Mark Henshaw - I feel like a character in a novel written by myself who runs into a character in a novel written by himself

Out of the Line of Fire

Mark Henshaw, Out of the Line of Fire, Text Publishing, 2016.[1988.]

I felt as though I was walking on a precariously thin, transparent laminate between the mirror image of two separate worlds. Any minute, if I lost my footing and missed meeting the foot which rose to meet mine, I ran the risk of falling through.
When Wolfi, a brilliant young philosophy student, begins recounting his life—from his inquisitorial father and passionate mother, to his eccentric grandmother who paid for his sexual initiation with the beautiful Andrea—we are lured into a mysterious and erotic maze. But what in fact is fact, and what in fiction is fiction? Brilliantly seductive, Out of the Line of Fire was the literary sensation of the year when it was first published, in 1988.
Read Stephen Romei’s introduction now.

‘A dazzling debut. A tour de force. This book is imaginative, virtuosic, and awesomely assured. It is compulsive reading.’ - Don Anderson

‘Experimental, extraordinary…Out of the Line of Fire, published in 1988, remains one of my favourite Australian novels.’ - Stephen Romei
An Australian writer heads to Germany, where he gets strong doses of philosophy, violence, taboo sex, and unreliable narration.
As Stephen Romei explains in his introduction, the debut novel by Henshaw (The Snow Kimono, 2015) divided readers in his native Australia when it was first published in 1988. It’s not hard to see why. The heart of the story centers on Wolfi, a German scholar who (in documents given to the Australian narrator) relates his harsh upbringing by his cold, philosophical father, his erotic obsession with his sister, his lost virginity to a prostitute scheduled and paid for by his grandmother, and his involvement in shoplifting and an ill-fated attempt to shake down patrons of gay male prostitutes in Berlin. Dour and/or distasteful as all that might be (though the prostitute incident plays as an adolescent comedy of errors), Henshaw isn’t going for shock value: Wolfi’s memoir is a document that the narrator is picking apart and testing for accuracy, and the whole novel is a kind of study on the trustworthiness of narrative. The story is awash in references to deep-meta novelists like Italo Calvino, Albert Camus, and Peter Handke and philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and there are regular asides about misperception and mistranslation. “The gap between fiction, between abstract speculation and so-called reality became blurred for me,” the narrator writes, and the novel is remarkable for juggling its blend of sex, secrets, and philosophy without losing narrative force or structural integrity. Indeed, the closing chapters have real drama as the narrator attempts to uncover the truth about Wolfi’s storytelling. The novel feels like an id laid bare, and Henshaw keeps the story in line while constantly pointing out the limitations of words to capture reality.
A remarkable and brainy work of metafiction.  - Kirkus Reviews

Out of the Line of Fire is a three-part novel. It begins with the Australian narrator describing his time as a student in Heidelberg, Germany, in the early 1980s, where he lives in the same building as fellow student Wolfgang 'Wolfi' Schönborn, who is working on his PhD (on the "metonymic perception of reality"). Near the end of their stays in Heidelberg, the narrator travels to Rome to do some research (on the suicide of Ingeborg Bachmann), and when he returns Wolfi has already left Heidelberg, to continue his studies in Berlin. A year later, after he has returned to Australia, the narrator gets a box filled with Wolfi's writings and other papers and documents, along with an: "infuriatingly brief note" suggesting: "Perhaps you can make something of this".
       The second section consists largely of these writings, as well as descriptions of some of the contents; most of this is Wolfi's writing, with some annotations or explanations by the narrator, and a few other odds and ends (a newspaper interview, for example). In these assorted writings, Wolfi reveals a great deal more about himself and his family life -- concluding with a final, rather shocking declaration.
       In the final section, the narrator describes trying to get in touch with Wolfi after he has read the contents of the box he received, though it is only a few years later, in 1986, when he finally gets back to Germany that he can really try to put together the pieces of all this information he has, and learn what became of Wolfi.
       In each section, various facets and facts of Wolfi's life and past are revealed, with some of the revelations throwing new light on previous events and encounters. Early on, there are things that happen where the narrator admits, for example: "I fail to see the connection between these two incidents"; as the novel proceeds connections become more evident, between any number of incidents and events.
       A great deal centers around sex, from Wolfi's sexual initiation -- helpfully arranged by his grandmother when he was eighteen and wanted to become a man -- to the complex intimacy between siblings in the household, especially once Wolfi's sister, Elena, reaches a certain age and becomes, more obviously, a sexual being (including being attracted to a boy they meet while on vacation, Alexis), to Wolfi's parents' fraying relationship. Going through Wolfi's papers, the narrator gets a sense that something is ... off:
I had already begun to suspect that there was more amiss in Wolfi's family than either the breakdown of his parents' relationship or the unsatisfactory relationship between him and his father.
       Early on, during their initial time in Heidelberg, the narrator admits:
     I am beginning to realize how sketchy my real knowledge of Wolfi is
       Even as the pieces get filled in later it's not only that his knowledge is sketchy (and, later, somewhat less so), but that there's so much ambiguity to all of it. Reality proves elusive -- and not just for the narrator: "the trouble with you, Wolfi, is that you wouldn't know the truth if it was staring you in the face", someone accuses the philosopher.
       Unsurprisingly, both philosophy and literature -- including literary theory (and practice ...) -- play significant roles in the text, as the narrator makes clear from the beginning that he isn't merely telling a story but is also concerned with how to tell it, and the significance of his choices.
       Henshaw plays with the reader from the beginning -- openly, cheerfully --, from before even beginning his story, with the common novel-warning that: "All characters are fictional. Any similarity between persons living or dead is purely coincidental" printed before the text proper (as opposed to in small print on the copyright page, where it is more usually found) -- and that opposite the dedication, which is: "For Wolfi", the fictional (?) character at the center of the novel. The novel proper then begins not with the story but with, of all things, the (ultimate self-referential) opening of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, as the narrator immediately thrusts questions of, among other things, narrative awareness and trustworthiness to the fore. Questions of translation are also raised immediately -- in a text in which the disclaimer that: "All characters are fictional" is presented in both German and English, and in which Wofli and the narrator repeatedly consider questions of translation, and in which remarks are also frequently given in German (with English translation).
       Among the obvious conclusions readers are reminded of, again and again: meaning is not fixed and/or absolute. Indeed, it's very early on that the narrator already mentions (unable to resist a little wordplay, while he's at it): "You begin to wonder where truth actually lies".
       So Out of the Line of Fire is a clever and very playful text, offering both a decent story that includes quite a few sordid episodes and behavior as well as lofty (but accessible) literary and philosophical speculation, and more than a few mysteries. Eventually, upon his return to Germany to try to get to the root of things, the narrator arranges to meet Wolfi's sister, Elena -- the one he had read so much about in Wolfi's records that he was sent -- and:
I was not blind to the significance of a meeting with her. It would be the first time that the world which Wolfi had created in my mind and my own world would actually coalesce in fact.
       But to what extent is 'fact' a construct, too ? Especially in a novel ..... As the narrator asked right at the outset -- and wonders throughout --:
     But what does one do if the novel is based on fact?
       Henshaw has good fun with these ideas, and plays them out quite well -- though rather sensationalistically in the end, with his shocker-twists that throw a new light on much that was previously described.
       It's an interesting take on the literary-philosophical novel, with a deceptively light writing touch that differentiates it from most continental novels playing with similar tricks. The scenes, the asides, and the speculation are, both separately and together, good (if sometimes somewhat creepy) fun, and Out of the Line of Fire is a smart and smartly twisted novel. - M. A. Orthofer

“I feel like a character in a novel written by myself who runs into a character in a novel written by himself.”
I’m not sure how a book as finely written and original as Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire stayed under the radar for nearly three decades, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that the author is Australian. How could I resist a novel that opens with the purloined line: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler” and then invokes the name of Walter Abish, one of my favorite writers?
First published in 1988, then reissued in 2014 by Melbourne’s Text Publishing, Out of the Line of Fire reads like a compelling mystery, except that it is laced with bite-sized doses of philosophy drawn from the likes of Kant, Husserl, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. Most of the quotations that Henshaw extracts from their writings deal with the broad question of how language works and how we believe we experience the world, all of which he uses to raise questions about the nature of literature itself (and, by extension, the nature of the book we are reading).
Henshaw’s unnamed narrator in is an Australian studying in Heidelberg, where he meets Wolfi, another student who rents a room in the same house. Wolfi is working on his dissertation, the subject of which, they decide after much discussion, goes something like this in English: “The metonymic perception of reality.” But just as their friendship seems to be taking off, Wolfi mysteriously moves to Berlin. Eventually, the narrator returns to Australia having not heard from Wolfi again. Then, a year later, he receives a package in the mail containing “bundles of papers, news-clippings, letters, postcards and God knows what” along with a note from Wolfi: “Perhaps you can make something of this.” The second part of Henshaw’s novel is comprised of Wolfi’s story, which ends with a shocking revelation. In the third and final section, the narrator finds himself in Berlin for a conference and tries to find out what happened to Wolfi. New shocking revelations seem to replace the original shocking revelation, pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet more than once. Sadly, these twists and turns cannot be revealed without spoiling Henshaw’s book for the next reader.
Out of the Line of Fire plays with a number of postmodern literary obsessions — who is the author? what differentiates fact from fiction? how does language convey meaning? what gets lost in translation? But Henshaw approaches this in a way unlike any other book I have read. After each new revelation, I had to literally stop and entirely rethink everything I thought I had understood up to that point. Henshaw gives the reader fair warning that the story he is telling is suspect, especially when he name-drops authors like Calvino and Abish, two writers who deliberately constructed their fictions as if they were games. As his Australian narrator puts it: “The novelist … is obliged to conceal and reveal at the same time, to include, exclude, manipulate and shape his characters with some ulterior purpose in mind.” Looking back, I can see that Henshaw left several sly clues that might have led me to suspect what he was up to, but I confess that I only caught one of Henshaw’s clues, which I underlined and wrote question marks next to, even though I had no idea why. But even this clue was nothing more than the substitution of one pronoun for another.
Mark Henshaw (who, by the way, is not the Mark Henshaw who writes the Red Cell series of spy novels) didn’t publish his second novel, The Snow Kimono, until 2014, twenty-six years after Out of the Line of Fire. To be honest, I gave up on The Snow Kimono more than once, even though it has a very promising start. Auguste Jovert is a recently retired police inspector in Paris. Shortly into his retirement, Jovert receives a letter from a young woman declaring herself to be his daughter from a brief relationship he had while he had served in the Algerian War. At the same time, Jovert meets a neighbor in his building, Tadashi Omura, a retired law professor from Japan. As the two men get to know one another they slowly begin to tell their stories whenever they can get together for a night. Jovert recounts his time in Algeria, while Omura tells the story of his troubled friendship with Katsuo, a brilliant but rather dissolute and ethically-challenged man.
For me, one problem with The Snow Kimono was that the rather lengthy narratives of Jovert and Omura keep alternating, which meant that I continually lost track of the characters and plot details of one story while being enveloped by the other story. The other, more serious, problem had to do with the ending. As in Out of the Line of Fire, Henshaw eventually provides a revelation that entirely changes one of the stories. But this revelation turns out to be just a Hitchcockian plot twist, whereas the literary magic that occurs in Out of the Line of Fire forces the reader to rethink the very act of reading itself. While beautifully written, The Snow Kimono simply couldn’t live up to my expectations.
I give credit to M.A. Orthofer’s recent piece over at Complete Review for belatedly bringing Out of the Line of Fire to my attention. - Terry Pitts

The Snow Kimono

Mark Henshaw, The Snow Kimono, Text Publishing, 2014.

There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same. It may be something direct or indirect, or something someone says to you. But whatever it is, there is no going back. And inevitably, when it happens, it happens suddenly, without warning.
Paris: 1989. Recently retired Inspector of Police Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter. Two days later, a stranger comes knocking on his door.
Set in Paris and Japan, The Snow Kimono tells the stories of Inspector Jovert, former Professor of Law Tadashi Omura, and his one-time friend the writer Katsuo Ikeda. All three men have lied to themselves, and to each other. And these lies are about to catch up with them.
A quarter of a century after the award-winning bestseller Out of the Line of Fire, Mark Henshaw returns with an intricate psychological thriller that is also an unforgettable meditation on love and loss, on memory and its deceptions, and the ties that bind us to others.

Henshaw creates a world of psychological complexity and emotional subtlety in a story that moves from Paris to Japan and back again.
Auguste Jovert has been retired only a few months as inspector of police in Paris when he’s startled to receive a letter and photograph from his daughter, Mathilde, who only recently discovered her father’s identity. Thirty years earlier he’d worked in Algeria, where he met Mathilde’s mother. His immediate impulse is to crush the photograph and think it’s “too late,” and for a while, this particular mystery is put aside. Shortly thereafter, however, Jovert meets a neighbor, Tadashi Omura, a law professor at the Imperial University of Japan now living in Paris, who comes with his own cryptic issues about fathers and daughters. He spins a mesmerizing story about his relationship with Fumiko, whom he treats as a daughter though he claims she is not. In a series of detailed flashbacks he presents their relationship, on which one lie is piled onto another—for example, that Sachiko, Fumiko’s mother, died in childbirth. In the interstices of his long conversations with Omura, Jovert takes tentative steps to find Mathilde by using some of his contacts at police headquarters. Eventually the narrative of Omura’s past becomes ascendant and throws Jovert’s story into the background. We learn particularly lurid details about Omura’s friendship with Katsuo Ikeda, a brilliant student and friend of Omura’s, who becomes a writer and lives a profligate and amoral life, culminating in a murder. But with Omura, nothing is at it seems, and we find Ikeda’s life has also been constructed of elaborate fabrications.
Henshaw’s prose shimmers as his narrative becomes ever more nuanced, complex, and misleading.
- Kirkus Reviews

One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.

Moving the action forward with achingly poetic sentences, the writing in The Snow Kimono – Mark Henshaw’s first novel in 25 years, since the critically acclaimed Out of the Line of Fire – often echoes the fabulist prose of the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, a quote from whose If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler begins the book. There’s also a concentrated quietness in the tone that echoes the philosophical nature of the mystery – at once the realm of the lone east Asian poet, making his way down the narrow road to the interior, as well as the European diarist, wandering aimlessly through a lamp-lit street.
The novel’s plot is difficult to summarise without giving anything away but it is this very complexity – as well as the cascading structure, out of the lives of the Japanese women, one of whom owns the snow kimono of the title – that makes it gripping.
Like a Japanese puzzle, prized for their infinite solutions and depth of revelation, each chapter builds on the one before, unfolding through levels of story to unpack deeper and deeper truths. And as the novel clicks into place like the final move in a himitsu-bako, it’s clear that The Snow Kimono is not simply a novel about mysteries but a metaphor for the nature of storytelling.
“But life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve,” thinks Jovert while reminiscing about his career in the French territorial police in Algiers. “What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together.”
In Australian fiction, there has been a recent interest among novelists in the interrogation of storytelling itself. A writer, at the end of the day, is a philosopher. To be questioning the validity of her art as well as the views of her society is part of a writer’s job. It would be easy to read Henshaw as using Jovert and The Snow Kimono as a metaphor for his own autumn, as both the author and the character move into the next stages of their lives.
But, much more provocatively, this could also be a case of the novelist abandoning linear, objective-driven logic for more open-ended philosophical structures, raising the question of what aesthetic progression we are heading towards, what kind of humanity we are seeking as a society, and what kind of moral constructions we wish to exist.
Whatever the answer, Henshaw has chosen the perfect vehicle within which to examine these questions. After a career as a crime writer and curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Henshaw’s ability to combine such cultural and aesthetic diversity in his fiction is not only an example of what a period of dedicated study can do, but a marker of his ability as a writer. -

I wasn’t far into Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono before I started to sense some similarities to Kazuo Ishiguro. I was consequently tickled when, about halfway through, up popped a secondary character named Mr Ishiguro. Coincidental? I can’t help thinking it’s not – but I haven’t investigated whether Henshaw has said anything about this. I’m not at all suggesting, however, that The snow kimono is derivative. It’s certainly not. It’s very much its own book, one that manages to somehow marry an Ishiguro-like “floating” and rather melancholic pace with a page-turning one. On the surface it’s a mystery story, but in reality is something far more complex. Interested? Read on …
Before I discuss the novel, though, I do want to say a little about the author who is not well known. The snow kimono is Henshaw’s second novel. His first, Out of the line of fire, was published in 1988, and was well-received critically, garnering a couple of awards. The snow kimono won this year’s New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for fiction. Henshaw has worked as a translator, but retired in 2012 as a curator at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which is where I attended the launch of this book late last year. (PS I lied a bit about this being Henshaw’s second novel. He has also written two collaborative crime fiction novels, under the name J M Calder, with another local writer, John Clanchy, whose Six I’ve reviewed here)
And now, back to The snow kimono. It is set in Paris and Japan, with a brief foray to Algeria, and spans the late 1950s to the late 1980s. It concerns the lives of a Frenchman, the retired Inspector Jovert, and two Japanese men, a former Professor of Law, Tadashi Omura, and his old schoolfriend, the writer Katsuo Ikeda. The novel has a complex structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, and between the two main storytellers, Jovert and Omura.
The story commences in Paris, 1989, with the recently retired Jovert receiving a letter from a woman claiming to be a daughter he didn’t know he had (from a relationship in Algeria some thirty years previously). Coincidentally – or is it? – he is confronted by Omura, who has his own tortuous daughter-who-is-not-really-my-daughter story. The novel comprises the stories told by these two men: Omura of his life in Osaka and friendship with the narcissistic Katsuo, and Jovert of his experience in Algeria as a French “interrogator” and of his wife and son. Early on we discover that Omura is the guardian of Katsuo’s daughter because Katsuo is in gaol for an undisclosed (until much later) crime. Complex “truths” about parents and children, and about about who is really whom, underpin the plot’s narrative. There are lies galore …
“the future changes everything”
This novel is a captivating read – for its language, story and ideas – but it demands concentration. There are many characters, and relationships can be obscure or seemingly convoluted. However, as the two men talk, we realise that, while on the surface a plot is slowly being unravelled, Henshaw’s real interests are deeper. How do you live with the lies you have kept, or told yourself? What is memory, and how does it relate to truth? How meaningful is truth at any one time when “the future changes everything”. What does this mean?
Two-thirds though the novel, Jovert reflects
that he had spent most of his life listening to people, sifting through what they said, weighing, assessing. Trying to fit things together. But life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together. And sometimes not even then.
This is a clue to the paradoxical nature of this novel, and to one of the reasons why it reminds me of Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s books, like Henshaw’s novel, tend to be about memory, its reliability and what it does or doesn’t tell us about who we are. Of course, memory is not an unusual theme for novelists, but it’s the tone, the use of foreshadowing, and the ground-shifting, the pulling of the rug from under us one way and then another, that connected these two authors for me.
So, in The snow kimono, it’s not only Omura and Katsuo who have been living on secrets and lies, but also Jovert. Confronted by the letter and by Omura’s challenge to him that he should meet his daughter, he starts the process of forcing “his memory to surrender what he has spent decades trying to forget”. He had seen memory as a “sanctuary” that can bind people together, but he now sees this is “an illusion”. Memories can in fact “change, be destroyed, be rewritten”, they can be “shuffled, reshuffled”. And so, the man who, during the Algerian War of Independence, had coldly and brutally encouraged others “to recall things they might have otherwise forgotten. Or said they had” now has to confront the “truth”.
The problem is that:
Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time’s throat. It concertinas life’s slow unfolding into time-less event, sifting the significant from the insignificant in a heartless, hurried way. It unlinks the chain. But how did you know what counted unless you let time pass?
Memory is not absolute. It’s mutable, shifting with time, with perspective, with maturity.
I found The snow kimono a deeply satisfying book for this very reason. It suggests that nothing is fixed and that, moreover, as Katsuo cynically says to Omura, there is no “completion”. What does all this say, though, about how we are to live, because surely, this is what the book is about.
The novel’s opening paragraph states that “there is no going back”. This idea is repeated in the narrative: Jovert states after a brutal time in Algeria that “truth can’t be undone”, and Katsuo says after other brutality that “you can’t undo what you’ve done”. However, Jovert does come to believe that “perhaps it was not too late to atone”. What do you think?
There is so much more to this book that I might be driven to write another post …

Mark Henshaw published his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, 26 years ago. He has published since, writing detective novels as half of J.M.Calder (one published in 1996, another in 2007), but anticipating another fully-fledged, fully serious novel was a terribly long wait. As my father would have said: "26 years, you don't get that for murder."
Out of the Line of Fire was exceptional: disconcertingly smart, sharply alert, quite distinctive, often rather beautifully lyrical. The Snow Kimono is written, logically enough, in a similarly edgy, off-beat but not off-key manner. Henshaw decides to roll in together stories about a retired police inspector, and two Japanese, one a footless, former professor of law and the other a drinking, womanising writer.
All have something to teach, as well as something to learn, about how friends can betray each other, then about how lies and life can lie in wait for us. Henshaw begins in Paris, 1989 with an unwanted, uninvited and unwelcome visitor, who just turns up, in the way that much that happens to us tends to do. That interloper, the Japanese professor, knocks on the door of Inspector Jovert, a policeman not as wicked as Hugo's Inspector Javert but nonetheless dogged and tough-minded, with lots of secrets to hide.
Recently pensioned off, Jovert feels lost, only to lose his way entirely in a disabling accident, through a chance encounter, then down the memory hole into echoes of his service during the war in Algeria. Jovert's world might seem a little clogged by adjectives; here, stillness can appear "vitreous", sky "churlish" and light "cataracted". Those adornments help impart a slightly surreal, fantastical quality to the narrative.  Jovert remarks of a statue at the Bastille that it is "improbable, ludicrous perhaps, but magical nonetheless". Henshaw's writing is never ludicrous, but the other two adjectives do apply. Even if his plots are sometimes improbable, Henshaw's effects are consistently magical.
One idiosyncratic index of our Asia literacy may be that two Australian writers have this year published intimate, knowing accounts of Japanese, this one and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Henshaw has perfected a particular technique for the scenes set in Japan, one we might call leisurely lyricism. Incidents unroll slowly, lives unravel in a still more mannered way, scenes are prepared by bouts of foreboding or premonitions on the part of the characters. Overlapping, interlocking memories gradually expose the drift in a story; the narrative is bound together as Henshaw's figures are bound to each other.
I would argue that the Algiers segment of this novel is more engrossing again.  Jovert struggles to clarify the maze of Algiers' alleys and basements, while trying at the same time to make sense of the moral maze into which he plunged in Algeria. In Japan, as in Algeria, Henshaw's approach is to probe and to prompt memories, then feelings, then often remorse and at least a gesture at repentance. His characters spend a good deal of time fretting about actual sins of commission in the past and potential  sins of omission in the future.
One of Henshaw's creations notes that: "Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time's throat."  That, however, is not quite the practice adopted in this novel. Here, memory stimulates, time becomes more fluid, the past and the present scrape against each other, and emotions (as well as, occasionally, the truth) are refined and distilled. - MARK THOMAS

In retrospect, and despite predictions of the ‘death of the novel’, the 1980s were a great decade for fiction. For all sorts of reasons, probably, but two seem paramount. One of them was ‘philosophical’: the advent of ‘theory’. The other had to do with the market. Structuralism – the key year here is 1968 – had been sufficiently absorbed by writers in the English-speaking world to begin to show its mark in the way novels were constructed, and poststructuralism was making inroads. (It should perhaps not go without saying that I speak only of those novelists who were influenced. The great majority went along their old paths regardless.) On the other front – mirroring the extensive impact of the Penguin Modern European Poets series (1965-77) upon poetry a decade earlier – there was Ajai Singh ‘Sonny’ Mehta, who should certainly have received the Nobel Prize for something. Intuition?
Born 1942 in India and schooled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Mehta studied at Cambridge before beginning his publishing career in the late 1960s at Rupert Hart-Davis. He moved on to found Paladin, where his great success was Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) – which, legend has it, he persuaded her to write. He then joined Pan and became, in 1974, director of its new Picador imprint. His mandate was to bring into English as many as possible of the great contemporary novelists writing in other languages and / or from countries other than the UK and the USA. Picador brought us Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Bruno Schulz, Elias Canetti and, well, so many contemporary international classics that by the 1980s it was almost the benchmark of contemporary literary fiction. I say ‘almost’ because that part of the bookshelf not occupied by Picadors was taken up by books bearing the Faber and Faber insignia. It was Faber, largely under the direction of Robert McCrum, which brought us Josef Skvorecky, Milan Kundera, Czesław Miłosz, Kazuo Ishiguro and others.
In Australia the impact of this narratological watershed was marked, perhaps even profound. Patrick White had already decentred the ‘dun-coloured realism’ of the 1940s and 1950s. This was stage two. The experiments were found in short fiction at first, in the work of Peter Carey and Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse. Some of the best of it was gathered in Brian Kiernan’s landmark anthology The Most Beautiful Lies (1977), by which point the results were beginning to appear in longer works: Jessica Anderson’s psycho-forensic Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Carey’s Bliss (1981), Gerald Murnane’s The Plains (1982), and David Malouf’s Child’s Play and Fly Away Peter (both 1982). It built to a kind of peak in 1984-6, with Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach (1984) and Postcards from Surfers (1985); Carey’s Illywhacker, Beverley Farmer’s Home Time, Marion Campbell’s Lines of Flight (all 1985);  and Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well (1986). It ended with such striking works as Rod Jones’ Julia Paradise (1988), Farmer’s Body of Water (1990) and Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire (1988), which Text has just re-released as part of its Classics series.
There was no one style. If I had to characterise what was new about such works, apart from an openness and narratological innovation, it would have to include, first and foremost, textual self-consciousness. Structuralism was seen to have displaced conventional ‘naturalism’ and conventional third person omniscient narration (for example) was seen as naive and deceptive. More and more, writers felt pressure not only to display an awareness of the ‘tricks’ of narrative, but to share them with the reader – as if novels should not only entertain but instruct in the arts of fiction, as if these might somehow also be the arts of life itself. The coolest of novelists not only took this up with enthusiasm, they displayed their awareness of the philosophical background to this situation. Fiction was fiction, yes, but it was also a criticism of itself. The term ‘ficto-criticism’ came into play.
The 1980s was the decade of metafiction, then, but it was also the decade of magic realism. And cosmopolitanism. And eroticism. And post-Freudianism. The best works touched a number of these bases. There were South American flavours (Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Alejo Carpentier, and others of the ‘boom’); there were European flavours (Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Bohumil Hrabal, Peter Handke). And there were English flavours. One key novel of the period was D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981), a breathtaking combination of textual self-consciousness, post-Freudian psychology, post-Holocaustism and eroticism. For me – others will doubtless put forth different books – it was The White Hotel that seemed to set a kind of benchmark of literary and creative intensity. It created a recipe that one finds, whether or not the authors themselves were aware of it (call it the Zeitgeist), in some of the Australian works I have listed, perhaps most of all in Julia Paradise and Out of the Line of Fire.
Perhaps, too, The White Hotel was also bearing the first signs of another textual effect of this period of extraordinary exotic projection. Most of the great works that Picador and Faber brought to us were in translation. If one cannot actually say that they were strung between two languages – they had, after all, appeared successfully in their second language – then one can say that they had crossed, as it were, a gap, an abyss of sorts. They seem to bear the traces of this process in their fabric. The effect, while pronounced, is also almost ineffable: a slight, haunting dislocation, that can make it seem, at times, as if their places are more set than setting. It is a mood, if you like – or tone, or tincture – a slight paleness, an elusive atmosphere of irreality that nonetheless left its mark on numerous English-language novelists of the period. It is here, in Henshaw’s novels: a companion at once to their poetry and to their pronounced textual self-consciousness.
The publisher’s website claims that Out of the Line of Fire was one of the best-selling works of Australian literary fiction of the 1980s. I can well understand that. The book has heavy doses of eroticism; it is, as I have just suggested, textually very self-conscious – indeed, it opens with a discussion of the famous opening of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979). It offers us – its theoretical pedigree – probably far more than it needs of Kant, Hume, Bertrand Russell and others; it displays something of a preoccupation with a Vienna-Salzburg-Klagenfort mythos of Wittgenstein, Handke, Robert Musil, Alban Berg, Manon Gropius and Ingeborg Bachmann. And about ten percent of it is in German, not all of it translated. Perhaps predictably, a number of critics at the time complained of its intellectual pretentiousness. But a) they were complaining about the pretentiousness of a lot of this new fiction (read: ‘I haven’t yet taken the trouble to work out what it’s all about’); and b) damn it’s well written – especially when it gets away from its scaffoldings. At its best and most (deceptively) limpid, one could be reading pages from Kundera or D. M. Thomas or Edmund White.
Christopher Booker famously argued, in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004), that there are seven basic story-lines to which all literature conforms. I think it’s more like a hundred, but hey, Booker supposedly spent 34 years working it out. Henshaw’s plot in Out of the Line of Fire is the one (not one of Booker’s) where a relationship is created, two people become friends – and then one of them disappears. Eventually, a package turns up, usually a journal or a manuscript, and the plot thickens. The narrator, the one-who-has-been-left, who has usually been in some way deeply enthralled by the one-who-has-left, tries to fathom the papers / manuscript / package, then sets off in search.
In this case, the one who is searched for is Wolfi, a fellow graduate student of the Australian narrator’s at the University of Heidelberg (where Hegel taught, where Hölderlin lived, where Heidegger gave some interesting speeches). Wolfi’s professor father, a logical positivist, was once a friend of Wittgenstein, and Wolfi is writing a thesis on Jenseits der
Realitatswahrnehmungsgrenze (‘Beyond the limits of the perception of reality’). But the ‘real’ story would seem to be of sexual awakenings, and chiefly of Wolfi’s apparent infatuation with his sister Elena. This story is decorated, and our imaginations whetted, by vignettes of the loves and sexual intrigues of others – Hölderlin and Suzette Gontard, Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, Pirandello and Jenny Schulz-Lander (and Antonietta Portulano, and Lietta), Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs – as if, within them, there may be clues. Some of the relationship between Wolfi and his sister the narrator has pieced together from hints, conversations and photographs he has seen during his brief friendship with Wolfi. Most of it, however, comes from the package and the thesis: the mysterious clippings, fragments of other stories, the voluminous pages of narrative and confession that it contains. I would tell you more, but it’s a set-up, a sting. I would hate to spoil the potential reader’s pleasure by giving too much away.
Out of the Line of Fire is a first book, but a first book of considerable achievement, promising a great deal more. But then, for a long while, there was silence, or apparently so. For many of us Henshaw, after this glowing start, eventually slipped from mind. There is an assumption, when one has published a successful novel, that one wishes to be a novelist, or at least a novelist-and-…  But why should that be? Henshaw would not be the only prize-winning one-book author Australia has produced. But now, 26 years after the first, Text has released a second novel, The Snow Kimono. It is doubtless to support this publication that the first has been reprinted. Attention has been refocussed. Where has Henshaw been? Has he been silent?
Had I continued to live in the city in which I was born (Canberra), or been a reader of crime fiction, I might have known not only that for much of the intervening period Henshaw has worked as a senior curator at the National Gallery, but that, with John Clanchy, he has been half of ‘J.M. [John Mark?] Calder’, a successful writer of crime fiction. That is to say, there have been at least two other novels: If God Sleeps (1997) and And Hope to Die (2007). (‘At least’ because when one pseudonym has been used, can we be sure that there aren’t others? Is there an ‘Emile Ajar’, a ‘Fosco Sinibaldi’, a ‘Shatan Bogat’? Is Henshaw our Romain Gary?) There is also a slim, bilingual and slightly mysterious work published under Henshaw’s name by a small press in France in 1990, Last Thoughts of a Dead Man (Dernières pensées d’un mort). While he may not have been very public about it, we cannot really say that Henshaw has not been writing.
It is evident, for example, that he has also been working on, or at least thinking about, this ‘new’ book for much of this time. As early as 1989, Henshaw told the Canberra Times of a second novel, set in Japan (‘where I have never been’), a tale told by an old man, looking back, ‘recounting part of his life’. The Snow Kimono, clearly, is that novel, though that early description belies the masterful work is has become.

It is Paris, 1989. Auguste Jovert is a recently-retired inspector of police, the height of whose career, after a horrendous tour of duty in Indo-China, was spent as a ‘gifted’ interrogator for the French during the later stages of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). He receives a letter from a young Algerian woman claiming to be his daughter. He carries this letter for two days, but then, in a determination to have done with his past, screws it up, throws it away.
In the interim – since receiving the letter – he has been hit by a car and hurt his knee. Unused to his crutches, he is so slow climbing the stairs that the light times out and he drops his keys in the dark outside his apartment. A new neighbour, a Japanese man, turns on the light, picks up the keys and gives them to him, introducing himself as Professor Omura. He says he has been waiting to see Jovert. Why is not clear. Invited in, he begins to tell Jovert his story, or rather the story of his love for a young girl, Fumiko, whom he has brought up as his daughter, leading her to believe that he is her true father, while her actual father, the novelist Katsuo Ikeda, has been in prison for a crime not explained until we come to the appropriate place in this masterfully constructed narrative. Learning that Katsuo is about to be released and longs to see his daughter, Omura has had to reveal his deception to Fumiko. Fumiko has gone to meet Katsuo and has not returned.
The story is of course far more complicated than this, and Omura seems determined to tell Jovert all, whether Jovert wants to hear it or not. It seems – Ancient Mariner-like – that he has been sent by fate to persuade Jovert to seek out his daughter and to make peace with himself – to accept a bounty by making peace with his past. The healing power of story, if you follow. Late at night, Omura, whose apartment is in fact next door to Jovert’s, can be heard typing. And everywhere he goes he seems to take notes. But let’s not jump ahead. There is one more bit of background to be set into place.
One effect of that heady decade of structuralist and poststructuralist overdrive was to generate a kind of fiction so self-conscious that, for those critics and scholars who wished to exercise the new theory, it offered a seductive and rather counter-productive hermeneutic circle. Another and far more salutary effect was to generate a kind of fiction that absorbed and assimilated the new structural and linguistic awareness – in essence, the fact that in the human world all is structure, all is system; that we are alone in a cage of language, manipulated by appearances, isolated by language from any ‘reality’ beyond. In effect, it re-naturalised this awareness. Instead of the naive naturalism that that period of fiction attempted to wean itself (and its readers) from, we now have a wiser and more ironic form, able to preserve the best of what had gone before, but with a better understanding of its workings. The theoretical scaffolding that, however deftly constructed in a work such as Out of the Line of Fire or the Calvino novel to which it is so indebted, had sometimes been foregrounded to the point where such story as there was seemed to be handicapped by it, has been absorbed. The best writers of the 1990s and first decade-and-a-half of the twenty-first century seem to know how to present those ideas – our new ontology – within the fabric of the tale (text / textile), rather than as accessory to it. (Something like this happened with Magic Realism, too, but that’s another story.)
The Snow Kimono not only exemplifies just such a maturation, it gives us a unique opportunity to conduct, with Out of the Line of Fire, a kind of textbook before-and-after comparison. From a certain perspective, that is to say, and without in any way suggesting that it is the same tale, the new novel shares enough key features with Henshaw’s first book that one can think of it as a kind of reprise. The tale may be told by an elderly Japanese man, but much of it is about a younger version of himself and the compelling hold upon him of a long-term friend. Katsuo is The Snow Kimono’s version of Out of the Line of Fire’s Wolfi; Tadashi Omura occupies the role of the first novel’s nameless narrator. Both novels are about the deceptive nature of documents (truths masquerading as fiction, fictions masquerading as truth); both centralise their erotic dimension. There is even a psycho-forensic component to both – a sense in which each novel revolves around the same deep topos: a wall, a gate, opening upon a garden, offering, when one intrudes, a glimpse of the beautiful woman about whom so much of the narrative and the narrator’s desire turns. In some way, if we could find the key (Omura, as I’ve said, first greets Jovert by handing him his keys). The gate through which Wolfi enters to see, on the balcony, his naked sister, is the gate that Omura enters to see Sachiko in her snow-white kimono, is the gate of the house in Algiers through which, in memory, Jovert enters, to see himself and Madeleine standing on the balcony in Algiers, looking down ‘to the still, blue harbour below’. (The wall, it suddenly occurs to me, could be the text itself, the woman within the ‘true’ story, and for the gate we need a key, which we must wait for the author to supply.)
Instead of the sometimes clunky and slightly abrasive textual disjunctions of Out of the Line of Fire, in other words, we have now a tale almost as seamless, and of such a rich fabric, as one of Sachiko’s mother’s famous kimonos. But we should not let this blind us to the points to which Out of the Line of Fire has alerted us.
I might, for instance, have started my summary differently. ‘Paris, just after dark one gusty evening …’ But that, of course, is the beginning of Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’, which is often cited as the first modern detective story. And had I done so – had I begun this way – I could have gone on to mention that, almost as soon as the story opens, the unnamed narrator and his companion, C. Auguste Dupin, are visited by the prefect of police – several ranks above Inspector, I’ll admit – who wishes to consult them about a letter, or, rather, a stolen letter, which he is having trouble finding. Jovert, when he goes back to the bin into which he threw the crumpled note from the woman claiming to be his daughter, cannot find that letter either. And, as it happens, deep within the story that Omura tells him over the coming months, a stolen letter features, both in itself and as a clue.
Is The Snow Kimono in some manner a reprise of ‘The Purloined Letter’? Well, no, it only alludes to it – to remind us, I think, that much can be hidden in plain sight (Poe’s theme). But it is also a hint, at the outset, that there are more texts, and more textual forms, involved here than meet the eye. At the centre of the book – for further instance – is a literary hoax. A young Tokyo academic, Etsuko Kaida, discovers the work of a hitherto unknown nineteenth-century poet, Shiga. This discovery seems set to re-write the poetic history of the period. Katsuo’s would-be university mentor, Professor Todo, writes a scholarly essay on Shiga for a famous literary journal with Katsuo’s help, and in the very issue in which the essay appears there also appears a confession, by Katsuo, that he invented Shiga. (Etsuko Kaida is an anagram of Katsuo Ikeda.) It is hard for me, as the author of a book titled Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adore Floupette, and a Secret History of Australian Poetry (2011), not to see a descendant of Ern Malley here, though the likeliest antecedent is in fact Araki Yasusada, the infamous non-existent ‘Hiroshima poet’, whose newly-discovered work (was he in fact Kent Johnson of Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois?) hoaxed the American Poetry Review and other journals in 1996, the same year as the famous Sokal hoax.
Hard, too, not to see a ghost of John Scott’s deeply-metafictional (and slightly magic realist) sting-narrative What I Have Written (1993), or of what Scott has called its scriptoral realism: that manner in which – bearing out Barthes’ famous assertion that every text is, in effect, a tissue of quotation – an apparently naturalistic text, one that ‘convinces’ us with its seamless simulacrum of ‘reality’, can be made up of quotations and misappropriations from other texts. (Scott has just produced his own masterpiece of this genre, N, published earlier this year.) Or if not a ghost, then at least to see The Snow Kimono as a fellow (winter’s night) traveller.
Perhaps, after all the celebrations of its absorbing narrative have been themselves absorbed, that may be the way to describe The Snow Kimono – as scriptoral realism, or a version thereof. I might not have made this suggestion on the evidence of the Shiga hoax or the game with ‘The Purloined Letter’ alone, but the references to Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), have left me in little doubt that such a process is quite consciously at work here.
Much of the story that Professor Omura tells Inspector Jovert about his one-time friend Katsuo – the story he has been able to put together from letters or other forms of evidence – concerns, at first, a set of early relationships and erotic encounters with Etsuko, with Keiko, with Natsumi. It goes on to give accounts of the two key women in Katsou’s life, Mariko and Sachiko, in sections named after them (just as Scott has named the sections of What I Have Written after his central characters). These sections form the compelling crux of the narrative, but the force and function of the former sections – the stories of Etsuko and Keiko – could seem elusive, until one remembers or encounters the Ishiguro novel, in which (I won’t go into the rest of its narrative) a mother, Etsuko, tells her daughter, Keiko, a story about a mother, Sachiko, and her relationship with her daughter, Mariko …
But it is neither my role nor intention to unpack all of Henshaw’s literary borrowings and subversions. And if I seem to be saying that The Snow Kimono is in some way a hoax piece, I have been badly misread. It is one thing to construct a text from other texts – if and to the extent that Henshaw is doing this at all – and (a bit like the perfect sestina) quite another thing ensure that the reader is so deeply absorbed by the narrative that they are taken in – that they do not see this construction – in the first place. The sting – for there is a sting in this tale too – could not work otherwise.
I have some reservations about the eroticism of the subject: the orientation of the gaze; the way the book establishes such a congeries of hauntingly beautiful women – from Etsuko to Natsumi to Keiko to Mariko to Yumiko to Sachiko to Madeleine to Mathilde to Marine – so that one wonders about a kind of feminist occlusion (there are memorable women here, but do they have agency?); and even more about its latent orientalism (one could write, too, about a curious occlusion of history) – but I am happy enough to acknowledge that there may be mitigating factors. It is not unfeasible, for example, that in its stereotypic, Geisha-like presentations the book can be seen as parodic, though I might still want to suggest that it would then be a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.
On the other hand, and by contrast, I have no reservations at all about the seductive power of the narrative, or of the erotics of the text itself:  the way a sentence infuses one with desire for the next; the way paragraphs, scenes and sections provide, with almost perfect timing, crescendo and diminuendo, moments of heat, periods of calm. There are haunting scenes; there are poetic scenes (kimono laid out on the snow, for the colours to set); there are very powerful scenes (one, in a snow-covered field, of a stallion approaching a mare). Overall, there is a consistency of suggestion and detail that would keep all but the most jaded of readers (and even some of those, for I suspect that I am one) quite thoroughly engrossed. - David Brooks

The Snow Kimono layers several backstories coming to the fore -- bubbling to the surface, where they don't entirely change how the present is seen but certainly repeatedly shift the picture(s). Opening in Paris, in July 1989, with just-turning-sixty-three-year-old retired police inspector Auguste Jovert, the story soon moves to one recounted to him by a new neighbor, a former law professor and lawyer from Japan, Tadashi Omura -- focused then on yet another character, his childhood friend, successful writer -- and convicted murderer -- Katsuo Ikeda.
       The novel proceeds with overlaps of present and past, long sections of reminiscences and recollections with only occasional reminders of these being recounted in the present, as well as some more expansive present-day scenes.
       Before getting caught up in Omura and Ikeda's stories, Jovert is confronted with a piece of his own past, a letter from a woman claiming, plausibly, to be his daughter -- the dates would appear to work out, given his time in Algeria three decades earlier. Having lost wife and son, the fairly isolated Jovert now has an opportunity to find a bit of family again -- though he mulls over seeking her out over the course of the novel. (He does also eventually connect with another young woman, a peripheral figure from his past who also wants to seek out a long-lost family member; she is also the only one he can turn to, lean on and talk about his Omura-experiences with.)
       When Omura appears at Jovert's doorstep he begins with his own daughter-story, relating some experiences with the child he raised, Fumiko -- long letting her believe he was her father when, in fact, she was the daughter of Ikeda -- who was in prison at the time.
       Omura's reminiscences make their way to the point where Fumiko learns the truth -- and Ikeda is released from prison. But it then spreads much further, Omura relating much more of their own childhood -- they were very close for several of their school-years -- as well the more dramatic turns in Ikeda's life. He left university after embarrassing his mentor -- a very supportive professor who, so it is long thought, might have been driven to suicide by the betrayal -- and though Ikeda eventually found great success as a writer also caused havoc in some personal lives. And there's also that murder he committed.
       Henshaw's telling is seductive, airs of mystery all around -- the suggestion that there's more to it all, yet full of misdirecting teases. One anecdote is about the disillusionment that comes with a massive jigsaw puzzle, and The Snow Kimono is like a game in answer to that, the possibilities of that final picture, when the pieces are all in place, shifting to the very end (unlike the jigsaw puzzle, with it's pre-set picture-ending).
       Identity is significant throughout the novel, and there are repeated instances of deception. The elaborate game Ikeda played in destroying his university mentor's career involved him both pretending to be someone he was not, and then unmasking himself. Later, he sometimes claims to be his friend Tadashi Omura to the women he seduces ("Tadashi Omura. He was surprised how natural it sounded") -- while Omura in turn admits:
I have often wondered, Omura told Jovert, what it must have been like to be him, to be inside his skin, just for a few hours, a day, to experience the world that inhabited him. How extraordinary it must have been.
       After many months spent listening to Omura, Jovert is also more reflective -- reminding himself: What had Professor Moura said ? We can only see our lives through the eyes of another.
       Which is something characters repeatedly do, in various ways, in the novel -- while not always being upfront about the stories they are telling, about themselves or others. So also it is Jovert, the old police inspector, who realizes at one point that a story Ikeda recounted to Omura, who then in turn tells it to Jovert, wasn't, in fact, second-hand as Ikeda claimed, but rather had to be first-hand: Ikeda himself the witness to a tragic death, who then removed himself from that particular episode.
       Parentage is also an issue throughout -- Omura pretending to be a father, a woman pretending to be a governess (rather than the mother she actually is), the orphaned Ikeda and his relationships with women -- and various mothers, fathers, and children dying (generally tragically and family-destroyingly, in one way or another).
       Very late, Jovert recalls Omura saying of their meeting, and the connection for those several months in Paris, that from the first he realized:
It was preordained. It was meant to be. The unfolding I had been waiting for, for so long, had at last begun.
       Indeed, from the start there seems a sense of inevitability in the novel: even as the actions and events that are described seem unconnected, Henshaw creates a strong sense of deeper connections. Among his interesting fictional tactics is of false clues -- beginning with the impossible to ignore echoes of Les Misérables' inspector Javert in the name of the protagonist, or the fact that the present-day parts of the novel feature the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, with Bastille Day repeatedly mentioned and then described at some length. All these, and much more, seem like signifiers -- and yet they often aren't, at least not in the obvious ways.
       Stretching back to Algeria in the late 1950s, and to post-war Japan, The Snow Kimono constantly shifts the ground underneath the reader -- and even what seems clearly established often proves to be more uncertain. (So also Jovert, right at the start of the novel, and Omura, in its conclusion, come literally crashing down to earth and find themselves lying in the road.)
       It all makes for an unusual read. Henshaw doesn't offer the easy satisfactions of much puzzle-literature, but the many turns and shifts make for a constantly engaging read. With many of its episodes beautifully and vividly rendered, much of The Snow Kimono is a also beautiful to read -- awfully so, too, in part, as several of the events are truly terrible.
       An interesting, engaging work -- perhaps ultimately overly-twisted, but fascinating nevertheless. - M.A.Orthofer

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