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Book Review : When Past Overtakes the Present

April 07, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

A Family Madness by Thomas Keneally (Simon & Schuster: $17.95)

"Sometimes, Mr. Delaney, history does make its claim on people. In places like Los Angeles and Sydney people try to live in an eternal and very base now , without any memory of the dead. The barbecue and the sun are all . Games are all --a game is all to you. But you have to face it: Sometimes--I restate it so you will know--sometimes even here history can't be avoided, history comes up and grabs people."

To Terry Delaney, the muscular, easygoing Aussie to whom this diatribe is being delivered, all this rant 'n' rave about history seems incomprehensible, the maunderings of a madman. Terry's "history" comes from his mom and dad, "old Australians" who've made an honest working-class life for themselves. His only other brush with the past has been in his marriage to Gina, whose Sicilian parents have come to the Southern Hemisphere to make a life of measured prosperity and hard work.

Memories of Feuds

But Australia, that insular continent, is filling up with "New Australians" of every stripe; Greeks and Turks and Armenians, and along with their picturesque customs and exotic mien, they bring memories of feuds and wars and an extended nightmare-past.

Again, all this seems madness to Terry Delaney, who works as a security man to keep Gina and his sweet house and his newly planted gum trees safely in the black, but lives, really lives for his games of Rugby-League.

But the man who lectures Terry on history has another view of things. Rudi Kabbel (formerly Radislaw Kabbelski) comes from a place diametrically opposed to the wide, free, underpopulated, comparatively safe continent of Australia. Rudi was born, and spent the first years of his life, in "Belorussia, Bela Rus. White Ruthenia." And to Australians who haven't a clue to where or what that place is, he explains it thus: "That is a land of milk and honey which has never been allowed to go its way . . . a land of plains and forests and gentle hills. . . ."

Belorussia, then, in the author's scheme of things, represents everything essentially hopeless in the European heritage: too little land for too many people, nationalism gone mad, a lust to govern where there is little or nothing to govern at all. (Thomas Keneally, in his use of Belorussia as a symbol of war, chaos and unspeakable atrocities has relied heavily on "The Belarus Secret" by John Loftus. It's worth noting that many of Loftus' allegations about the various Belorussian governments in and out of exile have been vigorously denied by Belorussians.) But the story here, as it comes from the earlier book by Loftus, is that those who longed to govern Belorussia in World War II threw in their lot with the Nazis, on the strength of a German promise that they would be given their own country after the war.

History had an unpleasant surprise for them. Russians, instead of Germans, took over their land of milk and honey, and many of them were forced to emigrate to America, to Australia. "A Family Madness," then, is a braided tale of the Australian peasant--the sun and the barbecue and newly planted trees--and the long dark shadow of the complex European past, told in a series of journals by Rudi Kabbel, and his father, Stanislaw.

The clash, the conflict here, comes when simple, uncomplicated Terry meets Danielle, daughter of Rudi Kabbel, and falls helplessly in love.

I'd be lying if I didn't say some of this seems uncomfortably contrived. And having read the Loftus book on Belorussia, it's hard to say how all that material would work here if this was the first time one had heard of those dark conflicts. But the sense of the frustrations and helplessness of the individual caught in both past and present is beautifully set out here. Terry Delaney has a best friend, a "mate," Brian Stanton, an "Old Australian" whose family in three or four generations has never been able to get a foothold. Stanton used to work for the police until "an unlucky passion" destroyed his life as well.

Brian's mistake was to start an affair with a Serbian wife and suffer a husband's vengeance both bizarre and elaborate. Revenge is a vice practiced by those who pay too close attention to the past, and as Terry echoes Brian's adultery, he unwittingly gets involved with--falls in love with--not just a pretty girl but a system of vengeance that leads to murder and madness; blindings, stabbings, explosions. . . . And Terry's game explodes; his life explodes. In spite of the guardedly hopeful ending here, the author would seem to entertain serious doubts about whether sweet reason and diplomacy will ever prevail over man's savage instincts, nationalistic ambitions, and grotesquely long memory for injustices suffered--whether real or imagined.

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