IN THE Little Lucky Cafe in Bacchus Marsh, a small town in Victoria, Australia, where Peter Carey grew up, there’s a sign on the wall that says “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
The motto could, I guess, be that of small towns everywhere, but perhaps it applies less to Peter Carey than most. He is who he is – Australia’s greatest living writer, and a double winner of the Man Booker prize – because of what he’s made himself too.
So today he is talking to me not from Bacchus Marsh, where his father had a car dealership, but Manhattan – which, although it isn’t mentioned in his new novel, Amnesia, is where it began.
“I was having lunch with my editor, Sonny Mehta, and I was saying what an important person historically Julian Assange was. He looked at me and said ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to write his book, would you?’ That was a thought that came and went in a second [in the end, Andrew O’Hagan got the job, although he then ran into so many problems with Assange that he probably wishes he hadn’t] because I don’t have the journalistic skills required to do it and I was writing a book anyway.”
But he did start thinking about the Wikileaks founder because, in a way, he understood him. They’d both gone – briefly and decades apart – to universities in Melbourne. They were both radicals. Assange’s mother, an artist (as was Carey’s first wife), had raised him “in certain parts of hippie Queensland that I’d lived in”. They both had similar attitudes to the United States too: that it was an imperial power with no compunctions about intervening in Australian domestic politics, and that the CIA had proved this in the great Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 – the so-called Dismissal, when Gough Whitlam’s Labour government was dissolved on the orders of the then Governor-General.
It’s fair to say that many Australians dispute this interpretation of events. But in Amnesia no-one does. To them, and to many on the Left, it’s straightforward. Whitlam’s reforming government (pulling Australia out of the Vietnam war on its first day in power, recognising China, promoting land rights for Aborigines, providing state funding for the arts, ending Aboriginal land rights etc) was forced out of office because of CIA unease at wavering commitment to its Pine Gap tracking station near Alice Springs.
That’s Carey’s position and, he presumes, Assange’s too – “that the United States had already attacked us, so he would attack the United States”. But he wasn’t interested in rehashing Assange’s story. He wanted to make up something of his own. His protagonist would be a young girl, he decided. But what could her crime be? What could make her as reviled in the US as Assange (an Australian, even though the American media habitually referred to him as a “traitor”)? What crime could possibly be so heinous?
The answer comes in the first paragraph of Amnesia: “It was a spring evening in Washington DC; a chilly autumn morning in Melbourne; it was exactly 22.00 Greenwich Mean Time when a worm entered the computerised control systems of countless Australian prisons and released the locks in many places of incarceration, some of which the hacker could not have known existed. Because Australian prison security was, in the year 2010 mostly designed and sold by American corporations, the worm immediately infected 117 US federal correctional facilities, 1,700 prisons and over 3,000 county jails.”
So far, so untypical. But Carey immediately stops sounding like Tom Clancy and instead swings the narrative back in time. Who exactly was this person who let the work loose – the Angel, or Gaby Baillieux as she is known in the “meat world”? How can Felix Moore – “Australia’s last serving left-wing journalist” as he likes to think of himself – track her down? And the answers take Carey not just to the early days of cyberspace and the heady dawn of hacking but a couple of generations earlier.
Back, in fact, to 1975 – to the great cause of Moore’s life, the one that’s been blanked out of the Lucky Country’s national consciousness, what has come to be known as the Dismissal. “If the ‘events of 1975’ seem confusing or enigmatic to you,” writes Carey as Moore, “that is exactly my point. They are all part of The Great Amnesia.”
So let’s examine 1975 – which was also, coincidentally, the year of Gaby’s birth. In the novel, this is where we move clear of cyberspace, back into the novel’s best scenes, where Carey brilliantly describes life in Melbourne’s bohemian Carlton suburb, where Gaby lives with her actress mother Celine. This is where Felix, then a student at Monash University (where Carey went for a year) after having grown up in Bacchus Marsh (what a coincidence!) first got to know her. At the time, she was a free-spirited activist actress living in the “narrowest house in Carlton, as wide as a suburban driveway, dove grey, salmon-pink, with a cast-iron verandah where you could have seen, at any moment, the tight press of Australian art and politics”.
What was Carey doing back then? Although you’d have thought from the vividness of these scenes from Gaby’s early life that he must have been living there, in 1975 he was 32 and working part-time in advertising in Sydney. No, he says, he and his colleagues were nothing like the sharp-suited shysters of Mad Men. Down the line from his sixth-floor apartment near Manhattan’s City Hall Park, he laughs at the very thought. “In my time in advertising, you mightn’t have been able to tell the difference between a copywriter and a left-wing hippie if you met them on the street,” he says. Even when he was on the board, he still turned up for meetings in flip-flops, pyjama trousers and second-hand Hawaiian shirts. It helped that he was so brilliant at his job that his bosses allowed him to get away with working as little as one week a month. The rest of the time he lived in an alternative community in Queensland, and wrote and wrote.
These were the years of his short stories – experimental, often surreal, heavily imaginative but lacking in the basics of plot and storytelling that only started to infuse into his work after his discovery of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. From 1985 onwards, with the publication of Illywhacker, the tallest of tall stories, and then the no less madly ambitious Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988), he became something like Australia’s mythographer, not least with True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), which provided his second Man Booker win.
Look at his novels again, though, and the first thing you realise is how different they all are in style and content. Amnesia, for example, heavily plotted and daring to take on cyberspace as well as the 1975 political crisis, seems to have hardly anything in common with the beautiful dreaminess of Oscar and Lucinda.
“But they’re all political,” Carey insists. “This one obviously is, but right from the beginning they have had political ideas at their heart. A novel like Jack Maggs, for example, is a reinvention of Magwitch in Great Expectations, who himself represented the dark Other, the convict who is really … us! And Oscar and Lucinda is about the possession of the Australian continent by Europeans and the loss of indigenous stories.”
With Amnesia, that process of culturally defining Australia continues, this time against the United States rather than Britain. From its beginnings, he suggests, Australia had an amnesiac culture. “Growing up, we were told we had nothing to do with the convicts: that happened a long time ago and had nothing to do with us. Then there had been the notion of the ‘convict stain’ and the general feeling that you couldn’t have a decent society with this genetic material.
“Maybe because of that Australians have always believed that if we put up our hand and volunteer – from Gallipoli all the way through to Korea and Vietnam, or the ‘coalition of the willing’ – then, when the time comes, the Great Power will come to our aid. But politics doesn’t work like that. The thing is, people who smile at you and say you are their friend will f*** you over if they need to.”
Amnesia, unlike Carey’s recent novels such as Parrot and Olivier in America and The Chemistry of Tears, is firmly set in Australia, and the next book he is working on will be too. “I’m always trying to write something better than I ever have, and I have an idea for my next novel that will allow me the opportunity to do that. I can see a way to write something that I never thought I would be able to – and that’s exciting.”
And no matter how hard I press, he’s not going to give anything more than that away. In the meantime, don’t blank out Amnesia.
•Amnesia, by Peter Carey, is published next week by Faber, price £18.99