Sunday, August 02, 2015

Book review: Locust Girl - a love song

Filipina-Australian writer Merlinda Bobis’s new work Locust Girl: a love song is a surreal allegory on the divide between selfish privilege and disenfranchised victimhood.

The protagonist is a young woman, Amedea, who is saved after ten years’ burial under the bones of her 500-strong community controlled in its movements and its memories by the authorities of the Five Kingdoms.  Both are separated by a forbidden border which sees one group condemned to hunger and thirst, to an absence of colour and vegetation, to personal and species infertility, and to thought manipulation and control via speaker boxes; the other exists in a paranoid defence and protection of the one remaining refuge of food, water, colour and trees.

For three or more generations these two binary communities have coexisted in fearful opposition and containment.  The first group are the wasters, punished by the second, the carers, for their alleged inability to look after the resources they once had.  For their own good, the carers argue, these resources had to be protected behind a boundary that the wasters are forbidden to approach on pain of death.  Sometimes the death is personal, imposed on “strays” who approach or cross the border; sometimes it is communal, as was the case with Amedea’s village.  In the case of the latter, the descriptions of the explosions and fires that leave charred stumps of limb portions on the survivors suggest the phosphorous bombs that the Israelis use against Palestinian communities in the Gaza Strip.

Amadea’s compellingly readable story combines the contemporary reality of refugee camps and asylum seekers braving the journey to the forbidden horizon with the fantasy of a girl who has the mark of the locust on her brow and an inability to control its whirring noise and its song-making.  Bobis teases the reader with Amedea’s experience of artefacts unknown to her but which are part of our daily lives: we see them as Amedea sees them and their true nature is revealed through the guesswork and conjecture of our own engagement with the text.  At times we seem to be in a hall of distorted mirrors where the distortions only serve to more accurately reflect the reality of our societies and our times.

At the story’s heart is the malevolence of imperialism and its mercenary and parsimonious protection of the little that is left of its plunder of the remainder of the world.  This is no pointer to the future: the future is now and we live the border and the divide.

The danger to the hoarders of the green remnant is the memory of the dispossessed.  They are not merely controlled in their physical movement; they are controlled in the intellectual domain of memory.  If there is any salvation for the wretched of Bobis’s earth, it is memory, the fire from which a phoenix of resistance might eventually arise.  The destruction of a community’s shared memory is the means to its enforced passivity and control, failing which there is the phosphorous bomb.

Bobis dedicates this book not just to those “walking to the border for dear life” but also to those “guarding the border for dear life”.  If they are binary opposites then each is condemned to suffer, and within each there is movement towards the opposite: traitors among the wasters and persons of compassion among the carers.  When Amedea utters an anguished string of ten phrases preceded by “why” it is Verompe, a cross-border carer who observes resignedly “Why is terrifying”. 

As we observe borders being removed for the movement of capital and reinforced for the movement of people with all the terrifying inhumanity and indifference to suffering, we must force ourselves to confront the most terrifying aspect of our lives, the question of “Why?”.

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