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Underground

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.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

9%

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction

The Monster That Ate Canberra

Michael Salmon. The Monster That Ate Canberra. Summit Press, 1974. ISBN: 959920927

Probably Australia’s most famous bunyip, Alexander, was born in Canberra. Well, not exactly. He was forced to leave his original home (we don’t quite know where that is) because

his favourite billabong was slowly filling up with rubbish from the smoggy city. Every Tuesday and Thursday huge trucks roared down to the water and dumped loads of empty beer cans, soft drink bottles, cigarette packets, old tyres and newspapers – all the rubbish that lies about in the streets and gutters of any big city.

Unable to clean up after the trucks any longer, Alexander leaves to find a better place to live. After wandering to the sugarcane and the palms, to the bottle trees and grass trees, and “to the mountain ranges of snow and ice”, Alexander finally stumbles upon his new home:

There, nestling between the mountains in the distance was the biggest billabong that he had seen in all his Bunyip years… At last he had found a perfect home….. LAKE BURLEY GRIFFIN!!

After finally resting following his long journey, Alexander wakes the next day, bathes under the Captain Cook fountain, and realizes he is hungry. The National Library looks to Alexander like a giant birthday cake, and tastes “a bit sugary and sweet”. Parliament House, “a special super extra long hamburger”, doesn’t taste very good at all. But for desert there is apple pie Academy of Science and an ice cream cone Carillion.

But Canberrans don’t like having their national monuments eaten by bunyips, and the Prime Minister, on the advice of “a wise professor from the University”, orders the plug to be pulled on Scrivener Dam, so that the lake can be drained and the greedy bunyip can be caught.

The Monster that Ate Canberra gave rise to an enormously successful and long-running series of children’s books, a television show, and even a range of merchandise. Later images of Alexander are round and cheerful and pastel-coloured, but these early pictures in the first Alexander book (the copy I read was the second edition – the first was in 1972) show him thinner and sadder-eyed, picked out in red, while the Minister for Uncertain Things and the other people around him are charcoal black and grey.

Alexander is a much-loved bunyip, so much so that a wonderful sculpture of him was erected outside the Gungahlin library. I couldn’t help, though, feeling sad reading The Monster that Ate Canberra. Among the last of his race, he is driven from home by the actions of unthinking others. When he finds a place of sanctuary and tries to get by, he is misunderstood, his actions of mere survival considered criminal by the people he has come to live among. I can’t help but agree with our anonymous narrator at the end of the book: “I hope he has found a home and lots of things to eat”.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

13%

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Filed under Children's Fiction