Between 1840 and 1914 Ireland emptied itself of half its population. Famine claimed as many as a million people, but most left their native land in hope of a better life abroad. Though North America was the favored destination, over 300,000 Irish took passage to Australia. By 1914 Australia was the most ethnically Irish country in the world outside Ireland itself. In Australia, Irish community life centered on the Catholic Church, which retained its predominantly Irish complexion until, after World War II, waves of immigrants began to arrive from southern Europe, inflecting its forms of worship with their own rituals and folkways.
Strong on obedience to doctrine and on forms of observance but intellectually torpid, the Church in Australia concentrated its energies on ensuring that every Catholic child received a Catholic schooling. Gerald Murnane, born in 1939, was one of the beneficiaries of this policy, and from Tamarisk Row (1974) onward, in fiction and nonfiction, he records the consequences of an Irish-Australian Catholic education for a boy child with a history much like his own (in a Murnanian spirit of scrupulousness I hesitate to call the child “himself”). Among these consequences have been, on the one hand, an abiding belief in another world, and, on the other, ingrained feelings of personal sinfulness.
Murnane’s belief in another world needs to be qualified at once. Although, after high school, he took steps toward entering the priesthood, he soon dropped the idea and indeed gave up religious observance for good. His belief is therefore philosophical rather than religious in nature, though no less strong for that. Access to the other world—a world distinct from and in many ways better than our own—is gained neither by good works nor by grace but by giving the self up to fiction.
As for sinfulness, the young Murnane we meet has all the frustrated curiosity about sex that one might expect in a child brought up in a community where impure acts are inveighed against from the pulpit, yet in such clouded terms that what they may actually consist in remains a puzzle. In a telling episode related in Barley Patch, the boy waits up until the household is asleep, then steals out of bed to explore a dolls’ house belonging to his girl cousins that he has been forbidden to touch, and that is linked in his subconscious mind (I use the term “subconscious mind” provisionally—see Murnane’s strictures below) not only with the girls’ bodies but with the tabernacle where the ceremonial vessels of the Mass are kept. By moonlight he peers through the tiny window, longing to reach in a finger and touch the mysteries inside, but fearful of leaving some guilty trace behind.
How the male gets into the female is only one of the many…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.
Copyright © 2012 J. M. Coetzee