reviewed by Aravind Adiga
SOMEWHERE IN THE COURSE of their short history as a people, Australians became convinced that they had a manifest destiny. It was to enjoy a disproportionately large share of the good luck in the world. The “lucky country” (what the locals call Australia) has watched itself mature from one of Britain’s most marginal colonies into a full-fledged nation, while steering almost entirely clear of the home country’s intractable woes— class divisions, troubles in Ireland, warm beer, soggy weather. No wonder then, that Aussies are so confident about their little island having struck up a cosy relationship with the governing administration of serendipity.
Being a pragmatic lot, Australians also hit upon the perfect way to harvest all this good luck. They gamble, obsessively. It’s something you still see today, and it’s exactly what greeted the Reverend Oscar Hopkins, one half of the central pair of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda when he arrives in Australia in the nineteenth century: “Oscar had never seen such a passion for gambling. It was not confined to certain types or classes. It seemed to be the chief industry of the colony.” Is Oscar, an Anglican priest, shocked by the unrestrained spectacle of dog-racing, horse-racing, mah-jong, poker, and gin-rummy greeting him in New South Wales? Hardly; for the parson is himself a gambler. Arriving in Australia on the outcome of a tossed coin, Oscar finds that sheer luck has left him a gambler in a gambling colony, a native in a strange land, almost as if the coin’s toss were the instrument of destiny. It’s a recurrent theme in Oscar and Lucinda. Chance and inevitability turn out to be twined themes in Peter Carey’s vision of the unfolding of the history of Australia: random outcomes of luck link together like vertebrae in the spine of fate; and desperate bets taken by wanderers, gamblers and outcasts, consolidate into the character of a nation.
That nation–Australia–counts Peter Carey as its most famous living writer. Carey’s career bears generic resemblance to his entire generation of internationally celebrated writers. In his early days as a writer, he supported himself by working as an advertising copy-writer (like Salman Rushdie); he has left his native country, and gravitated towards the United States (like Martin Amis); and he now lives and teaches creative writing in New York City (like any number of reviewers on The Second Circle). Yet his enterprise is uniquely Australian; to set on an exploration of his country’s peculiar history and mythology. Carey is still peregrinating through Australia’s past, but Oscar and Lucinda, the winner of the Booker Prize in 1988, will likely remain the highest peak located in the course of this exploration.
At the novel’s centre are two gamblers (the chief difference between them, the narrator informs us, is that one is an obsessive gambler, the other merely compulsive). There shouldn’t be, on the face of it, anything unconventional about Oscar Hopkins or Lucinda Leplastrier. Between the two of them they represent the Church and Capitalist Enterprise, the twin bulwarks of Victorian society. Oscar is an Oxford-educated, High Anglican priest, while Lucinda, the inheritor of a substantial fortune, is the proprietor of one of the colony’s pioneering glassworks factories. And yet they gamble.
For Oscar–a slight, otherworldly, figure given to visions and transports of divine ecstacy–gambling reveals itself as a schema for tracing the arbitrariness of Divine Grace. Invoking Pascal’s metaphor of the “necessary gamble”, he concludes that faith is itself a die thrown on the chance of the Omnipotent’s existence. It is all a bit too much for the colonials. Oscar and Australia prove to be a terrible match. It is a reckless convicts’ land with a strange puritanical streak. He is the opposite paradox, a bookish parson with a mad thirst for gambling. Very quickly, he turns out to entirely, absurdly, out of place in Sydney–in the way a man can only be in his home.
For Lucinda, his companion in games of chance, gambling is rebellion. She plays cards for money because she shouldn’t; it is a way for a proud, independent woman to defy the conventions of colonial society. From Lucinda’s love of chance, comes an obsession with glass–a substance which, in its protean variety, its sensitivity to myriad combinations of light, colour and lightness, seems to embody the beauty of a life irradiated by chance and discovery. With gambling and glass, Oscar and Lucinda soon start to test the extent and meaning of Australia’s “good luck”. After all, the foundation of modern Australia was not an episode of universal good fortune. For the native Aboriginals, it was an event of monumental bad luck, that led to centuries of murder, persecution, and continuing immiseration. Carey’s heroes are alive to the way that blacks were abused in early Australia–so often ground like the mortar needed for the nation’s construction. Lucinda feels she does not deserve her wealth because it was robbed from the natives, and Oscar protests in vain while blacks are massacred. Their refusal to accept conventional racism, is a give-away that they are not gamblers like everyone else–they take it too earnestly, too religiously.
Colonial Sydney might be besotted with gambling, but only as a concession to the dominance of rigid, antique codes of living. An illicit hand in a Chinese den at sundown compensates for a life in which the outcomes are always the same: injustice for blacks, suppression for women, ridicule for innovators. But gambling is another game entirely for Oscar and Lucinda, an expression of their desire for real change and reformation. In that sense, gambling is also an expression of their innocence. The walls of social obstruction rises around them with fatal inevitability, and the two toss everything on one fantastic, final wager: to transport a glass church across the continent to an isolated missionary outpost.
Peter Carey is a complete writer. He has all the skills, and knows all the tricks. He can combine a genius for stark, under-stated comedy, with a nearly Dickensian generosity of description; the result is that hardly a character passes through this novel without Carey enlightening us to the peculiarities of physiognomy, psychology and personal history that establish that character’s unique and lasting patent over a portion of the reader’s memory. It is hard to forget the colonial farmer you meet on a ship: the fellow is curious about your opinion of Charles Darwin, and always smells of llama-hairs. Equally memorable is his travelling companion: a fat bully with a gift for devastatingly accurate impersonations of his victims.
Carey can create landscape like he can create people. He knows the startling beauty of an evening in the Southern Hemisphere: clouds in the sunset shine in “a thin swathe of soft gold, like a dagger left carelessly on a window sill”. Most of all, his genius comes across in the formal structure of the novel–the swivelling perspectives, the brilliant use of free indirect third person, subtle and summary alterations in tone, lyrical set-pieces, the structuring metaphors. The net result is a prose narrative that is a technical marvel; equipped with trap-doors and lifts, it can drop readers at will into a character’s mind, lift them as unexpectedly into another’s, rotating them freely about the spectacle of now-opening, now-closing inner lives of them characters, in a show as kaleidoscopic as the glass made in Lucinda’s factory.
Perhaps Oscar and Lucinda is too long a book. It falters in the last segment, in the unconvincing description of how the implausible final bet transpires and unravels. You sense that the author is hurling twists and surprise revelations to bring the novel to a forced, fatigued end. But Carey is only tiring towards the end of an extraordinary journey.