ARNOLD ZABLE INTERVIEWED (2011): Speaking for those who cannot

 |   |  3 min read

ARNOLD ZABLE INTERVIEWED (2011): Speaking for those who cannot

When the Australian writer Arnold Zable read Primo Levi's reference to “the eloquent episode” in prose he recognised immediately what was meant. His own short pieces, fiction and non-fiction, frequently have a memorable incident as an emotional or structural pivot.

In each story of his non-fiction collection Violin Lessons – which reaches from experiences in Vietnam in early 1970 through encounters in Poland, Berlin before the Wall fell and on to giving voice to the remarkable Amal Basry who fled Iraq and survived drowning by clinging to the body of another boat-person refugee – he can identify the eloquent episode.

“In the story Violin Lessons it is when Naji [from Baghdad] told me he heard the sound of a blind violinist and in that moment his life was changed. In The Dust of Life it was on the Mekong with the fisherman, and in the final story [The Ancient Mariner] about Amal Basry there are a number of key moments.

violin_book“But the one that grabbed me was the way Amal loved talking about those Fridays walking by the Tigris with her father and him singing to her. But that was a quieter dramatic moment than what happened once they were out at sea.”

And in Bella Ciao about guest workers from Tuscany in a vineyard above Lake Geneva in 73 it was the moment he saw the proud Asunta behind a tractor picking up apples.

“Here was this extraordinary woman, this matriarch who had been a partisan and was still supporting her family at 68, crawling on her hands and knees. That [eloquent episode] was driven by a moment of injustice. It did not seem right and I never got that out of my mind.”

Zable – born in Wellington to Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust who moved to Australia when he was one year old – grew up in “a post-war working class immigrant inner Melbourne neighborhood, what would now be called multicultural” and after “seven or eight books I can see more clearly my obsessions”.

“They certainly have been heavily influenced by growing up in an immigrant family, but also one where all four grandparents were murdered. That's a powerful experience for a young child to become aware of, that most of their family has been wiped out.”

His experience with his deeply traumatised mother (“by not being able to get family out of Poland, a person who had nightmares and was a troubled soul”) means he has been drawn to people who have had equally damaging experiences. The patience he learned – to sit and listen, to let the other person be quiet when necessary – gave them space to tell their stories, most of which would otherwise go unheard.

“The book is a celebration of the fact I've always traveled at the grassroots level and found myself drawn to the marginalised and disenfranchised, and also always – wherever possible – I've tried to live in a country rather than just stay for a few weeks, to become engaged.

“I hope what I've done is give voice to people whose stories are not heard and who are deeply affected by history . . . but are rarely in the history books.”

In The Wall in Violin Lessons he encounters a woman in Berlin whose father and uncle were Nazis so her experience is the antithesis of his, but to whom he gives voice: “The burden she carried was at least equal to mine if not more, sometimes it is harder to be the children of the perpetrators than it is of the survivors or victims. She wanted to be with them, loved them in many ways, but has an intolerable conflict”.

Zable spent the early part of his working life in academia (political science) but in the mid 80s turned to writing after extensive travel in Asia and Eastern Europe. His first book Jewels and Ashes in 1991, a memoir of growing up in that multicultural suburb Carlton, won numerous awards “and off I went”.

He admits to good fortune however: “There are times when a country allows you to be a traveler rather than a tourist. When I was in China in 84 to 85 it was coming out of the Cultural Revolution and I lived there for a year. It was an almost innocent time. To be a Westerner living there was unusual, so you had a chance to experience a moment in history before the tourist deluge began.”

A consistent thread in his work – which echoes like a refrain in much of Violin Lessons, from the title story to the songs of Arabic singer Umm Khultum -- has been the music of those who populate his writing, which he sees as the most powerful way of entering another culture. Tellingly his novel The Fig Tree in 2002 came with a CD and he is considering another to tie in with Violin Lessons.

“It stems from the fact my mum was very musical and performed klezmer before the war. I'm drawn to all kinds of world music. Music is unique and specific to a culture but also universal. When Arabic people tell a story it has a certain musical rhythm.”

It is those rhythms, the spoken songs of ordinary people -- and often quietly extraordinary people -- which would otherwise go unrecorded that Arnold Zable retrieves and recounts.

Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Writing articles index

AMERICA'S QUEEN; THE LIFE OF JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS by SARAH BRADFORD: Nice'n'sleazy does it

AMERICA'S QUEEN; THE LIFE OF JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS by SARAH BRADFORD: Nice'n'sleazy does it

Writers of trashy, salacious and titillating novels about the rich and famous -- Jackie Collins comes to mind -- must despair when biographies appear which reveal the moneyed and mediocre to be... > Read more

CLAPTON, THE ULTIMATE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by CHRIS WELCH

CLAPTON, THE ULTIMATE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by CHRIS WELCH

Open this handsome, cleanly presented, large format book at the midpoint of its 256 colourful pages and you learn much about its contents from just two words. The words are "Blind... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

A FAST 15 MINUTES: Power Pop

A FAST 15 MINUTES: Power Pop

And here a pathway through power pop for when you have 15 minutes to spare. From the Searchers and the Ramones through an alphabet of Beatles, Badfinger, Big Star . . . Enjoy. And you can read... > Read more

THE VISUAL ARTS IN BUENOS AIRES (2010): Out in the street

THE VISUAL ARTS IN BUENOS AIRES (2010): Out in the street

You can’t help notice that the skin of Buenos Aires is heavily tattooed: not just with graffiti, but by large and vivid murals, and spray-on stencil art. You can spend a lot of time looking... > Read more