“This thought brought my mind back to the vision of night stretching ahead, as certain and as mysterious as a wet and unknown road stretching beyond the delimiting headlights of a car driven by a stranger. It led somewhere”
Kenneth Mackenzie’s novel The Refuge, set in post WWII Sydney, is narrated by middle-aged crime reporter Lloyd Fitzherbert who is working late one evening, reluctant to go home because he’s expecting a call from the police regarding a body that will be found in the harbour. While the body will be identified and thought a suicide, Fitzherbert knows the truth; as the murderer, post crime, pre-discovery of the body, he tells us he “had waited for that hour, with, as I thought, no feelings whatever.” Fitzherbert with cold calculation, has murdered a young woman he loved named Irma–a refugee from war-torn Europe who sought ‘refuge’ in Australia. Recalling the crime, he “felt again the terrible emotion of triumph mixed with and outweighed by black and utter despair.”
There’s no small amount of irony that Irma, a very slippery, beautiful and exotic young woman who joined both the Communist and the Nazi parties pre-WWII, making deadly enemies of both, should find a different type of final ‘refuge’ in an Australia which proves to be more deadly than the Communist agents that pursue her. This is a tale of an unhealthy bond between two people who appear to be in perfect control of their emotions, and yet when it comes to passion and love, there is something dead or missing in both Fitzherbert and Irma’s emotional make-up. He’s opted, after the tragically early death of his wife, to lead an emotionally sterile life and devote himself to his only son, Alan, who’s raised by his grandmother. Fitzherbert carefully maintains a distance from his son, but his devotion towards him includes morbid thoughts. Here he worries about 8 year-old Alan growing up in a world at war:
how profound had become my mistrust of a world in which wars could still come into evil flower, and in which individuals could play with and brutally alter the myriad personal fates of whole nations of men and women. In such a world I thought I could find plenty of cause to be concerned for Alan; in such an insane, dangerous world, where the very soul, unawares, was vulnerable, I could impersonally imagine a father willingly and painlessly ending the life of a son before that life should fade and fray into the common background pattern of greedy passions and deliberate violence which is also the pattern of inevitable self-destruction.
Irma, part of the chaotic detritus of pre-WWII Europe floats into Fitzherbert’s sterile existence and he falls in love with her. Irma is a very young woman who’s led a life using her body for political gain and also for survival. When she meets Fitzherbert, he’s the next male stepping stone, and while common sense should tell him to tread cautiously, there’s a magnetic attraction which he cannot resist even though he’s initially repelled:
What I did feel was a sense of shock and disappointment, that so much youth and vitality and feminine beauty should have been so well-schooled in the mouthing of spiritless clichés; for I could not then and cannot now believe that the passion for their maggot-eaten homelands which these people so readily put into words is a real passion of body and mind and spirit, and not largely a guileful parade of perfected artifice. What I did believe is that they were profoundly glad Australia did exist and was there unguarded for their exploitation.
The Refuge is Fitzherbert’s confession, and that leaves the reader as the judge and jury. The tale moves backwards from the discovery of Irma’s body, back ten years before when Fitzherbert met Irma for the first time and, as her savior of the hour, became involved in her life. Neither Fitzherbert nor Irma are particularly sympathetic or attractive characters, and once involved, it’s clear that they are both out of their depth. In spite of warning signals, Fitzherbert plunges deep into this relationship with a much young woman who trades her body for favours, and Irma treads dangerous waters when she begins a relationship with Fitzherbert, a type of man she’s never known before.
In the introduction, Nicholas Rothwell addresses the novel’s flaws and asks, “Can a work of genius, a masterwork–a classic–be imperfect, flawed in its essence? Can a great book be made from unbalanced or ill-fitting parts, and can those flaws and quirks actually be the crux of its strength?” These are good questions which ultimately, each reader will ask as they read The Refuge. It is a stunning book, full of the most incredibly beautifully written sections in which Fitzherbert’s lonely, painful observations ooze through the pages. While I found myself highlighting quote after marvelous quote, I also experienced no small amount of frustration with Fitzherbert’s wordy, unfocused confession/justification of his crime. In the final judgment, however, the power of Mackenzie’s heart stopping writing overrides the novel’s flaws, and his narrator’s meandering approach towards his confession grants insight, arguably more than Fitzherbert intended.
The novel’s structure is unusual–presenting a crime committed by the narrator who then proceeds to languidly detail select parts of the ten years before the murder and the events that led up to this act. Fitzherbert is in no hurry to wind up his tale, so, for example, he’ll spend pages describing the structure of his son’s face, and pages recalling discussions he had with a workmate–although that may seem to have little to do with the tale. But Fitzherbert is telling his tale his way, and explaining, with painfully long detail at times, his emotional justification for his crime. Fitzherbert’s idiosyncratic method of telling his story allows the reader glimpses inside the mind of obsessive man whose morbid thoughts dominate his actions. Fitzherbert methodically builds his case that his actions are justified and ultimately the only option available, but the reader knows that that simply isn’t true. Of course, one intriguing question must be asked: Is Fitzherbert, always in control of the narrative, as honest with himself as he appears to be? When the book opens, he presents himself as a man who has adjusted to the brutal nature of the world, but there are some vital components missing, and this absence floats to the surface when he falls into a one-sided love affair with Irma:
No one would describe me as a nervous man. Years of police reporting give necessary control of all emotion, not merely a command of the show of it. I have seen men hanged, and the raped and mutilated bodies of young women, and children’s bodies that fire has burned, and drowned people on whom fish have been feeding; and for such sights great calmness of spirit is essential One does not even allow an inward weeping for pity, or for shame at being oneself a man. One looks, and makes notes, and forgets. Nervousness does not come into it.
Rothwell describes The Refuge as a tragedy, and if we accept it as such, then Mackenzie’s approach to what may seem like a crime novel, makes much more sense. Fitzherbert is a murderer–an Othello without Iago, and he’s murdered the woman he loves. Now, in the lonely post-mortem of his crime, he explains and dominates the back story of the rocky, fateful path that led, inevitably, to this point.
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