ned in his inhuman armour advances into a hail of bullets, beating his revolver against his breastplate, until his legs are shot from under him.
The novelist’s tricks of invention are limited to three. The first is the conceit that Kelly has, in the last two years of his life, written an account of himself for his (unseen) daughter, and that this account has been preserved as ’13 parcels of stained and dog-eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kelly’s distinctive hand’, which form the novel itself. The second is the love affair with Mary Hearn, who bears him a daughter. The third is the voice Carey gives to Ned. Which is where the magic begins.
Ned’s voice is the book and it is what makes the book wonderful. It is utterly convincing and continually surprising, creating new pleasures on every page. It is simple, direct, colloquial, humorous, respectfully prudish (‘It were eff this and ess that and she would blow their adjectival brains out’) and shot through with poetry – ‘A fright of blood-red parrots flared and swept through the khaki forest’. Running free from the clutter of any punctuation other than full stops, it spills into the reader’s mind with the immediacy of a speaking voice. ‘The current here were v. swift with Dan not steady in his saddle I therefore mounted behind him as we swum across together he were still the little nipper cursing me so violently he made me laugh.’ Sparse punctuation is, I guess, inspired by what is recorded of the real Ned Kelly’s voice, here dictated in his Jerilderie letter (quoted in Ned Kelly: A Short Life by Ian Jones):
‘It will pay the government to give those people who are suffering innocence justice and liberty if not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army.’ But in the voice Carey has written there is no doubt as to how to read it – it does not need more punctuation.
It is a voice dedicated to honesty (‘this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in hell if I speak false’) and this openness, this transparency of language, takes us to the heart of a character who is genuinely a great hero.
Ned’s violence is never skated over, but it is presented as the inevitable and tragic result of police persecution of poor Irish settlers. The account of the first murder Ned actually commits, at Stringybark Creek, is devastating. His mother has pointed a gun at a dishonest policeman, Fitzpatrick, who has betrayed Ned’s sister. Despite being rescued by Ned, Fitzpatrick later accuses him, his mother and his brother of attempted murder. The mother is imprisoned for three years and the brothers go into hiding, where word is brought to them of police preparations to pursue them.
The preparations include the manufacture of ‘undertakers’, long leather straps for buckling a corpse on to a horse. ‘We imagined our undertakers the leather straps lay fully revealed like giant tapeworms nestling in our guts all our lifetimes growing larger every day.’ The gang decide to confiscate the police weapons, but when they creep up and yell to the police to stick up their hands, one takes cover and raises his gun. ‘What choice did I have? I squeezed the fateful trigger. The air were filled with flame and powder stink Strahan fell thrashing around the grass moaning horribly on the ridges the mountain ash gleamed like saints against the massing clouds but down here the crows and currawongs was gloomy their cries dark with murder.’ From now on, we are in a Greek tragedy, as the gang move towards the final shoot-out.
That Kelly was an extraordinary man maddened by injustice is clear from Ian Jones’s excellent 1995 biography. What Carey succeeds in doing, though, is giving that extraordinary man a voice which makes him achingly real, while still retaining his identity as a kind of superhero. His is the story of all struggle against oppression; early on he tells us: ‘I’m sure you know I have spilled human blood when there were no other choice at that time I were no more guilty than a soldier in a war.’
And yet it has also, thanks to Carey’s extraordinary skill, the emotional power of an individual’s story; it is myth made real. Ned describes his sweetheart Mary critically overlooking his writing as ‘like a steel nibbed kookaburra on the fences in the morning sun’ – a description that applies equally well to the sharp, authorial intelligence behind Ned’s voice.
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