Thursday, January 31, 2008

Facts versus fantasy

Before rushing to sit down for a meal such as last Saturday's annual lunch for the senior citizens of Choranche and Châtelus, I like to spend a little time observing who is seated where, to make sure that I'll be surrounded optimally by charming fellow citizens. The kind of lunch-table neighbors I attempt to avoid are those who have the habit of talking enthusiastically as soon as their mouth is full of food such as sauce or vegetables. My appetite disappears instantly as soon as I find that my face or plate is getting spat at. There can also be problems concerning neighbors who have either too much to say about uninteresting topics, or nothing to say about anything at all. Consequently, the choice of a table and chair is the outcome of a series of rapid observations and decisions. Above all, I avoid sitting down alongside or opposite chairs that are not yet occupied, because you never know who might slide into such an empty slot. In general, for a single person such as me, sitting down in the midst of married couples is a fairly sound strategy, because you can usually count on them—if the worst comes to the worst, as it often does on such occasions—to talk among themselves. But this kind of situation is risky, because you can never be certain beforehand that individual members of the various couples will soon get around to talking to one another, which means that you can be caught up in the crossfire.

Skillful hosts and hostesses at bourgeois dinner evenings place potentially sympathetic individuals alongside one another, in the hope that congenial communications might ensue. The French publicity chief Jacques Séguéla revealed his mastery of this art when he recently invited along to his Parisian apartment two single individuals named Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni for a dinner among smart friends. As far as we can ascertain, the conversation was lively, and no one complained afterwards about getting spat upon.

Getting back to last Saturday's lunch at Le Jorjane in Choranche, I made a beeline for an empty chair between two couples, diagonally opposite the mayor of Châtelus. This jovial fellow amuses me. Besides, I had heard a rumor that he would not be contesting the forthcoming municipal elections, and I thought he might be prepared to come out with some frank talk about his years of experience of local politics. Things got off to a good start when I asked him if he was affiliated to a political organization, whereupon he made it clear that he was a fervent socialist. He immediately asked me where I stood at a political level, and he appeared to react positively when I told him that I too was a partisan of the French Left. But then, all of a sudden, my hopes for an interesting discussion were demolished by his next out-of-the-blue statement (which I shall translate into English): "William, you're Australian. Well, you could never guess what I'm reading at present. One of the most fabulous novels I've ever unearthed: The Thorn Birds. Last night, I reached the turning-point in the story where Ralph de Bricassart finally gets into bed with Meggie Cleary!"

This intriguing saga crammed with outback passion has attained fame in France through the movie version. Exceptionally, the French title is more catching than the original. A thorn bird is described by the author, Colleen McCullough, as a magnificently-plumed creature that impales itself on a spike and sings beautifully while it dies. In French, the expression "birds who hide to die" evokes a mysterious elephantine graveyard, and attracts readers to a great fable. The only minor fault of this exceptional literary work is that many readers (such as the mayor of Châtelus, for example) are likely to believe that tales like that really unfold in a commonplace fashion in Australia. In other words, readers end up imagining that a handsome Catholic priest in a desolate outback setting could indeed inherit a vast fortune from an infatuated female parishioner, and then use this newfound wealth within the context of his employer, the Church, to purchase eventually a title of cardinal... while seducing, along the way, a young lady of the "ranch" (American term used by McCullough to designate what we Australians call a sheep or cattle station). Funnily enough, this popular TV series (aired regularly in France) that is supposed to present viewers with an awesome vision of outback Australia was actually shot in California!

Personally, I've always been bored by most literary constructions set in my ancestral land. I far prefer authentic Australian biography, history and (in my privileged case) genealogy. My attitude is summed up perfectly by these words from the great American writer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain [1835-1910]:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange that it is itself the chiefest novelty the counry has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

If Twain's judgment is correct (as I believe), then, instead of The Thorn Birds or Riders in the Chariot (Patrick White), we would be better off reading ordinary factual stuff such as Kings in Grass Castles (Mary Durack), Squatter's Castle (George Farwell), Islands of Angry Ghosts (Hugh Edwards) or simply The Fatal Shore (Robert Hughes) and The Great Shame (Thomas Keneally), not to mention The Bloodiest Bushrangers (John O'Sullivan). The only problem is that none of the books I've just mentioned could be adapted easily, preferably by Americans, into a movie that would be immensely popular, say, in France.

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