Anti-Canon Series: The Hunter, Julia Leigh - by Gary Budden

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

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hunter3

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOLIERS

“…the trappers themselves were near extinct, one or two perhaps whiling away their nursing home days in a fog of pleasant fantasies so that – aside from one slim volume, a transcription of trapper tales, both tall and true – with the old brutish men will pass the best first-hand knowledge of their prey: first one, then the other. There is a symmetry to this that pleases M, a peculiar aesthetic, and that he is part of it, and knows it, only makes the pleasure more exquisite.”

- The Hunter, p.38

Committing a cardinal literary sin, I came to Julia Leigh’s debut 1999 novel, The Hunter, via the cinema. Even worse, in fact, a DVD.

The 2011 adaptation of the novel, starring Willem Dafoe, was an unusual beast and struck me as something far removed from mainstream modes of cinema storytelling (though not without its precursors), with its Tasmanian setting, unique and unusual characterization and the fact that the plot involved hunting down a possibly-extinct species for the benefit of a shady biotech corporation. It may have a title that suggests a Jason Statham thriller, but The Hunter was most definitely art. Reading a few reviews I duly discovered the film was based on a lauded Australian novel from the end of the last century, by a woman named Julia Leigh; a writer I had never come across (then again my knowledge of antipodean literature doesn’t stretch much beyond Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, and he was English).

Some trappers said they died of shock, but other sensitive souls preferred the ancient and redeeming thought that the tiger chose its time to die, the trapper being a mere conduit.

- The Hunter p. 81

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hunter1

Coming in under two hundred pages, Leigh’s debut blew me away with its tight and controlled prose, somehow simultaneously evoking the blood-soaked machismo of Cormac McCarthy and the dense prose poetry of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (itself a book about a man’s obsessive hunt for a creature so vivid in the mind’s eye it becomes mythical.) I have never visited Tasmania and so cannot vouch for the authenticity of the novel, but the way the wild environment there was evoked immediately recalled these American and British chroniclers of landscape. Reading around, it became apparent the novel had been criticized in certain quarters, some even going as far to suggest that Leigh had never even visited a Tasmanian forest. This seems doubtful; but then again do we visit a novel purely for a passive account of a landscape? Surely that is the role of a guidebook, the travelogue (and even they are biased).

To me it felt new, exciting and accurate, describing a place unfamiliar, with its own set of specific rules, flora, fauna and ghosts. The language abounds with the specificity of its surrounds; eucalypts, pademelons, wombats, devils, coral fern and currawongs. Not used for their exoticism, to enthrall the British or American reader, but because these words are that world, the world rendered in language.

So, the novel’s plot. A male character, known only as M, is sent to a rugged and wild part of Tasmania at the behest of a shady biotech company who are never named. His mission, to track and kill the final remaining Tasmanian tiger (thylacine, Tasmanian wolf) in order to capture its DNA for the use of the company. Why? We are never told exactly. Make your own mind up there.

…And who is his tiger but an emissary, sent by the council of elders to report back on the sorry state of the world above… - The Hunter, p.118

As a child I was obsessed with books of nature, poring over illustrations of all manner of strange animals from around the world. Finding The Hunter, on a very primal level, rekindled that ‘wow factor’ I would experience at the discovery that such creatures existed; and in the case of the thylacine a being that still may exist (it was reported extinct in 1936 but there are still regular sightings of the animal). Leigh uses the motif of the Tasmanian tiger, a weird, striped, wolf-like creature, marsupial and with a gaping toothed yawn that allegedly could do some serious damage to sheep, expertly. Its mythic resonance is as important, if not more so, than whether the creature M hunts is really real. It’s a guilt-phantom from a past we wish didn’t exist, a hope for the future, a metaphor for imagination itself, a creature that always dwelled somewhere in the borderland between reality and dream (just look at the thing – to the western eye, used to our dogs, wolves, foxes it looks immediately familiar and at the same time not quite right). We hope that these species survive in the face of humanity’s onslaught even as we realize, deep down, that that is near-impossible.

This is not a sentimental novel. M, under the pretence of being sent from a university to study the behavior of Tasmanian devils up on a remote inaccessible plateau, is given pre-arranged accommodation with a family living in the area. When he arrives, things are immediately, distressingly, wrong. The two young children have reverted to a near feral-state, the young girl have assumed an infantile mother role, the young boy a near mute. Their mother lies in a self-induced anti-depressant coma, mourning the disappearance of her husband up on the plateau. He had been searching for the thylacine, too; his reasons were environmental, ecological, rather than commercial. Even before the inevitable is confirmed, we know he is dead. The figure of the disappeared husband, representing the well-meaning world of environmentalists (or ‘greenies’ as the locals call them), is offered as a clear parallel and contrast to M. Neither one of them wishes to leave the thylacine in peace.

Traditional narratives would allow this set-up to follow a well worn and comforting path; the surly, taciturn and coldly mechanical M will have his heart softened by the children; he will become a surrogate father figure; there will be romance, sex even, between him and the woman; he will find the thylacine, and elect not to kill it, will abandon his mission in favour (contradictorily) of both Nature and his own humanity. M’s quest itself, with its mythic resonances and the eternal appeal of a transformative trip into the wild, (where we believe, possibly falsely, that epiphanies and life-altering realisations will occur) is also dangled in front of the reader hungry for the established narrative of Natural healing and rebirth. As if, somehow, by entering the wild a person can regain their humanity; a contradiction in thought if ever there were one, but an idea that has lasting appeal.

‘What animal are you?’ He indulges the boy. ‘Human,’ says Bike sullenly. Oh. - The Hunter, p.21

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hunter4

Go into The Hunter expecting this established narrative and you’ll be left not just disappointed but probably quite depressed as well. Here it becomes interesting to compare the novel with its screen adaptation; the film makes a few concessions to this traditional sentimentality whereas Leigh’s novel tantalizingly hangs the prospect of redemption, of growth, in front of the reader before pulling all such easy reassurances away. The novel has been criticized for the lack of development of the character of M; I find it to be one of the novel’s great assets, and an especially bold move for a debut novel. Obvious parallels are drawn between M and the thylacine, both twilight creatures far removed from the world and so rare as to be mythic. This is where the novel, in theme, most closely resembles Moby Dick (of course) and the aforementioned The Peregrine. M, like the thylacine itself, is ultimately unknowable.

Human tragedy strikes and M is left, finally, alone, up on the plateau for weeks, reverting to a more feral-state, the bitter irony of his slow metamorphosis into the very creature he tracks, and will kill, made very apparent. The destroyer is closer to the thing he will annihilate, understands it more and is more akin to it than the well-meaning reader, the ‘greenies’, will ever be.

There are no comforts here, only difficult questions about what ‘wild’ really means, about the true relationship between us and the species we exterminate, and questioning whether any form of redemption, be it personal or humanity as a whole, is possible. Redemption, in the end, is merely a human concept that we project onto the world. Nature, as ever, is terrifyingly indifferent. The Hunter won’t give you any answers, and it refuses to take a moral stand, but the questions it raises linger for a long-time afterwards.

On a formal note, if all these grand and intricate themes were cast aside, the prose itself is a wonder and a joy to read, tight and spare yet poetic and wonderfully evocative. The fact that this was a debut novel from a young writer makes it all the more remarkable.; this should be read by any writer who needs a lesson in economy and how less can definitely be more. The lack of traditional character development and narrative arc I consider to be one of the great assets of this book, rather than a hindrance.

Not for those, then, looking for cosy reassurances and not even for those of us wanting a simple Nature = good, man = bad message; the novel, like the world we find ourselves in, is far more complicated and troubling than that. A must read, and a triumph of what the novel as an artform can achieve.