Australian Book Review, September, 2011
VIOLIN LESSONS. By Arnold Zable. Text.
Reviewer: Jose Borghino
The ten stories in Violin Lessons are intensely imagined, autobiographical non-fiction. Each story stands alone, but recurring themes, music, exile, memory, mass murder, and survival, emerge and play out across the collection.
Memory is not a plodding, linear recounting of the past for Zable. A good example is the story 'Violin Lessons', which begins with Zable recalling his childhood violin teacher, the aloof and authoritarian Mr Offman. A jump cut takes us to a story-within- a-story where an old man named Naji Cohen tells Zable of his first violin lessons in 1940s Baghdad and of his eventual escape from persecution to Melbourne.
Cohen's tale kindles a desire in Zable to find out more about Offman,who has been dead for years. Random details of Offman's life accumulate, including the extermination of his family in Auschwitz and his flight to the Middle East. Then, as if by accident, Zable discovers that Offman performed in Baghdad around the time Cohen was still living in the city, falling in love with the violin and starting lessons:
This last shard of information arrests me. I have found the point the storyteller yearns for, the moment a tale yields its symmetry and attains an unexpected harmony ... Perhaps all stories if pursued will eventually yield their symmetries, their unexpected meanings. Then again, perhaps this is the storyteller's illusion, an innate longing to make sense of life's fragility and chaos, to contrive order out of what is in reality a play of chance. Does it matter? Perhaps it is enough to tell the story.
Zable's slide into this meta-narrative register is a characteristic move in many of these stories. It's a revelation, drawing us into the inner workings of Zable's writing method. It is also a decoy. in 'Violin Lessons', this meta-narrative shift seems to tie the story up neatly, but the piece continues with a beautiful coda that gives the narrative one last unexpected turn. it would spoil things to divulge further details, but Zable's intertwining of Offman's and Naji's stories with his own, and his meta-narrative feint before delivering the final emotional punch, are both sure signs of a master storyteller at work.
At the beginning of another story, 'The Dust of Life', Zable is in Phnom Penh in 1970, remembering Saigon. He recalls riding motorcycles through the city with an Australian photojournalist, talking to stoned 'American grunts', and hanging out with a fifteen-year old street boy who tells Zable about witnessing his village being bombed. The narrative immediately switches to suburban Melbourne and his mother's recurring nightmares in which she remembered her village in Poland being destroyed during World War II. Zable again shifts into meta-narrative mode at this point, contemplating the contradictions of being a witness to history, the feelings of guilt tangled up with the imperative to tell one's story.
This is the pattern of Violin Lessons: Zable travels, hearing stories of genocide and survival, of guilt-laden memory, of exile and of music. Each place he describes - Melbourne, Switzerland, Ithaka, Venice, Berlin, Poland - and all the stories he gathers there become 'memory books'. One character comments, 'All writers are thieves and scavengers'.
The first nine stories of Violin Lessons lead up to the longest and last, 'The Ancient Mariner', which tells the story of Amal, one of the forty-five survivors from the asylum-seeker boat Siev-X that sank in October 2001 (more than 350 people drowned). Zable's piece fulfils his promise to Amal, as she lay dying of cancer, that he would tell of the horrors she witnessed.
In incantatory language that combines the logic of dreams and the intense emotion of the legendary Egyptian singer Umm khultum, Zable gives Amal a voice to express the otherwise unutterable:
And I see the children ... the children look fresh. They look like angels. They look like birds, like they are going to fly on the water. One girl, she is eleven years old, and she is lying on the ocean, and her eyes talk to me.They are saying, 'What crime have i done?' And I say, 'Oh poor, beautiful girl,' and i see her falling asleep on the ocean.
In another meta-narrative epiphany, Zable compares Amal to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, both condemned forever to tell their stories to all who would listen. For both, storytelling allows the expiation of survivor guilt and gives their lives new purpose.
At its best, Zable's writing reminds me of W.G. Sebald - enigmatic, self-aware, exploratory. in his hands, storytelling paradoxically becomes a salve for the unhealable wounds it describes, memory brings home the shock of loss - but is also the only way of reaching the dead - and music is a trace that both recalls exile and undoes it.
Jose Borghino teaches literary Journalism at the University of Sydney.
Reviews for Sea of Many Returns
THE CANBERRA TIMES, June 7, 2008
Power in echoing places
SEA OF MANY RETURNS. By Arnold Zable. Text.
Reviewer: DOROTHY JOHNSTON
When I had finished Sea of Many Returns, I turned back to the beginning and started again. It's a fabulous book, one I know will repay many readings. Sometimes it seems to me that writers who kick away conventional narrative props and opt for mixed-up time schemes and multiple voices have been ill-advised to do so. I have a feeling they should learn to walk before they run. But Arnold Zable is a long-distance athlete among novelists, and his command of his material is superb. Though several voices tell his latest story, their variety and intermingling is never a barrier to understanding.
His subject is modern-day Ithaca. Odysseus's island, Homer's island, constructed as much out of myths as from earth and rock, has presented countless generations of young men with an in- soluble dilemma. They want to remain on their homeland, but cannot make a living. The soil is too poor and there isn't enough of it; seas become over-fished; warring nations block their trade routes. Meanwhile, the women stay behind to harvest the olives, to work in the vineyards and orchards.?Ti na kanoume, ola ine tikhe' goes their chant. 'What can we do? All is luck, all is fate.'
Zable focuses on one extended family: Xanthe, born in Australia, struggles to make sense of her father Manoli's terrible rages, his obsession with sailing, and his refusal to revisit the island. "Ithaca," she reflects. "I cannot recall the first time I heard the word. It has always been there like an ancient longing welling up from the sea." This sentence is repeated several times, almost word for word, as are certain key phrases and the chant about fate. It's the kind of repetition that has been said to indicate a Yiddish style of storytelling, but could as easily echo a Greek chorus.
Xanthe's uncle Andreas throws some light on the passions that drove her father, who died suddenly of a stroke when she was 14, but it is not until more than two decades after her first visit to Ithaca that Xanthe is able to make some kind of peace with her memories of him. While in Greece, Xanthe translates a manuscript left for her by her maternal grandfather, Mentor, who emigrated to Australia during World War I, to work in Kalgoorlie, then Melbourne. The men who meet at the Ithacan club, then scatter throughout Australia, all have one refrain, to make their fortunes, then go home.
For some, this ambition loses urgency over time; others, like Manoli's father, Stratis, are true to their word, but leave homecoming too late to assuage the hurt of those they left behind, or to fit back into life on the island. Their yearnings, like the rhythms of the Ionian Sea, give Zable's prose a quality of striding forward and at the same time endlessly repeating the same journey. The word nostalgia derives from the Greek nostos, the return, and algos, meaning pain. Mentor calls it "an affliction of the imagination, a disease of both body and spirit."
A narrative dominated by Mentor's dreams, of travel and adventure and wealth, is presented within the framework of a woman's thoughts and memories, as Xanthe fights to insert the women of her family into her grandfather's memoirs. Zable has more than a nodding acquaintance with the torments of exile. His book Café Scheherazade depicts the lives of former refugees who meet in a coffee shop in St Kilda, Melbourne.
Scraps of Heaven is about a Jewish family settling in Carlton after World War II, a novel in which parents' nightmares are relieved by the fact that the story is told from a child's point of view, with a child's irrepressible curiosity and energy.
The Fig Tree is a collection of true stories about families and journeys. Years of reflection and his own life experiences have contributed to the mastery with which Zable explores the themes of displacement, loss, nostalgia and homecoming in all of his books, most notably and recently in Sea of Many Returns.
A hole in the water.
Sea of Many Returns reviewed By Michael McGirr
July 12, 2008
FEW PLACES TICKLE THE western imagination to the same extent as Ithaca, a strangely shaped island off the west coast of Greece. Homer's Odyssey is a book that blows through the entire world, but it is anchored to Ithaca.
Odysseus, whose name means "son of pain", leaves Ithaca to fight a war. Twenty years later he returns in disguise, recognised only by his faithful pooch, Argos, who gets so excited that his long wait is over that he drops dead on the spot. Odysseus' wife, Penelope, has been beset by sleazy suitors. Odysseus dispatches them and the couple are reunited. But the real point of the traveller's return is his bed, carved into the immovable stump of an old olive tree. Odysseus has come home to rest.
Arnold Zable's exquisite new novel, Sea of Many Returns, charts more recent comings and goings from Ithaca. Zable's fiction has often found disquieting resonances between physical and emotional space. Here, once again, he embraces restless and heartsore characters, people whose deep longings are sketched with a few reverent gestures.
Zable has a remarkable gift for this. He holds pain with unsettling gentleness. His prose is such good company that you accept its honesty.
Zable's previous book, Scraps of Heaven, explored the world of Carlton in inner Melbourne in the late 1950s. It centres around Zofia and Romek, who have escaped from the horrors of the European war, and their young son Josh.
The book handles Zofia and Romek's personal baggage with both delicacy and strength. It doesn't interrogate their inner lives or bully them into confessions or disclosures they are unable to make. It simply gives them space to ache in their own ways and the effect on the reader is profound.
Zofia's brother, for example, got to Australia before the war and has done well for himself; he has no ability to be close to Zofia because she has burdens that can't be shared by the unburdened.
Sea of Many Returns is equally accepting in the way it understands the deeper pains of dislocation: it doesn't want to possess them or fence them in or reduce them to anything less than their story. br>The novel deals with an extended Ithacan family that has had a zig-zag relationship with Australia. In the early years of the 20th century, brothers Andreas and Manoli built a boat called Brotherly Love and in it they begin to test the waters beyond their island.
They have waited for their absent father, Stratis, to return from far off Australia. In his turn, Manoli will also go to Australia and get stuck there, living in exile in Carrum and never happy unless he is in a boat on the bay. Manoli dies in 1971 from a stroke, a sad man far from home. "Nothing matters," he says. "Life is a hole in the water." Later, Manoli's daughter, Xanthe, will return to Ithaca and begin to put the identity puzzle back together.
Xanthe will also try to understand the story of her colourful grandfather, Mentor, the father of her mother, Sophia. Mentor was also displaced from Ithaca, at least partly because of his own longings.
Through Mentor's journal, we see a broad cross-section of the Greek experience in Australia. Mentor joined Stratis in Kalgoorlie where they were caught up in anti-Greek rioting during World War I. They move to Melbourne and help the formation of Melbourne's Greek quarter in the 1920s, a time when Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin were at work, remodelling cafes and eventually creating the Capitol Theatre.
Mentor falls inwards, losing himself in the State Library where he spends years reading all kinds of things, training himself to be a magician and a hypnotist, fields in which he only achieves "rare moments of competence". It is the death of his son Demos that keeps him trapped in Australia. He is unable to leave the country in which his son is buried to return to the one in which his forebears lie. It is a bind.
Mentor muses in his journal that nostalgia is literally not just the longing for home but the pain of longing for home. This pain has fed Arnold Zable's tender and loving work for close to 20 years.
Xanthe, born in Australia, comes home to Ithaca with her own daughter. We are now in the fourth generation of comings and goings with no sign of things ever being much different. Xanthe wants to meet the women who have been neglected in the epic stories of absent men. These meetings require patience. The lesson of the women is that life is "an enclosed circle. All is written. All is fate".
But Xanthe comes to rest for long enough to understand. In this, she is the heiress of Odysseus.
Michael McGirr, is author of Bypass (Picador)
June 28 2008
Personal truths in a traveller's tales
Sea of Many Returns
Reviewed by Christopher Bantick
IF there is one thing that distinguishes Arnold Zable's writing, it is the strength of his narrative voice. Melbourne-based Zable has captured the deep resonances of that city and, more specifically, its Jewish voices since the post-Holocaust diaspora.
The interweaving of stories in his fiction and nonfiction forms a counterpane of personal reminiscence.
Still, to suggest that Zable is an author for whom the past is more important than the present would be wrong. Yes, nostalgia is clearly one of his literary touchstones. Indeed in his new and searching novel Sea of Many Returns one of the central characters, Mentor, notes: "Nostalgia may be a curse, yet it is one of life's pleasures, a pastime for the mind. In my ageing it is a salve to conjure the past. It enables me to play with time rather than be its slave."
While nostalgia and its role as a trigger for imaginative exploration may be one of Zable's preoccupations, his growing corpus of books deal with journeys of all kinds. Moreover, they repeat stylistic tendencies and tonal qualities. Simply put, Zable is a great respecter of the past. It is no foreign country for him and he finds his talismans of truth there.
In his much acclaimed 2001 novel Cafe Scheherazade, where "old worlds were being recreated, and festering wounds were being healed", Zable set out his stall as a writer: poetry and reminiscence, the experience of the past revisiting the present and the sanctity of memory are his wares.
In his first book Jewels and Ashes, written in 1992, Zable reflected on the sacking of Bialystok Jewry in Poland, saying through his character Bunim: "Everyone has his story; everyone his refrain."
And in the tenderly autobiographical work Scraps of Heaven, we observe Bloomfield, a symbolic presence representing the broken and bereft who made their homes in inner-city Carlton: "He is as much a part of the park as are the Moreton Bays and the possums that scoot about the elms."
The Fig Tree (2002) was an account of theinfluence on Zable and his family of Ithaca, the Greek island from which his wife's forebears came.
The new novel is also about Ithaca, and explores the sense of physical and emotional journeying. In it, Xanthe is compelled to return to the birthplace of her father, Manoli, and her maternal grandfather, Mentor, prompted by family and literary associations. Xanthe is translating Mentor's manuscript, an account of leaving Ithaca and his subsequent life in Australia.
There are clear associations with Homer's The Odyssey and with the start of Tennyson's poem Ulysses, when Zable invites us to listen to a fairytale. "Come," the narrator says to us. "Sit by the fire. Allow the voice of the storyteller to soothe you while you gaze at the flames."
Sea of Many Returns reminds us that dreams are another of Zable's themes. As a literary device, the role of the dreamer gives Zable limitless possibilities: in this case, Xanthe discovers Mentor's ethereal dreams distilled into words.
This is a superbly crafted, at times exhilarating and edifying, novel that asks us to let go and catch, as does Xanthe, the "Ithaca disease", while we dally in the sunshine of Zable's prose.
Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and reviewer.
An author left chasing his tale
A Profile, by Graham Reilly
July 5, 2008
Like Odysseus, from Arnold Zable's beloved Ithaca, the Melbourne writer is a voyager, and he weaves what he has seen and heard into his stories. THE last time Arnold Zable was on the Greek island of Ithaca was the final Saturday of September 2006. As he sat in the kafeneion, the old coffee shop, in the northern village of Stavros, he wrote in his journal that if you sit for long enough everyone you need to see, and everything you need to know, will come your way.
"And a man stepped out and said: 'West Coast Eagles by one point."'
Zable, a stubbled, smiling nugget of a man, is now sitting in a coffee shop perched above the Yarra River in Alphington, laughing about the day a dutiful son in Australia sent a text message to his football-mad father, who, like Zable, was taking a sojourn on the island.
It is a tale that befits a consummate storyteller, for Ithaca is the bedrock of his evocative and ambitious new novel, Sea of Many Returns.
It is also, in many ways, emblematic of the life he has chosen to lead and the vocation he pursues as someone who seeks to understand those who, by choice or circumstance, have left their birthplace to find a new life in Australia.
The Melbourne-born writer made his first journey to the small mountainous island in 1986. He travelled there from Poland, where he had been walking in the footsteps of his parents, Meier and Hoddes Zabludowski, who had been spared the terrible fate that befell so many European Jews under Hitler and went on to live the rest of their lives in the welcome peace and stability of Carlton North, essentially happy but sometimes haunted by the fractured consciousness so common to those who survived horrors that many did not.
The result of that particular journey of discovery was his award-winning exploration of the 20th century Jewish experience, Jewels and Ashes.
Zable travelled to Ithaca by boat from the mainland port of Patra. Much-travelled, he had always revelled in journeys by sea.
"There is an intensity about it. It's a kind of no man's land, because you see a port receding and another coming towards you. It intensifies your thinking about what it means to your life, about separation and exile," he says.
Apart from being the mythical home of Odysseus, Ithaca is also the ancestral home of Zable's wife, Dora. He now visits as often as he can and it is clearly a place that has become an integral part of him. With hindsight, it is a union that was somehow meant to be.
"When I first set foot in Ithaca, I had a feeling this was going to be a very big part of my life. Here is an island that resonates with the great ancient archetype of the voyager who leaves the island. In Odysseus' case, he thought he was going away for a year or two to fight the Trojan Wars and then he comes back 20 years later. Then I heard extraordinary stories that repeat the same pattern." It is these stories I hear on many subsequent visits — of those who leave and those who stay behind, and of the euphoria, tragedy and loss that line the journey — that inspired Zable in his latest work. There was no shortage of raw material. Everywhere he went on the island, on every mule path he took, in every olive grove he worked, people wanted to tell him their stories. Ithaca, after all, is the birthplace of philoxenia, where every road has an open door waiting for every stranger and where a man is said to die poor if he does not have time to stop and talk.
"It's almost like a tradition you find among nomadic people," Zable says, leaning into the table to emphasise his point. "I've experienced it myself as a traveller when I've gone right off the beaten track. And certainly seamen say this, people from islands, because it's a kind of pact based on a practical understanding that when there is a shift in the wind, you can become the stranger. You can become Odysseus washing up on a beach.
"What comes out of this is that when someone is coming to you for help — is knocking on the door, is willing to brave the seas to get to your shore — he is greeted and fed and given a roof over his head. Then you ask questions. This is where you come to the heart of what I am trying to do. When you hear the story then you get closer to the truth.
Ithaca has undoubtedly helped shape Zable's trajectory as a writer — his book The Fig Tree is also partly set there —but so, too, have his childhood and travels over the years into unknown territory.
As a young boy in the early 1950s, he would run through the streets of North Carlton like the long-distance runner he would become at high school. Sandshoed feet slip-slapping the pavement, he would dash beneath the poplar and palm trees of Canning Street, past the silent cemetery to the green expanse of Princes Park and back again to his terraced home among the European diaspora who had made Melbourne their refuge from war, poverty, repression and, in some cases, looming annihilation.
It may have been a short journey at a time when those around him had made epic voyages that were fraught and life-defining in comparison, but it gave him time and space to absorb the stories of the displaced and dispossessed people around him and, perhaps, to set him on course for his travels within, and outside of, himself. Zable grew up immersed in the world of his Polish Jewish parents and everything they brought with them from their other, vibrant, but ultimately dislocated, lives.
He became passionate about Yiddish literature and theatre, and played bit parts at the Kadima, the Jewish cultural centre. He shared meals with men who had taken to the forest to become partisans when they still had down on their upper lips.
His father was the sole survivor of his family. At heart a Yiddish poet, he was compelled to make a living selling socks and stockings at Queen Victoria Market. His mother was haunted by what she believed was her failure to save her family in Poland. She loved to sing but throughout her life felt misunderstood.
Zable movingly captures her despair in Jewels and Ashes. "I've got a story to tell!" she exclaims. "No one sees! No one understands! No one knows who I am!" His parents, like many migrants in early postwar Melbourne, had demons to wrestle and stories they desperately needed to tell so that they could declaim and validate their existence.
"To be understood, or to feel you are being understood, is a very deep urge within human beings," Zable says.
It was at this time that he began to express what he saw and heard by taking to the cocoon of his bedroom to write, to make his first tentative reflections on what has become an obsession with a generation of people who made often life-threatening journeys in search of a better life.
"People just don't understand what it means to leave behind the place you grew up in. Even people that fled horrific circumstances will look back with a degree of nostalgia at the place they spent their childhood," he says. "Some thrived with the new opportunities, others fell by the wayside, others lived in a state of rage because they could never come to terms with it. Others became sojourners and went back."
Zable is an enthusiastic, if not Olympian, talker. His conversation is free of ego and pretense, surprising, perhaps, for someone with his achievements.
He listens attentively, too, as any dedicated storyteller must, although you can always sense his thoughts simmering within him, like a stew on the stove, as he readies himself for when it is again his turn to speak.
He travelled to New Guinea and kept returning.
And all the while he wrote things down.
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, he wangled himself a journalist's visa on the strength of a few articles he'd written for the Melbourne University magazine Farrago, and flew to what was then called Saigon. There he met a disenchanted American soldier who'd set up an orphanage for children who had been living on the streets. Zable met a 15-year-old boy who told his story. His village had been bombed and as he fled the searing flames he stopped for a moment when he realised he would never see his parents again.
"At that point I went back to my childhood in Carlton, when my mum used to wake up from a recurring dream of a village on fire and running from the flames with her brothers and sisters and then being the last one running," he says.
"And I discovered an extraordinary thing that I've experienced again and again. Whatever story you tell, someone out there — in another place or another culture — the same story, or a variation of that story, is being acted out."
Zable says it is the realisation of the paradoxical uniqueness and universality of every story that has given him his greatest satisfaction as a writer.
"It's when you get a letter from someone writing from a library in Arizona saying, 'That's my story, too.' Or for someone who is from an Irish, or Greek, or Italian background who says, 'I can relate to that."'
It is this recognition of the power of these shared stories, and a profound admiration of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, that led him to take an active role in protecting the rights of asylum seekers, some of whom he felt were being treated unjustly be the Howard government. His public advocacy of refugee rights is also partly a product of his upbringing.
"My parents grew up in a humanist, socialist environment in the interwar years in Poland, where they were taught that you need to fight for better communities and justice and against anti-Semitism and racism. I was brought up in a way that if you felt something is wrong, then you have to do something about it.
More than anyone in this country, through his acclaimed writing and teaching, Zable has not just chronicled the migrant experience of separation and exile, hope and despair, but also the reality of what it is to be human in a sometimes turbulent world. He writes with skill and humanity of the everyday and sometimes extraordinary journeys we all make to survive. In his distinctive narrative voice — in which the smallest pebble in the road does not go unnoticed, where every door is opened to see what lurks behind — he leads us to the realisation that the past never lets go of the present, that behind every point of arrival is a place of departure.
"All it is," he says, "is that I've set out to try and find out things, and lived in many different environments and listened. And you start to see that life is a totally unpredictable journey, and sometimes the best people experience the worst calamities and it's not fair and sometimes it's the other way around."
It is a theme that plays a defining role in Sea of Many Returns, a recurring wave that washes the rocky shores of Ithaca to reveal the raw truth of life for those who remained on the island to till the soil and those who left to to chase their dreams.
Ti na kanoume, ti na kanoume. What can we do, what can we do? Ola ine tikhe, ola ine tikhe. All is luck, all is fate.
Graham Reilly is an Age senior writer.
Sea of Many Returns, by Arnold Zable, is published by Text, RRP $32.95.
Zable goes back to the sea.
Australian Jewish News, July 17, 2009
With echoes of Homer, Arnold Zable’s new novel, Sea of Many Returns, continues the renowned author’s fascination with the migrant experience. CHRISTOPHER BANTICK reports.
ARNOLD Zable has marked out a distinctive literary career with some remarkable books.
From his luminous Café Scheherazade, where he asked us to sit and listen to the resonances of Holocaust survivors, to the award-winning Jewels and Ashes, which focuses on his personal journey of understanding his Polish antecedents, Zable has revealed himself to be a writer of acute observational powers.
But the Melbourne writer is also capable of intimate journeys of another kind. His 2002 collection of true stories, The Fig Tree, was a personal account of his finding a sense of connection through his wife and her family in Ithaca, Greece.
Then there was the sharp autobiographical winnowing and the intensely moving Scraps of Heaven, in which Zable recounted his rich life experiences growing up in Jewish Carlton.
His new book, Sea of Many Returns, in some ways is a journey back – not to previous work, although there are certain redolent qualities with The Fig Tree – but to Ithaca in a novel form. This is a beguiling and deft literary move. Why?
Zable uses fictional representations to question the place of nostalgia in the lives of people. More than this, he engages with the immigrant experience in so far as what this means for memory and association with place.
The story asks us to travel with the centrally discreet character Xanthe. She goes to Ithaca in search of the influences on her father Manoli and maternal grandfather Mentor.
Xanthe is translating Mentor’s story of his journey leaving Ithaca and his life in Australia. It is a story that goes from the 1916 ethnic-based riots in Kalgoorlie, WA, to working in coffee houses in Melbourne.
When I meet Zable it is in Carlton. He knows the suburb intimately and he confesses Ithaca is also familiar to him.
“My connection with the Greek community began at Princess Hill High School. This was an immigrant working-class area. There were lots of Italians, Greeks and Jews. I felt an immediate affinity with my Greek friends.
“Both Greeks and Jews are what I call kitchen cultures, as most of the action takes place in the kitchen. This is where you eat, talk, argue and live.”
The novel, Sea of Many Returns, begins like a legend. The reader is absorbed into a story where there is a craving for a departure and arrival at the same time. There is more than a slight allegorical reference to Homer’s Odysseus here.
“It is a story that operates on many levels,” Zable says. “It works on the basis of an extended story, a family story and then the level of myth. These are all inextricably interlinked.
“First of all comes Ithaca. When I say Ithaca, the name itself evokes myth and legend. At the heart of this is the Odyssey and Homer’s Ithaca. There are many arguments as to whether this is real Ithaca or whether it is not. In a way, that really doesn’t matter. Ithaca is an intimate part of western culture.
“It is a name that resonates and echoes with many associations. You can’t help but make these connections. The extraordinary connection between the Odyssey and modern-day Ithaca is that as soon as you begin hearing modern Ithacan stories, you are hearing the same story again and again and again.
“In the original, as Ulysses leaves the island, he thinks he is going to be away for a short time, but he didn’t come back for 20 years. Here, in modern-day Ithaca, I am listening to story after story of men who had decided to leave and say they are going to be back soon.
It is extraordinary how many of them were away for 20 or 30 years and who never came back. Ithaca is a continuing drama of arrivals and departures. This reflects in some ways the experience of the Diaspora of the Jews. Yet there is a significant difference.
“I felt the difference the moment I first landed on Ithaca in 1986. This was en route back from Poland. The difference for me is that in Poland, you are going back to a graveyard in terms of Jewish life. But in Ithaca, you can go home.”
Given that the journey undertaken by Xanthe in Sea of Many Returns prompts her to think about her forebears, and keeping in mind Zable’s previous work where recollection of past events can determine a view on life, if not shape the present, what place does memory and imagination have for the immigrant experience?
“You have to remember that we are talking of a time that is already over,” he explains. “Nowadays you can pick up a mobile phone and talk to anyone and even see them. People forget perhaps that a few short years ago, to make a journey to Europe was a major separation from loved ones.
“A bit further back, the only way you could make the journey was by boat. In a sense, this was another era and the book is, in part, an exploration of memory.”
What awaits readers in the novel is not only a superbly crafted story of multi-narratives and the illusion of time, but acute physical description of place. It is almost as if Zable is reporting on what he sees through the eyes and dreams of Manoli, and then in Mentor’s manuscript being revisited by Xanthe. It is something he said he strived to achieve.
“That is very much what nostalgia is. It is a longing for a specific place. For the smell of it, for the detail of it and I have fallen in love with Ithaca. My wife Dora and I have become known there and we are referred to as the walkers.
We have a great love of the island and, particularly, of the old mule tracks. That is another reason why I wanted to take readers to that landscape. I wanted to share something that I have grown to love.
“Nostalgia, which is a Greek word, literally means the pain of longing for the return. Memory is very much a part of this and trying to access the lost landscape is also very much a part of it. The loss of the detail is felt. When people begin to feel a loss of that detail, then that’s part of the pain of remembering.
“Sometimes it takes a crisis to trigger nostalgia and very often, for the immigrant, this is a fairly universal thing. The reason is that the first years are often intense in so far as making a living, and working your way up, often from nothing.
"There may be clear-cut goals, either money to take back with you or money to send home. Then again, you want to grab new freedoms and opportunity and make something of it.
“Very often, a feeling for a homeland remans dormant. But at a certain point it can be triggered by a crisis, like the loss of a child – as what it was for Mentor – or the Kalgoorlie riots when you feel that you are not welcome in a new land. That can trigger off nostalgia. All of a sudden, that longing returns.”
Sea of Many Returns is available through Text Publishing, $32.95.
Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and critic.