TEXT review

Salvaging meaning

review by Lyn McCredden


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:australian-fiction-as-archival-salvage.jpg
A Frances Johnson
Australian Fiction as Archival Salvage:
Making and Unmaking the Postcolonial Novel
Cross/Cultures Series 187
Brill, Leiden, Netherlands 2015
ISBN 9789004309975 (hb)
ISBN 9789004311671 (ebook)
Hb 320pp AUD294.99


As A Frances Johnson admirably demonstrates in her critical monograph Australian Fiction as Archival Salvage: Making and Unmaking the Postcolonial Novel, there are multiple gangs in the literary world, and each has a stake in that space; novelists, theorists, critics, archivists, postmodernists, parodists, metafictionists, and historians of varying denominations.

Writing from an historical novelist’s perspective, Johnson does great service in bringing to the reading and writing public a range of layered, knotty ideas. Depending on whether you share Johnson’s particular concerns (those of an historical novelist willing to take on the big, writerly, theoretical issues about the past and the present), or adjacent interests (postcolonial theorists and literary critics, historians, readers not writers of fiction) you may have differing responses to Archival Salvage. You will be engaged by this book’s probing of craft, history and theory, especially if you are a writer.

Archival Salvage works through reference to leading Australian fiction such as Kim Scott’s Benang and That Dead Man Dance; Kate Grenville’s Joan Makes History and The Secret River trilogy, and other novelists such as Mudrooroo, Thomas Keneally, Peter Carey, Robert Drewe, Matthew Kneale and Richard Flanagan. Detailed and interesting discussion of these writers’ fictions are spliced with close reference to Johnson’s own novel of 2007, Eugene’s Falls. There is much to be learned in these discussions, particularly in regard to writing techniques, strategies, and effects. Johnson is a keen advocate of postmodern techniques (metafiction and intertextuality, parody, heteroglossic code switching and juxtaposing, non-linear developments of plot, multiple characterisations, from cipher to realist) and Archival Salvage offers fascinating readings of Australian history novels and the ways their authors adopt appropriate postmodern strategies in order to open out Australia’s many-voiced, unsettled history.

Unsettlement and the still-volatile territory of Indigenous and white settler Australian relations is the ongoing historical bass note in this volume, as it must be when considering Australian postcolonial literary debates and realities. In order to re-open these debates (hatched during the so-called history wars of the early 2000s) among history novel writers, historians and postcolonial and postmodern literary theorists, Johnson turns preeminently to the novelists and their practices, and to influential postmodern theorists Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin. Johnson is convincing in her detailed discussions of the appropriateness of heteroglossia and parody as novelistic tools in representing Australia’s many-voiced, disjunctive, postcolonial history. This is history of the Greg Dening kind, open-eyed to both the weight of the archive, but also to the role of the imagination and fictive strategies in any understanding of what happens when vastly different worlds, languages and races collide. Johnson remains admirably open to the différends of history: histories simultaneously of victims, colonisers, and those in between, who turned to both violence and care, dominance and empathy.

Following Kristeva, Johnson gives us palpable examples of the ways in which political and archival language and power inevitably must bow to the fictive imagination, how the ‘archive event’, such as the Parliament of Australia’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, is made to ‘perceive what it doesn’t want to say, provide it with its matter independently of the sign, and free it from denotation. For it is this eminently parodic gesture that changes the system’ (Kristeva, from ‘The Ethics of Linguistics’, 236). Johnson here is, of course, on the side of the angels / novelists, and she enlists her powers of persuasion, writerly detail and know-how, to show us other histories, other voices and the contributions of writers of fiction.

There is a certain kind of intellectual courage demonstrated in Archival Salvage, which does not quake in discussing Mudrooroo, Kate Grenville, Kim Scott, Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan, all addressed in terms of novelistic techniques and what they have to offer in understanding history and our contemporary state of postcoloniality. Such techniques do not disappear under the weight of various critical assaults, but are prioritised as writing – writing valued as a true, expansive source of meaning and understanding.

As a member of an adjacent literary gang, literary criticism, I want to ask some questions in the call and response mode of heteroglossia championed by Johnson. First, while part of me leans with admiration towards the writerly gang, another part must ask: in all the wonderful writerly cacophony of Kim Scott’s Benang, so rightly admired as exemplar by Johnson, what do readers (and history, and Australia) finally make of all the ‘proliferation and confusion of meaning’ (260)? Johnson would have us believe (and perhaps I almost do) that ‘as these sign-systems rise and fall against one another, the “abandonment” of former (colonial) sign-systems occurs: namely, those forming racist, romantic, and anthropological discourses of Aboriginality’ (260). Is that why Pauline Hanson in 2016 has turned (briefly) away from Aborigines to Muslims in her racist discourse, I ask, archly.

Second call: in championing the many writerly, postmodern, code-breaking techniques – ‘parody, montage, historiographic metafiction, allegory, and fabulism’ – is there not something worrying (unbelievable?) about Johnson’s faith in these writers who ‘seek to do metaphorical violence to the myth of an orderly, thick-walled institutional archive, to the tidying of official histories … [to] evoke the heterogeneity of past time’ (261)? There is nothing wrong with this desire, but how reliant on polarities – in cultural and writerly terms – and the oft-voiced dichotomies of writerly aparatchiks and archival gulagists is such a discourse? To be fair, this is not the predominant tenor of Johnson’s book, which remains open and flexible in its championing of writing in relation to history and ideology. But as Bakhtin scholar Graham Roberts, quoted by Johnson (33), reminds us, ‘every utterance contains within it the trace of other utterances, both in the past and in the future.’ Parody as reliant on what it parodies?

My final call to Johnson is in terms of the historical depth of the postcolonial theory she deploys. While applauding Grenville’s postmodern strategies, Johnson argues that they are what ‘enable her to leap past the more politically correct postcolonial debates raging across Australian literary circles in the 1980s and 1990s’ (12). Further, Grenville’s ‘humorous, polyphonic burlesque … went largely undiscussed (in relation to Joan Makes History), because ‘…in a Bicentennial and post-Bicentennial climate of feverish postcolonial academic debate … [a] mood of political correctness began to impinge upon academic theorizings of Indigenous identity-politics and postcolonial theorizings of otherness’ (12-13). I’m afraid, as a member of another gang (not Historian, not novelist) I must protest at this truncating of literary and intellectual history. Johnson is talking about a period in which Australian postcolonial theory and criticism came to birth, and made (as it continues to do) a major and diverse set of contributions to postcolonial thinking, including around Indigenous and settler relations. There is a dearth of references to this theory in Archival Salvage, and what is mentioned certainly plays a minor role, in relation to the emphasis placed on (later) novel writing. However, if the important work of Australian postcolonial literary theorists such as Bill Ashcroft, Helen Tiffin, Gareth Griffiths, Adam Shoemaker, Stephen Muecke, Helen Gilbert, Anne Maxwell, and others, all writing across the 80s and 90s, is to be only cited in passing (for undoubtedly interesting references to Bakhtin and Kristeva), a certain cultural cringe may still be operative. The 80s and 90s, as these Australian theorists were aware, gave rise to crucial debates about Australia and its cultural and intellectual production (such as academic conferences ofThe Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and its rowdy Australian interlocutors facing down the empire). A little more communication between the writing and the theory gangs would have addressed some of the gaps in theoretical and historical awareness in Archival Salvage.

That said, this is a groundbreaking work, embracing the various literary and historical gangs, provoking questions about our differences, and our mutuality. The Humanities in Australia is in dire need of such coming together in 2016.



Professor Lyn McCredden leads the academic group Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She is a literary critic who has written a number of critical monographs, including Bridgings: Reading Australian Women’s Poetry, Luminous Moments: the Contemporary Sacred, and Intimate Horizons: the Postcolonial Sacred in Australia. Her forthcoming critical monograph, Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred, is forthcoming from Sydney University Press in 2016.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste