Asylum – John Hughes

Monday saw the celebration of World Refugee Day, an initiative introduced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2001, as a result of the Australian Major-General Paul Cullen’s lobbying from the 1980’s. Australia also celebrates National Refugee Week to actively inform the public about refugees and to celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society. This year the event runs from Saturday 19 June to Saturday 25 June 2016. Here is my small contribution to this week, I made time to find, read, and now review a new release from Australia, a work that touched my nerve when I read about how the book came into being.
I am going to be bold here and quote, in full, John Hughes’ “note” on the origins of “Asylum”, a note he wrote for Charlotte Guest, the Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing and a note that appears on the publisher’s blog.
In the European autumn of 2013, I took some leave in Venice to work on a novel about a Russian prince living in exile there after the Revolution. On my first day in Venice a boat sank off the island of Lampedusa and over three hundred asylum seekers drowned.
The Italian response to such an unconscionable tragedy was to declare a National Day of Mourning. No party politics; no pious utterances about people smugglers, border protection, or stopping the boats; no baying of radio talk back hosts. The fact that it was quite simply a human tragedy made, for the immediate response at least, everything else at best irrelevant, and at worst downright barbaric.
As the day wore on, though, I couldn’t help but think what our response back in Australia might have been if something similar happened there. The idea of an Australian National Day of Mourning struck me as so absurd as to be impossible. And the fact that it struck me in this way made me feel so angry I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day but seethe. After that came the sadness and the shame, and finally the despair which even now, three years on, I still can’t shake off.
Asylum began in that anger and despair, when the absence of compassion in almost all Australian public discourse about asylum seekers hit me with such force I found it impossible to resist. The book I’ve finally written is some way from that book I started to write in Venice almost three years ago. It’s grown into a surreal allegory about an enormous experiment whose purpose is not scientific. But the original impulse and its heat are still there in what has emerged. And Australia has not changed; if anything the current election campaign has only shamed us more deeply.
It’s terrible for a writer when he thinks he’s pushed reality to an extreme, stretched a policy to what he believes is its reductio ad absurdum, only to find that he’s been trumped by the real! When allegory becomes realism there’s something very wrong. Suffice to say Asylum has a number of resonances in English, and they are all there in the book.
The opening epigraph comes from Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” and is the closing line, “What these Itakas mean.” This is going to be a journey, we learn more from that experience than the arrival itself?
“Act I” is set in “Terra Australis Incognita”, the land mass presumed to exist in the south of the known world, whilst mythical we know that this is also potentially Australia, given there are references to Australian native animals, for example the dingo with the prophesy, “Just because you can’t see the chains doesn’t mean they don’t exist”. “Act II”, the final section, is set in “Terra Nullius”, land that nobody owns.
After a scene setting of two doors (one white, one black), more on that later, the story opens in an integration room, “Name?”…”Nationality?”, and when no answer is forthcoming becomes “Where did you come from?”, which then becomes “Where were you born?”…Answered as “Soil of my father, and my father’s father, beyond the mountains, across the deserts and the seas.” As a reader we quickly understand the chasm in language and culture, the bureaucrat with a function/job to perform and the efficiency vs a man with no homeland remaining and an eternity in front of him.
A book that takes place in a dream like utopian future, but the gardens of Eden become dystopian, as we follow one of our protagonists, Baba, towards “SANCUARY”, a “place of ruin”. As the back cover explains, “In the Sanctuary, two robed men cut the hair of clients who have been called to pass through the White or Black Door. Along with their hair, the clients shed their stories: of the horrors of their past…” Our two men are Ash and Baba, and wearing a robe coloured to match their door, only they can understand the language of the stories being told to them whilst wearing their robes.
In the beginning, the first to arrive across the sea saw only stone walls, wooden scaffolding, ladders and trestles. When they asked why the Sanctuary’s construction was taking such a long time, the Officials answered, ‘So its destruction cannot begin.’ Inside the walls it was a different story. The Officials, who from a distance had appeared to be building the Sanctuary, now seemed to be dismantling it, stone by stone. The difference between a Sanctuary under construction and a disappearing Sanctuary was no longer as clear as the exiles thought.
‘Don’t look so puzzled,’ the Officials, who were more open to conversation in the early days, explained. ‘Just like the materials from which it is made…or unmade,’ they hastened to qualify, ‘what starts in one name can end in another, what is inside can also be without.’
It has become clear to the exiles over the years that what the Officials were really talking about, in what seems to them now a lost and almost mythological time, is the sensation of the impossible we experience in dreams.
You can hear it in their words: ‘Such a place requires a border unconceived as yet by history or nation, a border at once finite and without end…Because the realm of remembered homelands, which is the realm of forgotten homelands, permits of the possibility of one perfect home.’
There are sections in the book where simultaneous thoughts of Ash and Baba are presented as a divided page, two different interpretations, the stories differ, are they hearing only what they want to hear? Or are they hearing what they are wanting to be told? The concurrent themes merge; “He had heard the same words Ash had heard but in his heart they had found a different ground.”
He’d felt it in the various camps. When the urge even there became irresistible and he wondered if it was possible to be a thief in a place where people had nothing. It was possible, that much he’d discovered, because no one ever has nothing. Why else were they in the camps? Why else did the torturers, governments, tyrants, clerics, secret police want power over them?
A thought provoking work, including wonderful quotes and concepts, including the pertinent section titled “Some Thoughts on the Institution of Democracy” and philosophical gems such as, “For what they had dreamt was nothing less than to escape the real.”
A book that presents the stories of people seeking asylum via a barber’s chair, in whispers, heard by somebody who cannot repeat them, and in some circumstances, cannot even comprehend them. Stories of rape, murder, torture, sex slavery, and abuses that are incomprehensible, they take place away from our eyes, our ears, we are ignorant of the horror. Just as atrocities are now taking place in our name, away from our sight, away from our hearing, tales that are not relayed to us, we have allowed our democracy to shelter us from the truth.
A bleak work, fantasy mixed with horror, a world where you don’t know if utopia or dystopia is the setting, is it a dream sequence? However the allegory, the metaphor is all too real. A book that will surely feature on award shortlists in the not too distant future and a wonderful example of where Australian political literature can travel.
How else to describe this bleak search for meaning in a world devoid of such than through John Hughes’ words himself? What I really want you to see is the mystery by which a story reaches beyond itself to something else.

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

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