Book Review: Hunter, by Campbell Jefferys
A reading by novelist Campbell Jefferys at Shakespeare & Co. raises sensitive historical questions that go unanswered
Hunting Mr. Baum
It is often easier to first look for problems elsewhere than with oneself. Societies, too, often find it easier to overlook their own moral crises and focus on those of others, which seem clearer, and perhaps less dangerous. Is this right? Is it enough?
These are the questions that absorb Australian writer Campbell Jefferys, who presented his new novel Hunter on Mar. 23 in Shakespeare & Co., a cozy English bookstore in Ruprechtsviertel, Vienna’s oldest part. The small bookstore was packed with listeners eagerly awaiting Campbell Jefferys to speak about his second novel. The audience was mainly Australian – and everybody stretched their ears towards Campbell Jefferys’ voice during the whole one and a half hour presentation. After a short welcome by the cultural attaché of the Australian Embassy in Vienna, he took the stage.
Hunter reflects the Australian background of Jefferys, who relocated to Hamburg in 1999 at the age of twenty-one "to learn more about the world." He believes that it is hard to learn everything one wants to know in Australia, so far away from the world’s events.
Just as in his first book The Bicycle Teacher, where he deals with the political and evident obstacles during the Cold War in Berlin, Hunter again deals with the issue of identity. Michael Smith, the main character in The Bicycle Teacher, commutes between East and West Berlin, and the Wall becomes both a physical and a symbolic border between two Weltanschauungen, two ways of looking at the world.
Again in Hunter, Jefferys hints at the question of coming to terms with the past, and the Nazi theme is still omnipresent and very sensitive. "This is one of the most effective ways to raise these issues," Jefferys admitted. "The parallel situation in Australia -- involving the treatment of the Aborigines – is not something most people can relate to."
Eric, the main character, is a fifteen year old who has to deal with a new surrounding as his parents have moved repeatedly in order to find work. After growing up on a farm inland, he suddenly finds himself in the coastal town of Crescent Bay. During his encounters at the new school, he falls in love, joins a surfer clique and looks for jobs to buy the surfboard he feels he must have to impress his girlfriend. His separate employers are an Austrian and a former Wehrmacht officer from Northern Germany, and as he gets to know them he learns they are former Nazis with a troubling past.
"Australian children are generally raised to trust adults and believe what they are told," Campbell Jefferys explained during the discussion. However, at a certain point, a child must start questioning things. Eric, himself of German descent, begins to question the stories. Eric finds out that one of the men has heavy evidence against the other man, and is now forced to choose whom to turn over to the police.
There are strong autobiographical elements in each of these novels as Jefferys willingly acknowledged. Eric’s attitude of being relatively shy and believing in everything adults say is an autobiographical reflection.
And although dealing with heavy historical issues, Jeffery’s style is graceful and accessible. But the Australian’s accent – full of rolling vowels and guttural R’s – took some getting used to, the cacophony combined with the warm, cozy atmosphere of the bookstore in which at least one member of the audience managed to fall asleep.
The discussion that followed quickly turned into a very lively debate on the issue of historical responsibility. This topic is not only connected to the issue of Nazism in WWII but also Australia’s own historical issue with the Aborigines. Is it really enough, one attendee asked, for an Australian to raise questions about Nazism without first dealing with the Aborigines?
Jefferys clearly believes that knowledge – and acceptance – of history is essential, but that at this point our responsibility as "grandchildren" ends. This discussion then led to the topic of individual vs. social responsibility. Jefferys – as well as the audience – expressed frustration at how uninformed young Australians are about what exactly happened during World War II. He too had known relatively little, and had to research a lot for the book.
The most poignant question came at the end: A well dressed elderly gentleman with a German aristocratic accent asked in English if, during his research, Jeffereys had come across a real Mr. Baum. Was the fictional character in the book (one of the two elderly men Eric works for) related to the real Kurt Baum who played a major role as a Nazi leader in World War II?
Jefferys was shocked by the question – this was the first time he heard that a real Mr. Baum had existed. This exchange was a bit uncomfortable: Kurt Baum was an important SS-leader accused of war crimes. It is assumed that he immigrated to Australia passing through several different other countries. However, this has never been proved, and Baum presumably died a free man. One would be familiar with such a prominent figure of the Nazi regime after proper book research, one would think.
Asked about the exchange a few days after the presentation, Jefferys said: "Tricky. That came as a bit of a shock, but I think I’ll leave everything as it is. I went through my old notes this morning and found plenty of info on Baum and other war criminals and SS honchos. It’s been quite a few years now, and I’ve forgotten most of it. It’s likely I chose Baum then to forge an SS connection, the character changing his name but still tipping his hat to his roots, so to speak. The names are integral to the story so they will all have to stay as they are."
Even if the name Mr. Baum is fictional in Jefferys’ novel, it cannot go without saying that a German-speaking reader with knowledge of history will find it disturbing, making it difficult for him not to make assumptions about the character.
Despite the high quality of writing, the novel can perhaps be fairly criticized for not bringing more sensitivity to this complex historical subject, one that deserves to be dealt with using deeper knowledge and more thorough analysis. However, Jefferys is an engaging stylist, working on a promising third novel, expected in spring of 2010.
Campbell Jefferys: Hunter
Swirl Publishers (2009)
ISBN - 10-184-54933-38
Available at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535 5053