Andrew McGahan. Underground. Allen & Unwin, 2007. ISBN: 9781741753301
You might think that this book doesn’t belong on a list of fiction set in Canberra when you learn that its premise is that Canberra has been nuked off the face of the earth. Still, as our narrator Leo James records his memoirs, addressing himself to his “dear interrogators”, he reflects at times on Canberra, and remembers it as it was before the whole city was evacuated in the face of the nuclear threat from the Great Southern Jihad.
Following the destruction of Canberra, Prime Minister Bernard James, Leo’s twin brother, declared a state of emergency. Years later, it’s still in place. The emergency powers have been used to put in place a range of harsh measures. All Muslims have been corralled into ghettos. South Africa has boycotted us in the cricket because of our inhumane treatment of refugees. A number of joint Australian-US bases help to enforce what is essentially martial law. Some kind of spy communications facility has been built on top of Uluru. Individuals must carry their citizenship papers with them, which must be updated regularly. If, at any of the Citizen Verification Stations – checkpoints – around the country, a person’s citizenship is in doubt, they may be asked to take the citizenship test and recite the oath to prove their loyalty. Anzac Day is now Anzac Week.
This would be a ludicrous story if it wasn’t so close to what we have, or very nearly had back in 2006, when Underground was first published. Remember the citizenship test introduced by John Howard? Pondered lately our escalating war on boat people? Had a moment’s pause at the number of American troops being posted to Darwin? Felt in any way uncomfortable about flag-draped thugs claiming that they determine what is Australian or un-Australian? The genius and terror of Andrew McGahan’s story is that, outlandish conspiracy theory though it is, many of its individual elements aren’t very far removed from where we’ve already been. Apparently Andrew Bolt called McGahan an “unhinged propagandist”, which is to me pretty good evidence that it struck a nerve.
For obvious reasons the Canberra references in the book are limited. Leo is a Queensland property developer, so he has no real love of Canberra:
It was such an inconvenient place. Off in the middle of nowhere. Stinking hot in summer. Freezing in winter. And totally soulless, all year round. Still there were one or two decent restaurants I would miss, and what would happen to the nation’s sex industry, once the mail order warehouses and porn studios of Fyshwick had been vaporised?
The usual ciphers of Canberra as a place are there: parliament house times two, LBG, the Captain Cook Fountain, Mount Ainslie, the Lodge, Anzac Parade and the War Memorial. It is what Canberra symbolises as the seat of government and the physical representation of our democracy that is more important here. The terrorists who planted the bomb in Canberra gave three days’ warning, enough time to get everyone safely out. And, as Leo’s car crawled up the Federal Highway to Sydney with the other evacuees, he watched
an unbroken stream of commandeered trucks passing by in the opposite lanes. They were heading into Canberra, destined for the National Gallery, or for the National Museum, or for various government archives, or for any other such place where the national treasures and records might be in need of rescuing.
…[A]fter forty-eight hours of the most frenzied activity imaginable, Canberra was stripped of virtually everything that mattered.
And that’s it really, isn’t it? The value you place on Canberra depends on the value you place on the things that it contains. Communities, our own personal histories and connections with a place and the people in it. National symbols, a place of debate and democracy, of tolerance and inclusion. Coincidentally, I finished reading Underground on the morning of the federal election. And I worry about how some value the things that Canberra contains.