Questions and questing

Whereas many twenty-first-century novels seem way too long, konkretion is a distilled, complex gem. It is a novella full of questions and questing, most of which riff from this observation made in the context of Germany’s militant Red Army Faction: ‘what triggers the conversion from resistance to terror, flick-knife or otherwise, the jump into illegality? – oh the primacy of praxis, that romance of struggle masking murder.’

konkretion is writer and academic Marion May Campbell’s fifth book of fiction. While it is deeply layered, and demands the reader’s full concentration, it is an invigorating rather than forbidding work. Campbell intermingles complex ideas with a playful use of language and deft characterisations. Even when poets, philosophers, and revolutionaries crowd the page, konkretion is very much a story rather than a work of quasi-scholarship.

Monique Piquet, an Australian scholar and novelist, arrives in Paris after fleeing a valedictory lecture in Sydney, a painful if comic public disclosure of her diminishing powers. It is a superbly written scene, and there are many others in this novella, including ones with seemingly incongruent subjects such as a forensic examination of the word ‘swarm’ and Monique’s encounter with a crazed man on a bus. Although these scenes may seem digressionary, they are essential to the story’s fabric. And they are hugely entertaining.

Monique wanders the streets of Paris like ‘a withered old chook, on the clichéd trail of reminiscence in Paris. Waiting to see how this place pulls on those old wounds’. As she re-explores the city, the veracity of her account fluctuates. In a trance-like state (sometimes assisted by pinot gris), she juggles thoughts about the intellectual course of her life and times, including poets and philosophers, France and Australia, ex-husbands and adult sons, and, not least, her own past radicalism. Sometimes she seems foggy and past it, sometimes hyper-self-aware and full of new thoughts and doubts. Sometimes she seems over the fight, as if sprinting towards incapacity. Winds pick her up and dump her; she removes her gloves to reveal withered hands. She is a mess, but a resilient, proud, and spirited one, full of self-deprecating asides.

If multiple factors conspire to fuel Monique’s angst, her most pressing concern is a strange book. Written by Angel Beigesang, a former student of Monique’s, it is the imagined testaments of Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, two women who were prominent members of the Red Army Faction. Angel asks whether Meinhof and Ensslin – especially the former, a journalist – might have made better use of language: ‘Then I wondered how things might have been different if Meinhof had found, beyond journalism and polemics, a kind of writing to run its festive way, igniting all the pleasure points, down the spine, pop pop pop … If she’d found a mode of poetry to channel her refusal, her despair, her outrage, a circuitry through the body, a red irrigation of poetry as sensation?’

On one level, Angel’s invented Meinhof and Ensslin seem rather far-fetched, their voices urgent and angry but straining to conform to Angel’s requirements. In Angel’s hands, for example, Meinhof says:

I’ve sprayed useless talk I’ve frothed and
foamed what I need is to fly it flat
and clean as sharp waterstone
flat and slim to hike it through the air
but I launched myself in endless peroration
typing sentence to sentence
embedding parentheses
stepped subordination hierarchies

Nevertheless, Angel offers a fresh perspective of extremism, albeit a flawed, self-regarding one. The far-fetched sometimes brings distinctive and worthwhile rewards.

For Monique, Angel’s book compels self-examination, not least because Angel names her ‘as a provocatrice, a trigger’. It is here, as Monique grapples with the public views of someone she has influenced, that konkretion is at its most riveting. Monique doubts Angel’s purpose, but also wonders ‘Does she still love the girl?’ And she recalls her radicalised classroom, exhorting her students – Angel included – to reject their privilege.

The story becomes less convincing when the two women actually meet. The slipperiness of the deep questions they ponder – how to interpret and respond to extremism, how to avoid romanticising it – render their exchanges somewhat forced. It is as if what Monique and Angel each believe, as if what they’ve each witnessed, experienced, and achieved – artistically, politically, and emotionally – resists reduction to a mere chat in a bar.

Campbell’s grand achievement in konkretion is her vivid, sometimes brutal, but always subtle portrait of Monique: almost everything that matters, including the exploits of the Red Army Faction and Angel’s interpretation thereof, is filtered through Monique. konkretion resembles a mosaic, with multiple shards producing a living, breathing, heaving work of art.

It has become customary when discussing dense fiction such as konkretion to congratulate author and publisher on their non-market-driven motivations. I do want to honour Campbell and UWA Publishing for putting konkretion into the public domain, and yet I feel as if I am conferring a trite consolation prize. Sometimes when fiction tackles deeply complex matters in a deeply complex fashion, it gets utterly lost within the profundity it seeks. In such cases, celebrating obscurity for obscurity’s sake is disingenuous. But sometimes, as with Marion May Campbell’s konkretion, such fiction soars.

Published in April 2013 no. 350

Comments (3)

  • Leave a comment

    Moya, can you suggest other great Australian women experimentalists for a keen reader to explore?

    Wednesday, 03 April 2013 15:15 posted by Lisa Hill
  • Leave a comment

    Good on you, Patrick. This is a novel(la) of international significance from one of the great Australian (women) experimentalists.

    Friday, 29 March 2013 07:25 posted by Moya Costello
  • Leave a comment

    Wonderful review - you have a lovely mind sir. Now I wish to read the novel.

    Friday, 29 March 2013 03:54 posted by Liz Gibbs

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