The past shapes the present – they teach us that in schools and universities. (Shapes? Infiltrates, more like; imbues, infuses.) This past cannot be visited like an ageing aunt. It doesn’t live in little zoo enclosures. Half the time, this past is nothing less than the present’s beating heart. How to speak of its aliveness? Stories are not enough, history and psychology – not enough. Maybe this is how.
The past has always been a theme ripe for exploration in fiction and nonfiction. While many explorations of the past are contained within one temporal space, in Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin imagines the past as an omnipresent force. Tumarkin writes with a unique complexity and depth, simultaneously breathing new life into the creative nonfiction genre and shifting its boundaries.
No matter where Tumarkin’s writing leads, she always returns to the manner in which the past reverberates across human lives not as a musty breeze but, rather, as a rushing gale. ‘Everything has already happened,’ she writes. ‘The past does not move through the present like a pointed finger or a shadowy confessor in a long cloak. The past is not I 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.’
In this remarkable new book, Tumarkin uses five well-worn axioms as framing devices for a collection of essays, interrogating the veracity of these axioms as supposedly self-evident truths. Each piece of the collage lends a unique perspective, an enthralling reading experience. Taken together, these axioms form a powerful treatise on the relationship between the past and present, the nature of trauma and suffering, as well as the role of institutions, the individuals within them and those who live beneath them.
In Axiomatic, Tumarkin pushes the boundaries of the nonfiction form, moulding them to make way for these stories, rather than bending or reining in the stories to suit the genre. This is not a history book. This is not a psychological exploration. Rather, through a carefully curated weaving of interview, history, psychology, reportage, and inner reflection, Tumarkin pulls apart these limiting axioms and exposes their failings, their scraps of truth by pairing them with real human stories.
Throughout Axiomatic, Tumarkin demonstrates her impressive skill for zooming in on people’s lived experiences – from schools, courtrooms, prisons, from the Holocaust, the Soviet era, the streets of modern-day Melbourne and from personal spaces, she captures broad human truths and observations. As writer and caretaker of others’ stories, Tumarkin carries out her role with remarkable grace, compassion and clarity.
Many of the stories we encounter within the loose confines of the axioms are tales of extraordinary and all-too-ordinary casual institutional injustices and oversights. In Axiomatic, institutions are capable of coldness and impersonality, unfazed by the traumas of the individual. However, though Tumarkin writes with a sharp stick pointed at the failings of many institutions, she always returns to the pockets of light and humanity in these rigid structures, to the people that are deserving of deep respect and admiration for their work.
In ‘time heals all wounds’, Tumarkin speaks to teachers who have been at the forefront of the utter devastation felt in the aftermath of teenage suicides. ‘Can any institution respond to such a demand?’ Tumarkin asks. No, it cannot. Tumarkin’s praise is with the individual teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty to comfort and keep students above water.
In ‘history repeats itself’, we meet Vanda, the dedicated, compassionate community lawyer who tirelessly goes into battle for her clients who ‘live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks’. At the Axiomatic book launch, Vanda spoke with an elegance and passion that had me glued to the spot. She spoke of the great injustice society commits against people with a criminal record: we don’t let them move on, their punishment continues well past their formal repentance. In Axiomatic, Vanda says to Tumarkin, ‘Nobody should be punished beyond what court determines. But society punishes people.’
Society, too, avoids its own punishment, choosing who to punish and what to ignore or forget. Indeed, Tumarkin’s preoccupation with the past infiltrating and imbuing the present is a reminder of Australia’s extremely fraught relationship with the darker chapters of its past, with injustices that linger and that do not simply fade away, no matter how hard our society tries to forget.
Axiomatic has been a long time coming. Towards the end of the book, Tumarkin reveals that she had been writing Axiomatic, in its early stages, since 2011. Time, and the struggle with time, has infused the very book, too. As a reader, the level of deep care and thought that has gone into creating Axiomatic is immediately apparent. This book has not been rushed. This book takes its subjects and its subject matter seriously. Each line is purposeful, full of meaning. Humanity, in all of its flawed and utterly flooring manifestations is portrayed with clarity of voice and an entrancing stripped-back honesty. Tumarkin’s writing is fresh and her capacity for insight into human behaviour is extraordinary. While I devoured this book, I was struck by the endless stream of sentences infused with insight, which – though it may seem cliché – inevitably made me pause and look up from the page. I needed to let Tumarkin’s words circle in my head for a while. Each thoughtful aside could easily fill out another chapter, another book.
One particular passage made me pause. Tumarkin writes about how it hurts to watch film sequences in which a person’s life is ‘condensed into a few emblematic scenes’. Why does it hurt? Because the soothing balm of time is taken away.
‘Time is what makes everything OK. How it flows forward and circles round itself, both; how life, suspended, zero gravity, in time consists of so many things repeating. … In the benign repetition of daily acts an invisible net is cast, holding people up, protecting them. … So yes those movie sequences hurt. Time as a straight line is a monstrosity.’
We cannot escape the constant intrusion of the past, or the onward march of time. But there is hope, Tumarkin knows. There is hope in the present, and in being present.
Publisher: Brow Books
Extent: 256 pp