Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Brow Books, 2018)
Review by Jo Langdon
In the second essay of Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin writes:
… certain foreignesses are not dissolved in the balmy Australian air. They remain solid, determining of what happens to people so marked when they brush against the hard surfaces of banks, courts, police stations, universities, workplaces, or the softer (more porous?) surfaces of shops, trains, city streets.
This passage continues: ‘In no nation on this planet is this not the everyday usual.’ Institutional and ‘everyday’ spaces—and the ways in which these spaces so often overlook, brutalise, or otherwise fail those at social margins—are central to the collection, which, put far too simply, explores forms and experiences of human grief, trauma, survival and fortitude, and the enduring impacts of the past in our collective present culture, and in our personal lives and experiences. More so, though, it is the people in this collection who remain vivid and vital, with each of Tumarkin’s essays composing an acute capsule or sequence of being.
Published in 2018 by Melbourne-based press Brow Books, Axiomatic is the 2018 winner of the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award, with further honours to date including the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist in the non-fiction category, the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist, and the Australian 2019 Indie Book Awards longlist. It is writer and cultural historian Tumarkin’s fourth book, and a startling display of her capacity for striking, incisive prose that is as arresting for its quiet musicality and unembellished beauty as it is for its unsettling of form and discourse.
The collection is structured around five titular axioms, each of which are tested, troubled, and/or renewed. The opening essay, ‘time heals all wounds’, initially centres on Frances, who lost her teenage sister Katie to suicide while both women were in high school (Katie 16 and Frances 17 when Katie died). Examining the impact of suicide on schools, their students and teachers, the essay soon extends to comprise a plurality of voices, experiences and points of view, shifting across various case studies and perspectives.
The interview profiles open into prisms of experience, deftly delineated. Of Frances and Katie’s school environment, Tumarkin considers:
How hard it must be to grieve in a high school: everyone looking at everyone. Everyone, just about, is impossibly fragile. Friends hurt your heart more often and expertly than your enemies. Not inevitably, but pretty likely, there are cliques, hierarchies, inner circles, outer circles, circles within circles. A squabble broke out in Katie’s year over who owns Katie now she’s dead, who has the right to be shattered in public. Also, who’s in charge of organising laser-printed silver pendants with Katie’s face on them from Chadstone shopping centre.
Tumarkin herself circles these remembered and immediate spaces, occupying positions of interviewer, interlocutor, observer—and, of course, transcriber: mediating material through the realm of language. Indeed, this act of putting into language, structure and form is a quiet, self-reflexive presence in itself; something Tumarkin attends to and acknowledges at various turns throughout the collection. In a brief paragraph she discloses, without further commentary: ‘Frances says she read an earlier version of the chapter and—Maria, it’s fine, your interpretation. Anyway.’
The subsequent essay, ‘those who forget the past are doomed to re—’, centres on the story of a Polish grandmother jailed for ‘abducting’ her grandson in order to protect him from a violent stepfather. Initially, the grandmother appears obliquely, per her depictions in the media. Soon, though, her own voice breaks in, candid and striking:
‘In jail,’ the woman says to me years later, ‘I was all eyes and ears. I was afraid I would run out of time. Why should you want to get out of a place with so much material? It’s crazy to say this. I shouldn’t be saying it. But this is what I feel.’
The grandmother is an artist, a painter—and a Holocaust survivor. She is ‘shocking’ or subversive precisely because she doesn’t play the roles expected of her: ‘everyone sees her: weird, unhinged, smothering, duplicitous, foreign.’
Later she tells Tumarkin:
If they had asked me why I said nothing—nobody asked me, but if they did—I would have said I had nobody to talk to. And when people say to me why didn’t you bring this or that up I say there was no one to bring it up to. When I was in the courtroom, what can I tell you… I felt above it. I looked at the judge and thought you little piglet. I had nothing to say.
Tumarkin’s pacing and timing of detail and delineation is careful, as evidenced in her depiction of the grandmother and throughout Axiomatic as a whole. Well into ‘time heals all wounds’ she offers an admission of a particular detail she has purposely omitted, and the reason for this delay or hesitation. There is a palpable sense of the power and responsibility of representation. Indeed, Tumarkin is also staunch when it comes to the dignity and compassion she assures her interviewees, their voices and testimonies. As readers we are not positioned to consume these accounts as voyeurs; instead of luridness or gratuity there is resolute compassion and respect that remains importantly unobstructed by condescension or pity.
The collection’s interrogations of its titular axioms are also prescient, which might go without saying, clichés being both tired and timeless—yet rather than accepting, reaffirming or conceding to any ‘givens’ Tumarkin enlivens and occupies them anew.
The expression ‘those who forget the past are doomed to re—’ might resonate in especially discomforting ways in Australia’s present milieu, in light of recent displays of racism, neo-Nazism and white supremacy: in August last year, for example, Queensland crossbench senator Fraser Anning invoked the term ‘Final Solution’, along with the white Australia policy, in a parliament speech calling for a plebiscite on Australia’s supposed ‘immigration problem’. Following this, in January the senator stood alongside fascist protestors at a Melbourne rally at St Kilda Beach, where many were witnessed, photographed and filmed making explicit Nazi salutes and displaying SS insignia. While Anning might be ridiculed or dismissed—he received just 19 first-preference votes at the 2016 election—he nonetheless occupies a space and voice in Australian parliament, and his taxpayer-funded attendance at an explicitly racist public event is, along with the event itself, indicative of the ways in which racist ideologies and expressions have been emboldened to the extent that they are permitted validation and/or a public platform.
On Christmas Eve 2018 Australian Roman Catholic priest and community worker Father Bob Maguire tweeted, regarding Australia’s notoriously brutal regime of offshore detention: ‘The tweets with haunting photos of Auschwitz camp remind me of tweeted photos of refugees detained [on] Manus’—a visual likeness (notably, Maguire did not claim any further equivalence) variously and vigorously supported, rebuked and condemned by online followers.
These examples are by no means isolated or unprecedented instances of (con)testing George Santayana’s dictum that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, from which Tumarkin’s essay takes its title—yet they have perhaps brought this particular axiom more explicitly into public discourse and consciousness, raising collective questionings of what it means to remember and/or repeat history; how literally, precisely, and at what point the past can be seen to ‘happen again’.
To return to the text at hand, Brow Books announced in January that they have sold North American rights to Axiomatic to Transit Books, and the Spanish language rights to Editorial Minúscula. Certainly, this is a book of global, enduring resonance—universal perhaps precisely because of the intimacy with which it attends to the voices and stories it comprises. There is a steady urgency to this writing, and a powerful sense of Tumarkin’s writing as an active and lively practice that entails continual thought and interrogation, sparking new dialogues, or entering existing discourses aslant.