What another Australian novel? Yes, just so.
The Trout Opera covers a number of Australian tropes, but once again the characters are largely European Australians. There is one native Australian in the whole book and he, a character called Percy, gets the opportunity to prick a fair number of assumptions made about the indigenous people.
In the following scene, Wilfred Lampe and Percy are looking for someone who has gone missing in the Snowy Mountains:
They reckoned Hayes had become disoriented, despite his expertise on the skis. […]
They’d already found Hayes’ gloves and scarf. And ski tracks near Merritts Lookout. Yet no Hayes.
On the ride up, Percy said: ‘I think the tree line.’
‘You are not going to leave the tree line in the big snow.’
‘Have to be crazy to leave the tree line. Maybe he was crazy.’
They rode to where Seaman was found and ate quietly, looking down into the valley.
‘You think you can find any tracks?’ Wilfred asked. ‘You’re a black bloke.’
Percy chewed a sandwich. ‘You think all black blokes can track?’
‘I dunno. Can you?’
‘You don’t know much.’
‘I’m just asking you.’
‘If you knew anything you don’t need to ask if I can track. Course I can track. My mother could track. My sisters, they track. It’s nothing special to track. Just a way of getting food. Taught when we’re little. If you knew anything you’d be able to track.’
However, in spite of the apparent disappearance of the “blackfella” in so many modern Australian novels, this is still an interesting and well constructed novel. It shows an Australia that is steeped in manufactured myth. The year is 1999/2000. A team responsible for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics are looking for a typical near-one-hundred-year-old Australian and eventually they settle on Wilfred Lampe. Sadly, the day they arrive at his shack, they find him collapsed in the back yard amongst the weeds and long grass. Panicking, the two men summon assistance, and Wilfred is whisked off to hospital.
Matthew Condon‘s novel segues between Wilfred’s life, almost a hundred years living in the same spot, near to the Snowy River, so the ultimate man from Snowy River [a famous Banjo Patterson poem] and the means by which the men from the committee try to find his family, and try to incorporate him into the festival ceremony. At the same time, the novel also covers the story of the Snowy River itself, once a huge and gushing torrent, full of fish and life, until choked and spoiled by damming and pollution.
There are poetic stretches of life as a fly fisherman, and the tying of flies for fishing which are interesting in themselves. The delicacy of these deadly lures and the inventiveness.
It is also a long love story, a human love story and a love story devoted to a place – the Snowy River and its environs.
Unlike The Dry and many other novels, this is real Australia. The places mentioned all exist in real time and in character. And it is a land despoiled by pollution, and by cheap housing but also, in places completely unspoiled.
The novel covers the big debate about where the capital city should be built. Dalgety, the first, and seemingly obvious, choice has its moment in the sun and then suddenly it is dropped in favour of Canberra. Dalgety is where Wilfred Lampe and his family live, Callistus his grandfather, Uncle Berty, a damaged veteran of World War I, his mother and his sister Astrid.
It is also about the darker side of life amongst drug addicts and city drop-outs.
It is a marvellously complex story, beautifully told.