This approach frees the narrative from the mainstream pattern of beginning, middle and end. In some ways this is no different from the controlled narrative disclosures of such books as John Banville’s Eclipse or Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But there is in the case of Nowra’s book an unresolved narrative residue. This adds to the rich complexity of Abaza.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
Abaza: A Modern Encyclopedia
by Louis Nowra, Picador 2001,
$21 Aust,ISBN 0 330 36310 7, 435 pages
The reader must first accept the author’s narrative strategy of an encyclopedic format. This approach frees the narrative from the mainstream pattern of beginning, middle and end. In some ways this is no different from the controlled narrative disclosures of such books as John Banville’s Eclipse or Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But there is in the case of Nowra’s book an unresolved narrative residue. This adds to the rich complexity of Abaza. It introduces a region of incertitude that is much like that of reality itself.
Louis Nowra was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1950. He sustained a serious injury at the age of eleven and was obliged to relearn the basic skills of walking and talking. This may have been a factor in his extraordinarily abundant output as novelist and playwright. He now lives in Sydney.
Abaza is an imaginary country in the South Pacific. If the names and the reference to Nigeria in the end matter are any indication, the people of Abaza are African. The time scheme of Abaza is most of the twentieth century and possibly a good chunk of the present century. (King Kim ruled in the twentieth century but was overthrown by a military coup and Kim’s successor, Nadu, ruled as the Eternal President for seventy years. Sangana ousted him from power and General Dugi ousted Sangana. There are no dates or dateable events so the exact length of time from the fall of Kim to the rise of Dugi is problematical.) The size of the country is also left vague. It has regions and regional cultures but the only port is the southern city of Baha. The capital of Abaza is Pazo and the only other urban site is the unpopulated city of Lengi, begun as a monument to himself by Nadu but doomed to perish through the corruption of suppliers and the progressively insane grandiosity of Nadu’s ideas.
The transition from one leader to another is accompanied by violence. Nadu shots King Kim. Aba, dwarfish creator of leaders, causes the death of Nadu and replaces him with Sangana. The latter dies while fleeing from the Children’s Army under General Dugi. All of this information comes from the encyclopedia, mostly written by the victims of General Dugi while imprisoned by him. A sailor discovers the scraps of paper that make up the encyclopedia in a sleazy shop that sells pornography. He brings it to Australia where under the editorship of the exiled poet
Umaba it is prepared for publication. Aba by now is another exile and lives near Umaba in a homosexual resort community.
As an encyclopedia it is like no other but it gives the palace intrigues and the cold-blooded machinations of unscrupulous opportunists. The palace corruption spreads over the entire country. The Bank of Pazo is a money-laundering operation run by the Russian Mafia. The port city of Baha is the Industrial Revolution run mad and the polluted atmosphere poisons its inhabitants. Baha provides every form of thinkabled depravity. In Pazo itself commerce is in the hands of the Cadillac Girls and the hospitals in the decay and anarchy that grows upon Abaza like a
cancer become death traps for the sick.
Nowra, in short, looks right down into the pit unflinchingly and what he sees is the hopelessness and evil of the human condition. The enemies of the establishment fare badly at Nowra’s hands. Their acts are those of the desperate, acts of men that have been pushed into opposition and have nothing to lose. Their acts spring from vanity and they quarrel among themselves viciously.
It is not a happy book but Nowra is a great artist and he convinces the reader that, although not happy, his book is true. The finesse of the writer as well as his honesty produces a compelling novel. It is not for the faint-hearted but it not only ranks very high among any of the books with which it can justly be compared, it compares favorably with almost any novel with which I am acquainted.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: