Essay by Pamela Freeman
The wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia on the coast of Western Australia in 1629 has been a source of inspiration for many Australian writers. Its story of mutiny, wreck, murder, rape, barbarism, and subsequent rescue and justice is both horrible and fascinating, combining as it does the worst of human nature with a challenge to the ‘received’ history of European exploration of Australia.
After the wreck, the commander, Francisco Pelsaert, took the long boat and sailed for help, leaving a junior officer, Jeronimus Cornelisz, in command. Most fictional accounts of the wreck concentrate on the violence and cruelty of the crew, under Cornelisz, towards the marooned passengers. Over 100 men, women and children were killed before Pelsaert returned to rescue them. Most of the murderers were executed, but Pelsaert allowed two, a young boy, Jan Pelgrom, and another man, Wouter Loos, to be marooned on mainland Australia. Loos’s fictional journal forms a thread in Strange Objects.
In the year that Strange Objects won the CBCA Book of the Year Award, another book about the Batavia wreck was shortlisted for the same award – Deborah Lisson’s The Devil’s Own. Whereas Lisson’s book is a straightforwardly told time slip story about a young girl finding herself caught up in the Batavia horrors, Crew has chosen to give us multiple accounts, intersecting possibilities, and unresolved questions.
Strange Objects circles around the story of Stephen Messenger, the 16-year-old who finds Loos’s journal in a small ‘cannibal pot’, along with the long-mummified hand of a white girl and a golden ring. One of the conceits of the story is that Messenger has constructed a scrapbook which contains, not only his own account of the consequences of his find, but also newspaper clippings, radio interviews, letters from a prominent archaeologist and from a schoolmate/neighbour of Messenger’s, as well as Loos’ translated journal as it appeared in an Australian newspaper.
The result of these multiple storytelling modes is that there is no one ‘truth’ represented. The lack of a single authorial voice allows doubt, and the details of both timelines are described, contradicted, reaffirmed and questioned again, leaving many possibilities for the reader to choose among.
One of these possibilities is related to the ‘magic’ effect of the ring on both Pelgrom and Messenger, the two young and probably mentally ill boys of the two timelines. In my personal correspondence with Gary Crew this year, he said, ‘… as an historian, I am not impressed by the fantastic (that’s just a red herring…), because I simply believe that all possibilities are on the table and one day we may know more’ but to my mind this balance of possibilities puts the book firmly in the tradition of the literature of the fantastic. Tzvetan Todorov, in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975), has defined the fantastic as:
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know….there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us. (p. 25)
Todorov suggests that if the author chooses the first solution, the novel belongs in the category of the uncanny; if the second, then it belongs in the category of the marvellous. But if an author maintains the uncertainy; if readers are left to decide for themselves the truth of the situation, the novel belongs in the category of the fantastic. (Perhaps the best known example of this in English is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which would be an excellent companion text for Strange Objects, as would Lisson’s The Devil’s Own.) Strange Objects neatly fits Todorov’s criteria. (In quantum physics’ terms, the novel remains in a superposition of states.)
The uncertainty is magnified by the fact that Messenger is an unreliable narrator. What is unclear is how unreliable. While his understanding of other people is obviously flawed, and his interpretation of other people’s actions towards him breathtakingly self-centred, it’s not clear whether everything he describes actually happens, or whether his problems with people are symptoms of an underlying mental illness, exacerbated by grief at the death of his father – which is only revealed at the very end of the book.
Loos, the other main narrator (through his journal) may also be unreliable – not through any mental incapacity, but through hunger, exhaustion and a profound cultural dislocation as he interacts with a group of local Aboriginal people.
Both of these narrators recount seemingly magical experiences associated with the ring, which belongs to Pelgrom in 1629 and which Messenger finds and claims for his own in 1990. But are these experiences real, imagined, or part of an untold history for which we have no current evidence?
According to Crew (again, this comes from our correspondence this year), ‘The gold ring was meant as a motif/trope to suggest the alien’s (Europeans’) lust for gold. This is echoed in Pelgrom’s mistaken belief that the quartz crystal he finds is a diamond. The same idea was suggested in Favenc’s earlier Marooned on Australia (1867) – which I read after I wrote Objects (had no idea it existed!) – yet also based on the Batavia wreck – which has strong links to Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and their attendant (colonial) wealth.‘
Fantastic literature resists the temptation to declare either/or. There are three ways to approach it: decide on a ‘reality’ (eg Messenger is mad/Messenger is sane and therefore the magic is real); disbelieve all realities (eg everyone is mad, everyone is lying); or combine realities (eg Messenger is mad but reports truthfully on what he sees and experiences. His mental illness may be a combination of pre-existing condition (Asperger’s/psychopathy?) plus denial of grief. Perhaps this mental state, so close to Pelgrom’s, may explain why the ring ‘chose’ him. So it is possible to accept all the readings, and this is what makes Strange Objects a challenging and engrossing book; each reader will come to their own conclusions about what has actually happened, and some rare readers will be prepared to enjoy the novel without coming to a conclusion.
Strange Objects is constructed through parallels, with identical themes being explored in both time frames via matched characters. Messenger and Pelgrom are the most obvious pair: both young, both troubled, both profoundly self-centred, both obsessed with the ring, both inclined to violence and, ultimately, both killers. We do not discover what happened to either of them after their disappearances; after they commit murder, they disappear from their respective narratives, Pelgrom immediately, Messenger within days.
Crew uses Messenger to give us insights into Pelgrom – the parallels between them are close enough that we may assume that what is true of one is true of the other. Paranoia, unfeeling cruelty, unthinking violence, are coupled in both cases with a sense of being outcast; in Pelgrom’s case, literally, both from his ship and, later, from the tribe, and in Messenger’s case physically and socially, in his isolated home and his lack of friends.
We are given hints early about Messenger’s obsessive and anti-social traits. In his first journal entry, where he describes the school camp on which he found the cannibal pot, he slips away to the cave where he finds the pot. ‘None of the others saw me move; I was in the dark, well outside the bright ring of firelight.’ Later, this is echoed in Pelgrom’s haunting of the indigenous tribe: ‘Each night he comes, calling softly, about the camp, outside the firelight’. In the end, both achieve a kind of metamorphosis, described by others as having in some ways escaped mortal bonds without dying (of course, the ‘truth’ of this is contradicted and left unexplained, inviting the reader to decide for themselves).
The parallels continue. Messenger and Pelgrom both have foils; a good, solid, strong male with a conscience and compassion for others. In Messenger’s case, it is his schoolmate and neighbour Nigel Kratzen (a pseudonym he chose for himself, we discover, as a joke. Kratz means ‘scratch’ in German.) For Pelgrom, it is Loos, the writer of the 17th century journal who is marooned with him.
There are other parallels: Loos’ sled and Kratzen’s ute, for example. Ela, the European girl who has been marooned from an earlier wreck, and Charlie, the contemporary indigenous elder, are less obvious parallels until they are both murder victims – then we can see that they both acted as the guide to indigenous life to their respective ‘boys’.
Although Ela’s relationship with Pelgrom is far more intimate and intense than Messenger’s with Charlie, they serve the same narrative function. It is notable that both have trouble with English; their communication with Messenger and Pelgrom/Loos is partial and prone to misinterpretation.
Ela is the only active female presence in the book and has no female parallel. There are two others: Messenger’s seldom-seen mother, and Dr Hope Michaels, ‘Director of the Western Australian Institute of Maritime Archaeology.’ Dr Michaels is the most sympathetic of the experts whose assessments are sprinkled through the text, but she does not appear ‘on stage’. Messenger’s mother appears rarely and briefly; she is mostly at work or speaking from another room. The book, in relationship terms, is about boys and men; this is emphasised when the truth about Messenger’s father’s death is revealed towards the end of the book. It’s important to note that, despite the lack of female characters, the book is not sexist. Rather, it reflects a truth: that women are often peripheral to the lives of young men, especially when they are placed in physical isolation from girls.
Along with isolation, racism is a constant presence in the story. Messenger is casually, thoughtlessly racist, less from personal conviciton, one gathers, than from an unexamined acceptance of the local culture. Pelgrom is terrified of the local tribe, believing them to be cannibals (a belief, the notes from various historians remind us, which was widespread at the time and may yet linger). Loos, while more thoughtful and open-minded than Pelgrom, is still a man of his time and is completely unequipped to deal with the radically different social structure of an indigenous tribe. He just doesn’t understand what is happening around him – and yet, he does not try to learn the language in order to understand better. Even positive characters like Nigel Kratzen are afraid of the ‘mission’ as a place of violence and intimidation.
As one of the contesting ‘experts’ notes about Loos’ journal: ‘they [Pelgrom and Loos] brought with them a way of seeing the landscape and its inhabitants which had been heavily influenced by tales of expolorers or conquistadors and the hearsay of buccaneers and fellow sailors’. As readers, we are constantly reminded of our own preconceptions, about racism, scholarship, European exploration and, over and over again, the construction of history and the nature of ‘truth’.
‘Truth’ is complicated in Strange Objects because Crew presents the world through the eyes of people who either have a specfic agenda (the police, the historians) or whose perception may be compromised by illness, both mental and physical.
Messenger is the perfect unreliable narrator – in denial about his own circumstances, with some kind of mental impairment (Asperger’s syndrome? Sociopathy? Paranoid schizophrenia?) which prevents him from accurately assessing others, and perhaps influenced beyond all this by the effects of the golden ring. We distrust him; but we are given no way to decide how much of what he says is false.
Loos, on the other hand, is a narrator we instinctively trust. But his circumstances make him unreliable. He does not understand local culture. By the end of the story he is hungry, dehydrated, frightened, probably dying and possibly delusional. Between the two of them, and in spite of the ‘expert’ assessments of their journals (which Crew makes mischievously contradictory), readers are left to make their own truths, their own personal history of the cannibal pot and its contents.
In the end, Crew seems to say, this is what history is: a patched together account of failed perceptions, misunderstandings and impossibilities, made anew by each person who considers it from their own, particular viewpoint.
Crew, G. Strange Objects. Lothian, Sydney, 1998 (ebook).
Lisson, D. The Devil’s Own. Walter McVitty Books, Melbourne, 1990.
Todorov, T. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1975.
© Copyright Pamela Freeman 2014