In his new novel “Amnesia,” double Booker winner Peter Carey excavates some of the most significant moments in modern Australian history: from the “Battle of Brisbane” in 1943, when local soldiers and civilians clashed violently with American GIs, through the establishment in 1970 of the satellite tracking station at Pine Gap in central Australia, to the dismissal, in November 1975, of the then Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam by the governor general Sir John Kerr—at the behest of the CIA, if Carey’s narrator Felix Moore (left-wing journalist and “shit-stirrer”) is to be believed.
When the novel opens, a somewhat bedraggled Felix (“overweight and out of breath”) is in court, fighting a libel case, and it’s not going well. Salvation of a kind appears in the form of an intriguing commission that comes his way from an old friend, Woody Townes, a property developer of Rabelaisian appetites and mysterious political connections. Felix is to write the biography of Gaby Baillieux, a female hacker who released a computer virus that infected “117 US federal correctional facilities, 1,700 prisons, and over 3,000 county jails.”
Gaby is the daughter of a university contemporary of Felix’s, and was born on 11 November 1975, the day that Whitlam was dismissed. Whitlam died, at the age of 98, on 21 October this year, a week or so before I spoke to Carey on the phone from New York, where has lived since 1990. I suggested to him that “Amnesia” is, among other things, a homage to Whitlam.
PC: It was an extraordinary thing being in Australia and seeing headlines saying that my book concentrated on Whitlam’s dismissal and that it seemed like ancient history. And the next morning, Gough had died and all the newspapers that had shat on him ran these amazing front covers with huge photographs of a man who was in power for barely three years.
JD: You say that Whitlam’s dismissal seemed like “ancient history”…
Right. I thought that a lot of the people reading this wouldn’t even know who Gough was. Any suggestion that there was anything underhand at work [in Whitlam’s dismissal], has been so scorned and disparaged for all this time—the notion wasn’t really in the ether at all before, it seemed to me.
Why do you think Australia doesn’t talk about what happened in 1975 as much as you, or Felix Moore for that matter, thinks that it should?
This thing happened that we could not bear to think about, that we could not acknowledge, because if it was true [that the CIA had demanded Whitlam’s dismissal], then everything we were doing, all our political assumptions, were incorrect. So we couldn’t do anything about it. But I don’t think forgetting is a peculiarly Australian habit—trauma victims do it all the time, right? Americans have to forget many things, and they do, very successfully.
What was the specific prompt, then, for you to go back and excavate the story of the Whitlam dismissal?
It was the emergence of Julian Assange—thinking about Assange and watching American politicians call him a “traitor” and me saying to myself, “Well, you don’t even know who he is. He’s an Australian, so he can’t possibly be a traitor, pal!” I had this idea that, having a left-wing mother growing up the 1970s, the dismissal or coup would have had an impact on Assange’s life. I didn’t want to write about him [directly], but I wanted to make up somebody for whom there was a cause and effect relationship between [the events of] 1975 and a hacking adventure in which the big country had behaved badly towards the little country— this was the mouse roaring back.
The hacker in this book, Gaby Baillieux, is a woman. Why did you make her female?
The first thing was simply expedience: I wanted my hacker not to be Julian Assange, and that was the quick way to do it. But there are lots of women who write code and who have the experience of living in this pimply boys’ world and being accepted into it, finally, or not. I rather liked that idea.
You were talking just now about the relationship between Australia and the United States in connection with Assange. It strikes me that this relationship has been much less extensively explored than that between Australia and the UK—I’m thinking of what used to be called the “cultural cringe” and so on.
They are related things. Think of this small number of soldiers and convicts transported to the other end of the world, where they nearly starve because they can’t eat what the people who live there eat. And that general sense of abandonment and terror continues through the early days of the colony. They live for a long time with the notion of the “convict stain” and a general anxiety that we would never shape up to whatever dithering posh person turned up on the shore. And I do think of sending young men to Gallipoli as the payment of some sort of blood debt—if we spilled enough blood, we’d all be OK. And finally, we expected Britain to protect us and realised, in the Second World War, that Britain was not going to be able to protect us. Our young men were sent away to protect Britain and we were left unprotected at the bottom of the world. And it was the Americans who came in. As my mother said, the Japanese were going to come and “take [her] little baby.” So there was this sense of needing a powerful protector.
I know we shouldn’t confuse the views of the narrator with those of the author, but it does sound very much as if you and Felix Moore agree that Australia has had an essentially vassal relationship with the US.
Pretty much. You’re right, of course, we shouldn’t do that! But I don’t think I can’t wriggle out of that one.
I was struck by the relish you appear to take in the Australian vernacular and demotic in this novel.
It’s a lovely thing. As teenagers, we were generally taught that our accents were awful. Actors would learn to speak so instinctively in a sort of BBC, received pronunciation that they had to “do” an Australian accent! When I came to London in the late Sixties, I was cringingly aware of Australian accents on the bus. By the time, I left Britain and came back to Australia, I realised [that accent] was mine and what a precious and beautiful thing it was. But when I’d arrived in England, the immigration guy had told me I looked “more English than the English,” and I was thrilled. Yet, two years later I realised that even if I stayed in England for a hundred years, I wouldn’t know who or what I was and that I would know who or what I was in Australia. And around that time, the country itself began to love itself. And Whitlam was part of that—he wasn’t craven; he could walk confidently on a world stage and be intelligent and unafraid. One of the reasons that Whitlam, a man who Australian media seemed to dislike so intensely, got so much press coverage when he died was that he was the only person who really provided that sort of representation of the country to the world.
There’s a moment, just over a hundred pages in, when Felix says, “If this was a story about hackers, I was laughably ill-equipped to write it.” I wondered if you were talking about yourself to some extent there. Was this a subject you’d been interested before Assange appeared on the scene?
Not really. That line would apply to me. But it was also me dealing with what the character could know, acknowledging a generational difference. Of course I, in my parallel universe, had to go and find out a lot of things. And in the end, I think I found out more than Felix!
I have in the past been wary and sometimes irritable about people attributing autobiographical aspects to my characters. I make up Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda and they say it’s me. Tristan Smith is a dwarf with no lips and they say that’s me. And then there’s big, brawling “Butcher” Boone from Theft and they say that’s me. So this time, I gave Felix all my biographical stuff—the car dealer father, Bacchus Marsh, Monash University in 1961. Initially, I did it mischievously. I thought, “Fuck it!”
Peter Carey’s “Amnesia” is published by Faber & Faber (£18.99)