Inez Baranay, With the Tiger (Arcadia/Press On, 2010), 304 pages, $24.95
If the Somerset Maugham classic The Razor’s Edge prompted the modern craze for “spiritual India”, then Inez Baranay’s With the Tiger explores the Australian take on this obsession.
Baranay follows the structure of Maugham’s book exactly, naming her characters after his. The title of each section in her book is a line used by Maugham in that section, and some phrases in her text are copied from his. The significant difference is that whereas Maugham’s book begins in 1919 and is mainly set among Americans in Europe, Baranay’s book begins in 1979 and its main characters are Australian.
The narrator is Will Maugham, a gay playwright who fled the “repressive Deep North” of Queensland to make his career in the theatre “Down South”. When the book opens he has returned to Brisbane after a long absence for the production of one of his plays. Soon after his arrival, he is contacted by the inimitable Elliott Templeton, fellow gay and “professional man about town”. Baranay’s Templeton is as vividly drawn as the original on whom he is based:
He was in his late fifties then, an elegant man who dressed with much care and to great effect in expensive Italian clothes he had learnt a great deal about, bought in Melbourne, Milan and New York … Knowing people was Elliott’s forte, his metier, his vocation, his raison d’etre. Rich and famous people, that is … He connected people: he was someone for whom knowing people and doing deals was second nature. He never referred to people as clients, but for all these services there were recompense, commissions, percentages, spotter’s fees, little thank yous, tokens of appreciation, favour owed.
However, the story’s focus is not on Elliott Templeton but on Larry, whom the narrator meets at the home of Elliott’s sister. Larry is engaged to Elliott’s niece Isabel, and he is unusual in the young crowd in that he has travelled widely for a young man his age, has an introspective, thoughtful manner, and seems less ambitious, less materialistic than his contemporaries. He has just returned from a trip to India where the death of a friend has led him to question the values he was taught.
Larry postpones the marriage to travel and seek enlightenment, and while he is away, Isabel marries another young man from the same crowd, Gray Maturin, whose prospects as the son of a very wealthy father who owns a huge development company eclipse Larry’s promise of a life of poverty and self-denial.
Larry’s travels take him to personal growth workshops, a fashionable ashram, an Indian crafts museum, a Buddhist monastery and an Indian saint before he coincidentally meets the narrator in Madras. Will extracts Larry’s story from him in a long conversation that he sets down for the reader. The narrator is clearly fascinated by Larry and his journey:
Larry was captivating, I hope I haven’t overstated this fact. He spoke with the eloquence and equanimity of someone much older, yet in a natural, conversational way. He clearly had been blessed with several kinds of intelligence as well as that inexplicable quality of charisma … During my what now seems rather long and active life, I have been to most continents, met many people from many walks of life, and found myself in many strange situations … But I do not think I have ever felt that I was in a stranger situation that when I sat in a simple dining hall in an Indian city hour after hour while Larry talked of his search for something that mattered more than anything on earth and yet had no real name.
Baranay parallels Larry’s quest for meaning with the narrator’s search for a story. As Will writes in the first line of the book, “If I call it a novel it’s because I don’t know what else to call it.”
The narrator gives the impression that the story of Larry and his friends and associates is just one of the many the narrator could have fashioned from his “long and active life”. The story lies buried in the details of the narrator’s life and only becomes a “story” or a “novel” when the writer picks out the threads that can be woven into some sort of meaningful narrative.
Similarly, Baranay also fashions an incidental story about the narrator (we find out a lot about his artistic career, his contacts, his habits, likes and dislikes) while revealing how the narrator himself creates his own story.
This interesting, satisfying and revealing work of fiction is as much about the process of writing as the product of writing, or the story itself, with nothing of a postmodern taint to it at all.
A blessing in these self-referential times.
Irina Dunn, a former independent senator for New South Wales, is the author of The Writer’s Guide: A Companion to Writing for Pleasure or Publication.