A review of Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

by Maria Tumarkin
Brow Books
ISBN: 9781925704051, Paperback, 256pp, May 2018, RRP $29.99 (aud)

To say that something is axiomatic is to indicate that it’s self-evident. In her book Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin uses five axioms as her scaffold–a jumping off point for research, meditation, analysis: ‘time heals all wounds’, ‘history repeats itself’, ‘those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it’, ‘you can’t enter the same river twice’, and ‘give me a child before the age of seven and I’ll give you the woman’. The book is not so much an exploration of these axioms, but more an exploration built around and through them, about what it means to be a human being, to suffer and share grief, the nature of language, of time, and well, the meaning of life. In other words, it’s a big, dense book that covers a tremendous amount of ground in such silky, enticing prose that it feels like the reader is right there, playing the role of confidante. There is something so delicate and careful about the way Tumarkin works through her subjects, all real people, opening out the unspeakable, trauma, pain, and loss so that it becomes a negotiation, leaving all of the contradiction and complexity intact. Her style is a unique hybrid form of nonfiction that encompasses essay, reporting, philosophy, interview, observation, literary analysis, archival research, poetry and elements of personal memoir. The result is honest in a way that doesn’t diminish or reduce the subject of her exploration to a thesis. Throughout the book the writing is consistently exquisite, often coming across as poetry:

Stars rain from the sky like shards of glass. Time makes room for timelessness. Creation is always a catastrophe, a shattering. Everything has already happened. The past does not move through the present like a pointed finger or a shadowy confessor in a long cloak. The past is not told you so. Not this is how it all began. It is a knock on the door in the middle of the night. You open the door and no one is there. (124)

In conjunction with the oracular beauty of Tumarkin’s writing, the work is often hesitant, allowing the linguistic struggle to remain in the text, including “bla, bla, bla” and “etc etc”. Tumarkin never flinches from the uncomfortable or tries to provide easy answers to questions raised. The work often moves towards the painful, working through the real-life stories of people she is drawn towards. The sections stand alone, and mostly have self-contained stories, though some characters return in subsequent sections. Tumarkin’s own story, and the dark shadow of Auschwitz, are narrative connectors between the sections, as are the thematic threads: time and the relationship between past and present, power, loss, inheritance, love, death, guilt, survival, and suffering. Taken together they create a cumulative effect.

The first section, “time heals all wounds”, explores the aftermath of youth suicide. The axiom, like all of the axioms in the book, is both terribly wrong and inherently right. Frances, whose sister Kate killed herself in high school, says that time is the only thing that helps: you grow “new parts”, even though the wounds don’t heal. Tumarkin cites Holocaust survivor and philosopher Jean Améry, who says that the only way to deal with trauma ethically is to ‘revolt against the disappearance of the past in the biological dimension of time’. In other words to resist the axiom, a natural impulse against loss. At the end of this section, Tumarkin’s daughter Billie sings the exquisite song “gloomy Sunday” by Billie Holiday and it feels like the only response that makes sense: “The world is big and most of it is not filled with pain and it has a Katie-shaped hole in it.” (43)

The second axiom is left unwritten: “those who forget the past are condemned to re—-“ Though it’s an obvious fill-in, we’ve forgotten already, and we continue to forget:

The first thing forgotten is the war fought in this country, which has not had a war fought on its soil: a hundred and forty years; worth of ubiquitous and continuous frontier conflict glimmering for so long in the space between remembering and forgetting, recalled in stops and stars now, still not recognised publicly as war. (70)

Culpability is hidden in this forgetfulness. Australia’s genocide is part of the fabric of a society that pretends that the past can be left behind and forgotten. In this section, a grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz,  spends two months in jail for attempting to hide her grandson from her daughter-in-law’s abusive partner after her son dies in a motorcycle accident that may not have been accidental.  “history repeats itself” introduces Vanda, the tough community lawyer whose down-and-out clients are caught in the net of an institutional system that is failing them. Tumarkin trails Vanda, sitting in court taking notes, while a parade of people at the point of crisis come before the magistrate. They are people from what Vanda calls the tar pit. This too, is time:

Time is not a river pushing people forward as they lunge at floating branches—inelegantly, so what?—but an oily ,seeping substance. Black and sticky. (81)

Each of the sections provides a case study for the axiom, such as “give me a child before the age of seven and I will show you the woman”, which introduces Nahji Chu or misschu, the Vietnamese-Laotian refugee who opened the famous chain of take-away noodle box stores. As with the other sections, Tumarkin augments her observations on Chu with scholarly quotations, historical context, and the ghosts of people, places, spaces that populate Chu’s history.  The second part of “give me the child…” focuses on Vera Wasowski, a woman whose exuberant life was her antidote to the horror she witnessed during her childhood in Poland’s Jewish ghetto: “hiding in convents, boarding schools, orphanages, on farms, in attics, with Christian families. In holes, caves, forests, between false walls. In cupboards.” (151) Vera’s own memoir is released while Tumarkin was working on Axiomatic, both informing and contradicting the account that Tumarkin continued to struggle with.

The final section, “you can’t enter the same river twice” is written as an epistolary dialogue in columns of text between Tumarkin and her best friend who was left in the Ukraine when Tumarkin migrated to Australia at the age of sixteen. The dialogue begins with the pain of separation and ends as a series of negations, as the relationship fails to reignite years later. You can’t go back because there is no back to go to. The river is in motion and the axiom is correct. But it’s also incorrect. The past is not, as Faulkner put it, even past. We continue to contain it; to carry it: “We are the broken vessels containing, spilling all over the place, those who came before us.” (125)  Tumarkin resists summing up, and instead takes a quantum path, where possibilities for simultaneous truths remain open:

What happens to nature v. nurture when the person, one’s intimate, is potentially unknowable? Or maybe the point is we know quite a lot but this knowledge cannot be settled into a pattern, smoothed out. It must remain tense with contradictions and limit cases, must sit uncomfortably within us like a provisional government at a rushed dawn assembly (145)

Axiomatic is a gorgeous, difficult and extraordinary book that demands deep engagement from the reader. Tumarkin’s humility, dark humour, scholarship, and above all, the empathy with which she connects her own experience to that of her subjects and ultimately to that of the reader creates a tapestry that is moving, powerful, and important. This is a book that seeps under the skin, changing perception.  It’s vital reading.