A friend of my mine gave me a book last week. With uncharacteristic enthusiasm she said that the story was all a metaphor for the search for socialism and justice as she pressed it into my hands. I thought it odd that my friend, who has previously refused cheesecake on the basis it was too bourgeois, was so giddily in love with a novel that I could not refuse the proffered text, even though I am deep in a minor works of Bolano phase and have more than enough to read. Anyway, returning home on Friday night I found myself reading Julia Leigh’s The Hunter and, though expecting something rather less interesting, I was completely entranced and since it is quite a little book I did that thing of reading it through at a single sitting.
Basically a man posing as a naturalist is looking for Tasmanian Tigers on behalf of an unidentified biotech company and during his stay in the Tasmanian hinterland lodges with a dysfunctional family led by a tyrannical and not quite competent preteen girl who cares for her grief, and diazepam, addled mother and a younger brother. The hunter, Martin David, patrols a high plateau searching for the Thylacine while the family below crumbles. Later the family is broken and the hunter shoots, kills, and destroys the last thylacine. Mostly it is about the hunter, the harmfulness of his connection to the landscape, and his disconnection to the people he might have managed to love.
Reading a few reviews it’s clear that The Hunter has copped some criticism for theft of Tasmania, or Tasmanian-ness , and there may be something in that. Julia Leigh isn’t Tasmanian, if it matters, and the Tasmanians she constructs are all a bit on the edge, a bit quirkily peripheral. The criticism has mostly come from Tasmanians, Martin Flanagan most notably, and this chauvinism isn’t very remarkable. Go to any slightly out of way town in rural Australia, say two turn offs from the Highway, and you’ll find a protective layer of distinctiveness designed to ward off city folk being including themselves in an “us” or a “we” that also includes those far off distant cousins in the bush. It is a shrugging defensiveness meant to exclude the possibility of being spoken for, and there’s a lot of that about.
I didn’t think for a second it was all a metaphor, let alone about socialism or justice though I could see that it would be pretty straightforward to see the Thylacine as a placeholder for things we can’t find anymore. The hunter might have been looking for my car keys, which I lost near Cradle Mountain in the summer of 2005/2006, or the fountain of youth, or the yowie or the soul of the Australian Labor Party. Socialism? Justice? Nah, the Thylacine is a shape to encapsulate our failure and the hunter himself represents our focused dedication to pursue a goal even when that goal is a kind of doom.
What I really got into was that in no way did the novel suggest that that doom could be undone. The Thylacine is capital. The hunter is a tool. His hosts are fucked up and eventually institutionalised. The community in which they live is crude and cruel. The biotech company is distant and inhuman. Agents of the state are shallow and lazy. The bush is a shrivelled remnant from the glory days. There is no redemption here, nothing can be overturned and made right. The dog is dead. There is a terse poetics to this lack of uplift, a powerful lack of an Ishmael to the hunter’s Ahab, and it invests The Hunter with a dry, unimpressed authority.
I can see why my friend was swooning, why The Hunter gave her hope, it’s because even when we’ve fucked it up we keep going. There’s something in that.