All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan
Wellington: VUP (2018)
RRP: $35. Pb, 335pp
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson
Novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor and former Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan, DCNZM, is also a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. All This by Chance is his third novel, and it is the work of a highly accomplished craftsman. Traversing decades, it focuses on revealing a lot of one family, while also shielding much. Condensed, the writing brims with poetry; while hushed and measured of tone it is at the same time quietly insightful. Much can be made in the silences. In the end, whatever the conjecture, fate has its way. As one character mutters resignedly, at one point in one place and time of their story: Etsi ketsi, or, “so it goes”.
When, as a young man, David enquires into the personal history and Jewish ethnicity of his forebears, his father Stephen’s answers slip away as if he were the one being looked for, hunted down. Stephen tells him that so little of the past is there, it has become a sea that does not exist. While David pursues his history, his father retreats from it – that history which had become one that neither he nor David’s mother Eva had sought or desired. Their past had been imposed on them, and the tragedies of generations earlier rose up to be acknowledged.
Stephen, in his youth, had turned his back on New Zealand, keen to explore new landscapes and get away from a place he sometimes hated. Sailing to London in the 1940s, he finds a dirty, stinking metropolis, a city burdened by ‘the heaviness of ash pungent with rain’ (p. 13), a city where war still trailed in the air. During the ‘business of getting on’, of making the most of things, where a sign of a winning nation appeared as half-destroyed buildings, Stephen finds joy when he meets Eva at a dance. Realising this meeting has happened by chance, the couple use it as an opportunity to start over. As Stephen’s boss David Golson would oft repeat, as if to console himself, in Yiddish: zorg zich nisht, or perhaps, “don’t worry; things will be fine”.
Using this maxim Eva and Stephen eventually start over the in green, promised land of New Zealand. Yet far from beginning life together as a young couple in love, Stephen and Eva find the past is there, ready to encroach. An older generation, war-ravaged aunt has been located, and Eva’s past, and that of her parents, begins to catch up. Thus it is with the strange and silent Ruth, prematurely an old lady at forty-four, that they embark across the seas. Ruth, who is at home speaking a mixture of German, Polish and Yiddish, is given the endearment Babcia, or grandmother, to be used from then on by all who might come across her. Sometimes she acts erratically, with actions not clear to those around. She keeps her world close.
Skip forward twenty years and Stephen and Eva are parents to David and Lisa, the former sullen and anti-social, the latter eager to embrace the world and help improve the lots of others. So it is, as if by more random happenings, that Lisa finds herself in the late 60s in an unsettled Greece. It is a time of political upheaval, where the wealthy conservatives are pitted against the socialists. The class divide means that while some support the military junta, many others feel the call of Marxism. Yet after a while, in her own private capacity, Lisa feels she has become complacent, drifting by. She is marked in her family by her gift of standing a little to the side of everything, perhaps not always immediately, thoroughly, present.
A decade on again and there are many more changes. The further the individuals’ stories move forward, the more they are grafted to the past. Much is menacing. As Stephen had earlier warned his son, one should “let alone the parents before them” (p. 10). To meddle in what cannot be altered may end up strewing endless pain. Yet there is no other way to make sense of oneself and one’s purpose in life. In retrospect, faltering, one can only be trying to put together a person out of the scraps of knowledge. As both David and Lisa attempt to honour their parents and their pasts in their own ways, however much they uncover, still so much more will remain, always, evasive.