Brenda Walker, The Wing of Night (2005)
Peter Weir’s fiercely nationalist Gallipoli (1981) uses the landscapes of Western Australia to highlight the war’s remoteness, even placing a desert between his two young Australian protagonists and the recruiting office: “it’s strange to see these two young men off to a European war, walking through such a vast empty space,” Weir commented in the film’s press kit.11 On the ninetieth anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, Brenda Walker’s The Wing of Night also sends its men to fight “England’s enemies” in a “European war.”12 Women have no more than a fleeting presence in Weir’s film: the mother of young, athletic Archy has a mere seven lines of inconsequential dialogue; another brief scene shows Archy and his new-found friend Frank impress three generations of women with talk of war and uniforms. Walker, then Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia, reverses these priorities. She puts grief at the heart of her novel and retraces the war’s long shadow into Australian homes. But Walker does more than “confront,” as Laura
White has put it, “the multiple aspects of the Anzac experience that get buried by nationalist stereotypes.”13 She lifts her characters (and with them, Gallipoli) from the broader canvas of a national story and locates them in a regional frame: the townships and farms of Western Australia that also provide the backdrop to Weir’s film. At the same time, that larger canvas remains present in the fabric of her novel—as the knowledge Walker’s readers bring to the book. Again and again Walker stirs readers’ memories of familiar scenes, settings and storylines only to contrast them, and the ease and safety with which they may well come to her readers’ minds, with her characters’ much more painful and often deeply unsettling memory work. “Our national loss in the Great War,” Walker explained at a writers’ festival in 2006, “may not only be a matter of the loss of young men’s lives. It may be the loss of the account of their full emotions; their interiority... The full and individual complexity of the Australian soldier... can be imagined, though never quite restored, in fiction.”14
Walker recreates this complexity evenly, restoring it to men and women, soldiers and civilians alike. “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” observes Maria Tumarkin, “is in fact a disorder of time. It is defined primarily by the way in which people’s past invades their present through flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and compulsive re-enactments.”15 Numerous flashbacks disrupt the narrative as Walker explores a spectrum of memories—voluntary and involuntary, reassuring and unsettling. Soldiers on Gallipoli are seen dreaming of home; but one already feels cut off from his previous self and mourns the loss of an earlier civilian memory while another, Joe, “long[s] for a complete loss of his memory” once he has returned to Australia.16
To some extent Walker grants Joe’s wish—she takes readers from the men’s departure in February 1915 to the bereft women’s new beginnings in October 1922. But her novel not only quickly leaves the battlefields behind; the brief scenes on Gallipoli also elide the actual fighting. The men are seen the night before a battle in August 1915 and then the novel cuts, like a film, to Joe, who is on a hospital ship off the Peninsula. Such gaps and silences play with Walker’s readers’ ‘own’ collective memory. The men’s officer anticipates how his soldiers will “rush a line of machine guns on foot over a field of bones and old cloth and the intact dead.”17 This might refer to almost any battle fought in the First World War, but Walker cues readers to fill the void in her narrative with their ‘recollections’ of the Battle at the Nek, with which Weir’s Gallipoli culminates. Like Weir’s, Walker’s soldiers are Western Australians and, like Weir’s Archy, they will be in the final waves of the futile attack. As if he had seen Weir’s film, their officer already doubts that the artillery from the battleships will weaken the Turkish defences. Finally, Walker foreshadows the conflict between him and his superior who will refuse to call off the attack, as Walker’s readers know from Weir.
Walker thus questions the ease with which Weir and others have slotted accounts of the fighting into their narratives and the ease with which such scenes may well come to her readers as the natural, even quintessential, Gallipoli experience. While she was researching her novel Walker interviewed veterans from the Vietnam War about the effects of artillery. She discovered that the “border between observation and hallucination is very, very thin in these situations.”18 In The Wing of Night this border can be explored and crossed. Joe is the only one of Walker’s soldier characters to survive the war; readers never observe him fighting but they see him hallucinate. A dark hallway back in Australia makes him feel “boxed up like an animal,” a sensation that plunges him back into “the black cold of Anzac Cove at night... Under his loose worn clothes he felt the breath of that unhealthy cold. His eyes hurt.”19 When he loses his footing working along a creek, the slip combines with the smell of the water to stir another embodied memory of “what it was like... to turn slowly above the trenches at Gallipoli, to fall through all that fast explosive metal.”20 Joe’s memories move through Walker’s novel like his war souvenirs, a set of mosaic tiles “moved about randomly in his pocket,” “never still.”21 Like the tiles, they too eventually yield a pattern: that of Joe the sniper who killed a Turkish prisoner.
Joe’s attempts to leave Gallipoli behind are diametrically opposed to Elizabeth’s desire to know how her husband died there. The gaps in Joe’s memory are gradually filled; those in Elizabeth’s remain. Walker’s novel registers the soldier’s death laconically:
Louis Zettler had been shot in August and was buried quickly a few feet beneath the Turkish earth. Someone nailed two pieces of wood together and
burned the words “Sadly Mourned” into the arms of the cross with a piece
Walker is interested in the experience that lurks behind that phrase, in what it means to be ‘sadly mourning.’ Elizabeth’s grief begins with the anticipation of loss soon after her husband’s departure. It amplifies when the news of his death reaches her alone, in the privacy of his remote Western Australian farm:
Elizabeth began to shake. Gripping each wrist in the other arm. Her face draining and then hotly colouring ... She felt herself closing off, shutting down into widowhood. My husband has gone. It was like losing a sense. Your hearing. Like standing in the street with everything crackling and booming about you, and riding within your body in a heavy silence.23
Elizabeth hopes that “someone else had been shot in his place and he was alive, somewhere, and coming home.”24 In 1916, John Butler Cooper’s Coo-oo-ee! A Tale of Bushmen from Australia to Anzac did allow its male protagonist, who had been declared dead, to return to his fiancee. Walker does not. Elizabeth grieves with her entire body: she vomits; she cries until her nose bleeds; she becomes blind with tears; she mourns for five years. Only gradually, through her friendship with two women who share her fate, does she begin to rebuild herself: she assumes her place as the owner and manager of the farm, who wears her husband’s shirts and smokes his cigarettes, but she has also become a woman with sharpened sensibilities. Like Jim Saddler in David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982), Elizabeth begins to remap her world: she is a girl from the city, but gradually her eyes adapt to her rural surroundings and begin to see for themselves. She makes out kangaroos behind the grass trees and observes the rapid growth of the wisteria, something “she hadn’t noticed... when Louis was alive.”25 A love affair with returned soldier Joe Tully leaves the previously childless woman pregnant, in a precarious balance of loss and hope, sadness and restitution. But the soldier takes his life on the day their child is born—loss is passed on. Elizabeth resolves to work this “into a story about flying horses and tall Australian heroes.”26 This resolution highlights the potential of stories to provide solace and comfort while drawing attention to the more rugged nature of Walker’s own tale, with its suspicion of neat narrative solutions, and its interest in the unspoken and the repressed, the small and local over the national.