On Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang

A key to understanding Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is to realise that this is a book about speech and text, witness, and the question of the reliable or unreliable narrator. It explores the need to explain one’s actions, motives, and character in the context of possible histories and their receptions by personal and public audiences. The narrative of Ned Kelly is constructed for a private audience, though made public through the machine of research and public interest. Or so Carey directs his reader. As a child Kelly hears tales of Cuchulainn and Irish mythology, of the legends and terrors of the district, but only spends a limited time at school because of poverty and his father’s death.. Kelly’s great moment of childhood bravery, saving a boy from drowning, is rewarded by the boy’s publican father – a sash with Kelly’s heroics blazoned across it is awarded in front of the school. Text is the hero here. And though resentment surfaces regarding its value, it’s the pride that links his narrative together.

Rhetoric, and the possibility of truth and passion mingling, inform Kelly’s whole character here. In a book told as history – a history recreated from an apparent personal journal, a narrative epistle to an unseen daughter – the tale is told and the words are what we receive. The book is structured as “parcels” of text preserved in a deposit library, and we travel with the “historian” in the reading and reconstruction of possibilities through the reading of this text. It’s one version of history, played off against the official versions. Of course, the “true history” of the gang is told by Ned Kelly himself, so even within the framework of “faction”, truth is Ned Kelly’s truth, and not that of his younger brother Dan, Steve Hart with his chivalrous takes on the Irish Sons of Sieve, or Joe Byrne with his opium addiction and adulation and respect of Ned, the gang’s leader. Ellen Kelly, matriarch of the tale, is both understood and misunderstood by her son.

The irony is that Carey has based his novel on the official versions of the Ned Kelly story, and created a verisimilitudinous language for Kelly. Kelly doesn’t just speak to us through the author – he narrates, he writes himself. And as we will learn, that writing is closer to thought than speech; it’s closer to truth because stories can be told in so many different ways. Ink is blood. He dreams of his mother, then in jail, saying:

“I see Mr Irving finally made you the monitor she smiled. Looking down at myself I seen the ink on my hands & up my arms it were bleeding down my shirt & moleskins.”

The sash of heroism then appears:

“…I spilled it I said tho I did not remember having done so I were surprised that I must be back at Avenel Common School. You put that sash on she said do you hear me. It were 7 ft. long & fringed with gold I had nothing to be ashamed of Mother and me walked side by side along the catwalk I looked down to the ground floor where there were much smoke and destruction many policemen was lying dead.” 335

The boundary between heroism and murder can be a fine line, and Kelly’s guilt over the murders he committed at Stringybark Creek, when he and his gang surprised the police out hunting for them, drives his narrative. Carey plays with the inscription of guilt on the land, the pathetic fallacy of the land reflecting the individual’s psyche, of the condition of human events at a particular geographical location. Carey is exploring the conventions of Ozlit, as well as those of American wilderness writing, and more suspiciously, American transcendentalism. This is also debatably a novel about American takes on cultural histories, and if its nationalism can be unpicked, it is through this. Carey, the commercial novelist, also knows how many readers in his main market might interpret the text. It will give them exoticism as well as identifiable points of reference.

READ extract p 244

This is an oedipal book on every level, and one in which guilt is developed to a pathology. At its best Carey’s work is an analysis of how such neurosis can be turned into the stuff of myth, how as part of an oppressed people, despite the factionalisms and betrayals, the “criminal classes” might operate out of an agenda of survival that’s not to be judged by the accepted rules of honour and justice. Questions of fairness and justice are at the core of the work:

“Her baby is taken from her I said and they did not answer. And here is the thing about them men they was Australians they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood and a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye and even a posh fellow like the Moth had breathed that air so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and marrow. In the hut at Faithfull’s Creek I seen proof that if a man could tell his true history to Australians he might be believed it is the clearest sight I ever seen and soon Joe seen it too.” (p299)

Carey’s verisimilitude expects a willing suspension of disbelief, and is flawed. There are sentences where the register changes, and though this is also a feature of Kelly’s real texts such as the Jerilderie Letter, the changes in Carey’s text sometimes seem more like authorial intrusions – regardless of potential interpolation or hybridizing within the pseudo-narrative, the juxtapositions don’t often work.

The novel is full of wonderful vignettes though, and it’s the stories within the stories that Carey does so well. Be it the boxing match staged in the Commissioner’s mansion after he is arrested as a teenager and taken to Melbourne, or the tale of Whitty selling his soul and his clever wife getting it back for him, the asides make for wonderful digressions that richly inform the main narrative. There’s no doubt Carey is, above and beyond all else, a storyteller.

Yet the more I let Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang sink in, the more uncomfortable I feel. This fictionalization of the life of Ned Kelly participates in the creation and continuation of so many national myths that I begin to comprehend why it is that right-wing groups in Australia connect with Australian literary identities like Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Carey has “factionalised”, and cleverly at that, not only the story of Kelly, and to some extent the members of his gang, but tropes in Australian history. This is done with critical awareness, and his own textual procedures are under review throughout the work, but in the end it is hijacking and rendering saleable a mythology that has, as we regularly hear, had Mick Jagger play the bushranger and been a source for much contemporary literature – from poetry to novels.

One of the websites dedicated to Ned Kelly, tied up in the kind of Australian republicanism too often intertwined with xenophobia, carries a warning that people must not read Carey’s book as fact. The site decries the book’s elements of transvestism, Ned Kelly having a child, and so on. Details, it claims, that don’t match the “true history”! On one level this is missing the point, but on another it is also a rebuttal of the hype that goes behind such a work. The novel is a work of pure advertising. It interweaves the language of Kelly as dictated to Byrne in the Jerilderie Letter – Australia’s manifesto of the oppressed Irishman, declaration of independence, and map to the individual-community dichotomies of Australian mateship – and the two other extant letters spoken by Kelly, in addition to newspaper reports and other archival information, rendering them into a fictionalised account that preserves language and yet plays with the idea of literary production.

It is a book that deals with the issues of Australian Irishness, but more of a secular than a religious variety. Irish Catholicism is there, but this is not the real basis of the tale, though superstition is strongly represented in the form of rat plagues, Banshees, marks on horses’ foreheads, and so on. A connection might be drawn between the appearance of the Banshee at a time of death and the mystery of war machines like the Spencer rifle, carried by police, inducing fear in the Kelly gang. It is a symbol of power, but as with the armour designed to make them immortal, it too lacks the power of the transported beliefs from the mother country.

The history of Ned Kelly, Australia’s archetypal bushranger, is known by most Australians of British or Irish descent, and probably by many others. That in 1880 he was hanged uttering the words: “Such is Life” – as noted at the end of the Carey story – or, as some prefer, “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this.” is legendary. Whether or not he is known by the Chinese communities, given his extreme racism towards any but those of Irish heritage, is questionable. Or Aboriginal people. Carey doesn’t shrink from showing this side of Kelly, and he is conscious of the narrow take on the cultural politics of then and now that come with working with such a mythology. Yet he still participates in and indulges that mythology, in a way that might be seen as perpetuating some of the deepest problems of Australian nationalism. The Irish are no longer an oppressed people in Australia, and as Kelly himself was a currency lad – that is, born of the colonies rather than in Ireland – his reception of Irish nationalism and its drive to throw off the British oppressors was mediated through stories and memory. Which is not to downplay the obvious oppression and extreme brutality of the British judiciary and its often Irish supporters and “traps”, but to contextualise it.

The following quote is taken directly from Kelly’s so-called Jerilderie Letter. I downloaded this version from the Victorian Government website, which like all others carrying transcriptions of Kelly letters, points out possible variations in interpretation. The site also carries facsimiles of the original letter of 56 pages, in Joe Byrne’s hand. Carey has played with the way we interpret and receive history, with each parcel of Kelly’s journal carrying an archivist’s commentary on the type of manuscript – that is paper stock, any damages and specifying marks, any peculiarities. This is not an unusual narrative device in the creation of “faction” – fiction and fact writing – but maybe one with resonance given the mythologies that have come out of the Kelly story. Carey ironically anchors myth in “certainties”, while in the course of his narrative, these certainties become more vulnerable.

In Kelly’s words:

“pulling their toe and finger nails and on the wheel and every torture imaginable more was transported to Van Diemand’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself all of true blood bone and beauty, that was not murdered on their own soil, or had fled to America or other countries to bloom again another day, were doomed to Port Mcquarie Toweringabbie norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyrany and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke Were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land What would people say if I became a policeman…”

When Kelly is designing his armour, with interesting subtexts and transvestite connections to dressmaking, he is inspired by the monitors of the American civil war. One of his retreats in the bush has walls lined with out-of-date newspaper articles of the civil war. The connections with things American occur through individual characters and the texts of history. Words become armour.

This is a fascinating and telling quote as much about Carey’s narratology as about the character of his Kelly creation:

“I read a lot about you Mr Kelly but I never heard you was a scholar. Let me remind you how LORNA DOONE sets out. Then the strange little cove balanced himself on his crippled crooked legs and held his book of Shakespeare across his heart and closed his eyes and from his great head he dragged out the following words of R.D. Blackmore. AND THEY WHAT LIGHT upon this book should bear in mind not only that I write to clear our parish from ill fame but also that I am nothing more than a plain unlettered man not read in foreign languages as a gentleman might be nor gifted with long words save what I have won from the Bible or master William Shakespeare whom in the face of common opinion I do value highly.

Curnow opened his eyes and smiled at me.

IN SHORT he quoted I am an ignoramus but pretty well for a yeoman.”

The character Kelly recognises the condescension, but understands the power behind knowledge. Shakespeare can make us bleed.

In the way that landscape is evoked in a context of a discourse of Australianness, so is literature. A landscape reference for all Australian writing post the nineteenth century has been Marcus Clarke’s famous “weird melancholy” introduction to a volume of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poems. Extracted from a longer piece written on Australian art, it defines both the terror and the soul of an artistic cultural view of Australian identity via the bush. It is not surprising we find a Mount Desolation mentioned in Carey’s book – this is the stuff of such cultural icono-mytholgies. Carey does ironise to create distance at every opportunity, and he certainly captures elements of Kelly’s known sarcasm.

Kelly is also a tamer and destroyer of the bush, and is unable to get truly to its soul. In the same way that Clarke avoids indigenous presence, just sensing something is there, so does Kelly. It is his country, and he is determined it will work for him. It’s a battle with what Clarke noted in a different context as “weird melancholy”.

It is interesting to see that within Carey’s narrative the vehicle for the Kelly gang’s downfall is a schoolteacher. Kelly’s last entrustment of script epitomises his love-hate relationship with learning, with this rendering of knowledge into ‘fact’. The teacher will betray him and take his words in a locked chest away with him. He will be the fading hero who condemns Kelly to capture, who will question why Kelly’s fame increases, why it’s all based on bloodshed – at the same time as preserving the texts and even, we learn, making emendations in pencil. The teacher plays this ambivalent sort of role in other Australian literature too. Consider the teacher in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. The teacher symbolises both liberation and tyranny – often the more repugnant because he or she should know better than the law.

To reinvent the story of the Kelly Gang as emotively as Carey has done, many generations later, is to use the facts for a different kind of mythology. To highlight what makes the Australian experience different. It is the tool that allows Kelly Country to become a sacred place, more sacred to the European-Australian nationalist than the indigenous histories that lie beneath. This is dangerous. Carey is an intelligent storyteller who sees these problems clearly, and attempts to defuse the potency of national myth-making through Steve Hart and later Dan Kelly donning dresses, which we later find formed part of an attempt to connect with campaigns of terror enacted by the oppressed Irish back home.

As someone with an Irish background, I’ve heard many of these stories of British tyranny in Ireland, and in the colonies – not so much through my family, but from other Irish-Australians who feel I should participate in these memories. My partner also has this background, and recalls her father ringing her from Victoria, full of emotion, talking about being in Kelly Country. For those with Irish families it’s as powerful a national myth as that of the Eureka Stockade. In fact, Carey literally plays with this comparison and has Ned tell us that more power is invested in his campaign. That the same mistakes won’t be made. Kelly is portrayed as a compassionate man; we are always on his side. That is not surprising, given that the text is constructed out of journals Ned has written for his daughter to read when she comes of an age. They are his “truth”, so the “true history” will be told, rather than the lies of the official press. Inherent in this is the rebellion Carey is trying to stage – the stuff of manifestoes and constitutions, which is where empowerment lives. It is a paean to the value of literature, to the primacy of the word in culture. National identity comes through its arts. The pen is mightier than the sword, but it also goes hand in hand with it. Carey’s Kelly knows that to be heard, to be read in print is to enter the bodies of the reader. The song, the written word, stories told around fires – these are what gives power. These are where identity is located.

Carey’s book is a work of inscription – it is a writing of the body as landscape, as repository of inherited wrongs. Kelly entrusts his words to the printer’s wife when the gang raids Jerilderie and the printer runs away, and his words are then handed over to the police. He walks into town with the words strapped to his body, his blood running with the ink. Kelly as a child waited till all others had had a go at being ink monitor; he went last because of his Irishness. The ink became a symbol of empowerment. He wanted to do it better than anyone else does. This inscription of the body has a political significance within the nation, but also in terms of the body.

There is a fatalism steadily eroding away at the myth of the individual and community that is intended to have the reader ironise the circumstances of a crime, to question whether or not, finding ourselves in Ned’s position, we would have done the same things. Ned asks this question himself when he takes people hostage while staging a robbery, or when addressing someone he feels has wronged him. Vengeance is tempered by reason.

This is a Greek tragedy with the rules rewritten to accommodate that big extra player, the Australian landscape. An entity that doesn’t fit the rules of European tragedy. A total affirmation of its independence. What is this landscape in the Carey novel? The locations shift from Kelly’s boyhood home before the death of his father, to his relations’ place, to his mother’s selection, to bush boltholes devised by the master of his youth – his mother had apprenticed him for 15 pounds – the bushranger Harry Power, and so on.

We have a very geographical picture of where Kelly lived, the landscape he identified with. Power, he remembers, told him that if he knew the country he would be a wild colonial boy forever. Carey’s Kelly knows the untruth of this, but still wishes it to be so. He respects the power of the bush, and knows that it will win out if not accorded due respect. When he is working his mother’s selection, he talks constantly of how many trees he can fell, and the language is that of a war being waged. This is a book of many wars, of many revolutions and fights. In the end, they fall into a pattern deployed by the real narrator, the novelist, to create something for Australians at the turn of the millennium to hang their restless hats on. It is also a book written to market a saleable view of Australia to the outside world. Who can forget those stockmen riding nauseatingly around during that grotesque fund-fair called the Olympics opening ceremony – something, I’m glad to say, I only saw in retrospective snatches.

This is a book about narrative, and Bank Teller Lyving’s narrative is a wonderfully staged account of the techniques Carey has used in composition across the work. The retelling of a story via archival material and creative possibility is rendered to bold text, to living faction. We hear the voice of Kelly commenting on a text he is using as an account of his actions in place of his own writing. Why rewrite what’s already there – but to make truth he adds the annotations. A book of marginalia and commentary on narrative, this extract epitomises the forces at work behind the creation of the simulacrum, the tautologically false faction:

read extract 310…

One of the subtexts of this novel is that of masculinity. Apart from the obvious bonds of male mateship, and the subtext of homosexuality in the “gang”, and all that word entails – between Steve and Dan, Ned’s brother, there are major threads, in the “web” of text, that allude to the connections between male and female bodies – of flesh, spirit, knowledge, etc. A cultural body is provided, a Deleuze and Guattarian Body Without Organs, filled by a narrative told by a man verging on a literacy that is empowerment, to a child born out of sight, and, indeed, in San Francisco after his “wife” Mary has abandoned him. His non-literacy engenders something more powerful than canonical literature. And for those who have read Kelly’s original words, this might seem to be a “truth”.

The male with a nurturing heart, birth, offspring, the blood of the parrots that is the blood of the land feeding the body, are interwoven. Fate and survival are written against fear. “The baby’s silence was as valuable as life itself.” This is the son of Ned’s stepfather, born to the woman who will bear his own child in turn. Family extends; filial ties are complex and inscribed as responsibility. In the almost beautiful scene when Ned cools the feverish body of Mary’s baby, everything connects. It is one of the main vignettes, or more accurately, emotional and spiritual nodal points of the imagery. Even here things are written in flesh: “The baby’s eyes was sunk his protest against the icy water were as weak & thin as paper.” Words make for different lives, but death ignores them. His greatest faiths, beliefs and passions are vulnerable.

read extract from 280

A question of abjection, of relationship to the mothering body is examined over and over. It is partly updated-Freudian. The relationship between Ned and his mother – her giving birth, his fear that people will talk of him having seen his mother’s bottom, the accusations that he is both a mother’s boy and her boyfriend, his punishment of the men who leave her, the liminality in the selector’s hut where the mother has no freedom to even fart in peace – is played out constantly. When he sleeps with Mary the first time he remarks on wondering whose milk he is stealing while sucking her breast; he then discovers the child. That child is the child of George King, Ned’s mother’s new husband. The lines of connection, of incest and kinship, are blurred and interwoven. This is the nature of an oppressed people, the outcome of a criminalised ethnicity.

Connections between text and the body are also prevalent. This notion of inscribing the body in terms of identity is a strong signature of feminist theory. Carey has claimed part of this for the male. He is trying to revolutionise the rough Australian male as being something entirely apposite to the female experience. He has created a hybrid body and spirit. This is a particular clever political ploy given the anti ÔPC” reaction to the sensitive new age guy in Australian (and American and British etc) society. It does, of course, have problematic overtones.

True History of the Kelly Gang is bound to become a popular classic, but in essence does nothing new. It is a great read; the imitation of the language of Irish “letters home” of the nineteenth century in Australia is basically well-handled, and the use of Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie voice is effective, but the stock-epithet repetition of Kellyisms also, ironically, imprisons the narrative. What worries me is the ends a book like this may be put to. It doesn’t create anything new, doesn’t adequately address the problem of racism outside the Irish-British condition, and doesn’t really challenge the notions of narrative that inform it. It will shine brightly in the Carey oeuvre, but it is not one of his great books.