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Raoul Schrott declared that he considers her “one of the finest writers of his generation.” Yet Gail Jones, born 1955 in Western Australia, remains more of an insider’s tip in Germany. Could this be connected to the fact that this culture and communications expert is a “schooled writer” in the good old Anglo-Saxon style? Jones, who most recently taught at the University of Western Australia, always lends her novels an aesthetic-intellectual surplus of (self) reflection, which surpasses pure storytelling with the help of a genuine mix of stupendous imagination and essayistic intelligence. Jones made her 2002 debut with “Black Mirror”, and her fifth novel, “Five Bells”, was published in 2011. Her novels to date, recipients of numerous awards, likewise surpass geographical boundaries. Her protagonists – or better, her female protagonists, since the majority of the characters she focuses on are women – often find themselves on various continents and therefore confront the forces of unalike cultures. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Lucy Strange, the somewhat “strange” hero of her second novel, “Sixty Lights” (German edition, 2004), ends up traveling from Australia, first to England, then to India, and finally back to England again, where she is only 22-years-old when she dies – much too young to die, especially for someone destined to become a gifted photographer. The novel, which Jones gives the form of a photo-album, focuses on this artistic passion. In so doing, it also deals with that magical historic moment in which the newly-discovered technique of photography prepares to change our vision forever. In sixty cleverly arranged and time-staggered chapters, Jones envisions what Lucy records in her diaries from that period: “special things seen” and “photographs not taken”. For Lucy – we can only see through her eyes – photography becomes a rescuing “laterna magica” allowing her to decipher the world as it is: a wondrous creation filled with signs. In the process, Lucy’s photographic perceptions of the world are transformed into literary images via Jones’s ravishing picture-perfect as well as poetic prose, elevating the novel, as it were, to a school for seeing, one in which Jones knows exactly how to capture great gestures and emotions in small vignettes. In passing, however, Lucy’s journey through life, Jones also revives the time of the British Empire, which enjoys its heyday at the middle of the nineteenth century; at the same time, Jones does this in order to rob the Empire of all sentimentality, when reflected in Lucy’s childish and critical eyes. Everything the Brits hate about India, for instance, seems more like the radiant “script of life” to her. But where the somatophobic Empire seeks the immaculate, in photography Lucy continues to love the stamp of the human flaw. Undeniably, where portraying the geometry of the web of human relationships is concerned, warm and electrifying currents flow through Jones’s novels. In “Dreams of Speaking” (2006), where the author embraces multiple continents but also illuminates the poetry of technical modernism, two people who could not be more unalike meet: Alice, a young Australian researcher, and Mr. Sakomoto, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. This novel once again proves that the language Jones uses in all her books, as original as it is accurate – translated by Conny Lösch into supple German – functions as a central character. She chooses each word with great care: cautiously feeling her way forward as if words were not the instrument for imitating the world, but rather a living organ – which, for all its revealing powers, never divulges its last secret. In her novel “Sorry” (2007), a book radiating with opaque beauty, her language gives the likes of a command performance. The young Perdita – a name taken from a character in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and serving not only as the novel’s motto – is born in Australia’s outback area, where her parents migrated to from England in 1930. Her father is an overbearing man, who dreams of a career in anthropology: he considers the Aborigines fascinating but also inferior objects of study, and, as a matter of course, exploits them for his own sexual needs. By comparison, the emotionally cold, depressive mother has only one passion: Shakespeare; eventually, she goes mad in the barrenness of the bleak cabin. The only affection little Perdita, the “Lost One”, receives comes from the 16-year-old Aborigine named Mary, a girl raised in a Christian home and now serving the family as household help. But one day Perdita finds her father murdered in the living room – and Mary, accused of murder, is sent away to a correctional facility. The trauma brought on by this double loss robs Perdita of her speech, and, as alluded to at the beginning of the novel, Perdita must travel a long, arduous path before finally coming to terms with the truth and finding her speech again. Jones expertly portrays this loss of speech in vividly composed, written images. We slip, as it were, into Perdita’s skin. At the same time, there is a constant change of narrative perspective, an incessant back and forth between “I” and “she”. Not until the close of the novel does Jones resolve the murder, and here too, at the latest, she illuminates the dark side of the British Empire: social prejudices and the hierarchical thinking of colonial rule. This also explains the title, “Sorry”. Australian readers or readers familiar with Australian history quickly realize how, in this novel, Jones reflects her native country’s controversial relationship to its indigenous people. As late as the early 1970s, the children of these people were taken from their families in order to be – like Mary the household help – “civilized” in either “white” families or educational institutions. This state-sanctioned crime was first made known in 1997, when the “Bringing Them Home” report was published, and what is known as “Sorry Day” has been in effect since 1998 to commemorate the suffering of these people. Another decade passed before an Australian prime minister – the newly elected Kevin Rudd – first spoke the word “Sorry” in public, on February 13, 2008. In the language of the Aborigines, however, the term “Sorry Business” designates everything related to death and mourning. One should never underestimate Jones the language artist, whose latest novel, “Five Bells”, also orbits the defining impact of the past. With expertise, she consciously plays the keyboard between admonishing remembrance and hopeful forgiveness.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Karl Edward Johnson


Print

Dreams of Speaking. Novel. Translated from English by Conny Lösch. Nautilus Verlag. Hamburg, 2006
Sixty Lights. Novel. Translated from English by Conny Lösch. Nautilus Verlag. Hamburg, 2008
Perdita. Novel. Translated from English by Conny Lösch. Nautilus Verlag. Hamburg, 2010
Five Bells. Novel. Translated from English by Conny Lösch. Nautilus Verlag. Hamburg, 2013
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