11 July, 2008

'The Day We Had Hitler Home' - Rodney Hall

Odd title; odd premise. The launching pad of this novel is the imagined tale of a twenty-year-old Adolf Hitler, blinded from gas bombs, stumbling into the wrong queue at the end of World War I and thereby arriving by steamer in 1919 to a welcome-home function for returning soldiers in remote, coastal NSW. This does not extrapolate into a novel encompassing a dreamt-up history for the German dictator, however. Rather, Hitler's presence sets into motion life-changing events for the story's main character, Audrey McNeil.

The story commences with Audrey half-naked and half-asleep but fully aware that she is being filmed by her brother-in-law, Immanuel. Her concern over his motives is kept alive throughout the novel's ten-year timespan. In McEwanesque style, the first chapters deal with Audrey awakening to an adult, but crippingly naive, sexuality over the course of a morning. Just as Shakespeare's Titania fell for the ass-headed Bottom under the influence of a love-potion, Audrey's compulsion to manifest her womanhood fixates her upon the bandaged Hitler. With her brother-in-law's help, she spirits him away in a plane to prevent his detection, and the family's punishment for harbouring a German.

The pages describing this plane-ride are laden with metaphor, description and multiple meanings. Immanuel, Audrey and Adolf fly squeezed into a open-air biplane; the tension in the air is as tight as cockpit space and, while verbal communication would be impossible, so much passes between the three characters - while their lifepaths will be utterly distinct, each is set in motion through this adventure. Audrey plays off these two unlikely suitors in her first dalliance with flirting; Hitler suddenly awakes to his situation; and Immanuel grapples with demons that are not revealed until many years later. As they fly north to German New Guinea, landing frequently along the Australian coast, all manner of traditional, ephemeral journeys are evoked - the personal journey from childhood to adulthood; a nation's development from colony to country; the progression of attraction to love. When they land at Rabaul, the evocation of the forest and natives is pure Conrad. Audrey's journey continues even further as she escapes to Munich; the novel jumps soon after to her life ten years hence and the rise of national socialism.

Such is the scope of this novel that every theme is multi-faceted. Life as it can be visualised and recorded is represented through the visual medium of the camera. Audrey is gifted the Aeroscope camera on which Immanuel had filmed her sleeping and she records her world through its lens ceaselessly. The entire novel is a verbal iteration of the film Audrey splices together from this footage: each chapter begins with staging directions before shifting to Audrey's first person perspective (effectively functioning as a voiceover). Her story encapsulates the history of two nations - Australia and Germany - at critical stages of development, as well as eternal problems of love and origin. Both history and origin, by virtue of being in the past, can only be retold. Perspectives in the retelling can be limitless, however, and although in this novel we view events through the eyes of just one protagonist, our focus is inevitably split as we are invited to witness it through the dual medium of words and jumpy, silent footage.

It would seem an unlikely fit with the themes already discussed, but much of this novel is in fact about integration and race. In the 1960s, Rodney Hall was extremely active in campaigning for the rights of indigenous Australians to choose or reject assimilation. Particularly in the closing passages of this novel, the truth of the colonists' treatment of indigenous inhabitants of Australia is expressed bluntly: 'We pushed them off it and just about wiped them out, we British...Was there ever any race so nearly exterminated?' Throughout the novel characters are treated according to their origins: rich or poor; legitimate or bastard; native or foreign; fascist or socialist; black or white. Hall's work has been described as creating a 'metaphysical history' of Australia and, in this novel in particular, he places Australia, with great effect, in the context of the world it grew up in. Much is made of Billy Hughes being a signatory to the Versailles Peace Treaty - many countries felt Australia was not yet 'mature' enough to take part in such a significant event (America was a key opponent, an interesting parallel to national and international views of our current involvement in Iraq). Audrey leaves Germany, unable to cope with the danger of a tragic relationship with a Senegalese man as much as with her own disgust at political developments, as Hitler is coming to power. Society-wide intolerance has been an inexcusable feature of too many governments and cultures.

Hall is phenomenally accomplished as a writer. One critic compares him favourably to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While Hall has twice won the Miles Franklin award, his work is better known overseas than in Australia. He is a meticulous wordsmith, never taking the easy option with a description, but instead consistently finding astonishing metaphors to evoke his meaning. His narrative is not without quirks, however. Consider these two samples: 'One night I dreamed that I had my tonsils out...and that it wasn't the first time' (to close a chapter) and 'The harbour, tilted for the ocean to flow over its lip, is a drumskin of twilight'. The first is an example of his ability to craft sentences and scenes through words too slippery to pin them down to a meaning. The second is not an isolated case of capturing a beautiful landscape with words arguably more picturesque than that which they describe.


  1. sounds just delicious, though it's not the sort of book i would usually pick up.

  2. Hi Estelle. I only came to it because I'd done 'Captivity Captive', also by Rodney Hall, for a course. Now that was a novel I would never have picked up of my own accord! But I was taken with his writing style, and the fact that he was Australian but hardly known in this country.