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Book review

‘Amnesia’ by Peter Carey


Though James Joyce spent most of his life in exile, his fiction remained firmly rooted in his native Ireland. Similarly, Peter Carey has lived in New York City for the past 20 years, but his imagination continues to point down under. Like “Oscar and Lucinda’’ (1988) and “True History of the Kelly Gang’’ (2000), the novels that earned Carey his two Booker Prizes, most of his fiction is set in Australia. An American reading his rambunctious 13th novel, “Amnesia,’’ might feel as if eavesdropping on a conversation among Aussies. Not only are Australianisms — “dunny,” “cobber,” “bogan,” “daggy” — scattered throughout the text, but allusions to local places and politics will puzzle a non-Ozzie.

Many, for instance, will draw a blank when it comes to the Battle of Brisbane, a two-day riot that broke out in 1942 between American troops stationed in Australia and local men envious of foreigners who — “overpaid, oversexed, over here” — were winning the hearts and bodies of Australian women. Celine Baillieux, a major character in the novel, is the offspring of a rape committed amid the tumult of that civil disorder. She grows up to be a glamorous actress and the wife of Sando Quinn, a Labor Party member of Parliament.


Their daughter, Gaby, is born at 4:40 p.m. on Nov. 11, 1975, the exact moment that Gough Whitlam was in fact deposed as Australia’s prime minister in what Celine and her fellow activists are convinced was a coup engineered by the CIA. In contrast to Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, one of the children of midnight born at the moment of India’s independence, Gaby’s life bears witness to her nation’s subservience. Felix Moore, the scruffy, bibulous narrator of “Amnesia,’’ is frustrated by the erosion of his compatriots’ historical memory, their failure to recall how the United States has taken control of their country.

A spectacular cyber attack at the outset of the novel releases the locks in prisons throughout Australia and the United States, setting hundreds of thousands of prisoners free. Gaby, who has become involved with radical environmentalists and anarchistic hackers, is suspected. Bereft of job, family, house, and pride after losing a disgraceful defamation suit, Felix, who characterizes himself as Australia’s “sole remaining left-wing journalist,” accepts a lucrative commission from Woody Townes, a treacherous property developer he believes to be his best — or only remaining — friend. Felix’s assignment, which he soon tries backing out of, is to write a book that will exonerate Gaby and prevent her extradition to a powerful faraway country willing to apply the death penalty to a cyber guerrilla.


Felix is provided with a manual typewriter, journals, and tapes by Gaby and Celine, and enough wine and rum to power his prose. Because sinister secret forces threaten the project, Felix is stuffed into the trunk of a car and spirited among various safe houses that are not so much houses as rural huts and seedy motel rooms along the coast from Melbourne to Brisbane. Much of “Amnesia’’ is a rollicking tour-de-force, the portrait of a quixotic journalist who sees himself “a truffle hound for cheats and liars and crooks amongst the ruling classes,” but who is basically — to use a non-Australian term — a schlimazel. Felix suffers attacks by magpies and thugs as well as pangs of conscience.


The book he ends up writing — the book we are reading — is Gaby’s somewhat belabored coming-of-age story. Toward the end, recounting Gaby’s troubled adolescence, Felix gets bogged down in the evolution of computer gaming, the intricacies of Australian politics, and the fluctuation in local real estate values. But “Amnesia’’ is also the exuberant account of plucky resistance to “a cloud of companies, corporations, contractors, statutory bodies whose survival meant the degradation of water, air, soil, life itself.” From a — presumably — safe house in New York, Carey writes about Aussies who believe, as Felix does, that: “Everything we knew from life suggested that America would do what it liked and Australia would behave like the client state it always was.” American readers ought to take notice.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth’’ and “The Translingual Imagination.’’