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Thu Feb 15 08:13:57 MST 2001
NY Times, February 15, 2001
Championing a Fabled Bandit, Peter Carey Sums Up His Underdog Culture
By MEL GUSSOW
For the novelist Peter Carey, there are three great Australian stories: the
battle at Gallipoli in World War I; the life and death of the champion
racehorse Phar Lap, and, most tantalizingly, Ned Kelly.
Depending on the point of view, Ned Kelly is either a murderous bandit or a
national folk hero. Mr. Carey is very much in the latter camp. His new
novel, "True History of the Kelly Gang," published by Alfred A. Knopf,
celebrates the 19th-century outlaw as a kind of Robin Hood.
The book is an Australian western, and on another level it is a search for
the roots of the nation's character. Unjustly charged with crimes he did
not commit, Kelly was forced by circumstance into a life as a highwayman,
or bushranger. He became legendary in his battle against local corruption
and British imperialism. In the novel Kelly becomes the author of his
autobiography, as Mr. Carey imaginatively impersonates his protagonist,
telling the story in a rollicking first-person account. . .
The epigraph to "The Kelly Gang" is from Faulkner: "The past is not dead.
It is not even past." For Mr. Carey, Kelly resonates through Australian
history and into the present. It is the ultimate Australian story, evoking
the country's origin as a penal colony and settlement for renegades, many
of them transported from Ireland.
In his path into legend, Kelly became a figure in songs and stories (and in
a failed movie starring Mick Jagger), a rebel in a homemade bulletproof
suit of iron that he wore when facing the police. Watching the Sydney
Olympic Games on television in New York, Mr. Carey was surprised to see "a
group of people with buckets on their heads and sparklers in their hands,"
a small army of Ned Kellys.
Despite such public admiration of Kelly, there is an official view of him
as a scoundrel. For that reason Mr. Carey compares his legend to the song
"Waltzing Matilda" and its lyrics about "a swagman, a hobo who steals a
sheep and commits suicide rather than fall into the hands of the police."
He feels it should be Australia's national anthem. Instead, there is
"Advance Australia Fair," a "most uninspiring bureaucratic song."
When Mr. Carey's book was published in Australia, one reviewer remarked
that he had "taken Nedophilia a step further into a regrettably
scintillating novel." After that quotation was read back to the author, he
laughed and savored "regrettably scintillating" as a possible blurb.
Then he quoted the British-born police commissioner of New South Wales who
said that Kelly "is a reflection of the black heart of nothingness that
sits at the heart of the Australian character." In contrast, Mr. Carey
thinks of him as a representative figure of an underdog culture.
Australians should be able to identify with him: "He is the convict stain
and he was smarter, braver, wittier, more decent" than any of those who
look down on him.
He praised Kelly for his humane acts, as someone who fought for the rights
of farmers and habitually took the blame for others, even though he was
surrounded by informers (or, in the novel's slang, fizgigs). Throughout the
book there is a sense of loss, of regret for the direction of his life. One
of Kelly's proudest possessions was a sash given to him in his youth as a
reward for saving a boy from drowning.
After holding up a bank in the town of Jerilderie, Kelly wrote an 8,300-
word public statement. "It was unpunctuated, very Irish, full of rage and
humor," Mr. Carey said. He first read the Jerilderie letter in 1964, made a
copy and carried it with him as a kind of amulet.
The original manuscript of the letter is in the State Library of Victoria,
and can be called up on the Internet:
Full article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/15/arts/15CARE.html
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