The Australian

Date: Monday, March 26, 2016

Reviews: Grey’s Tortoise in Asia, Jopson’s Oliver in the Levant

by Peter Pierce

View the original article here

Two first-time novelists have brought their experience and fascination to works set far from home. Tony Grey’s The Tortoise in Asia takes place in the last century BC along the Silk Road, a trade route that ran for thousands of kilometres from Rome to Chang’an in China (the Han capital near modern Xian). East and west were linked across two continents. Grey, who has been a stage actor, mining entrepreneur and arts patron, has often returned to this history-steeped landscape. He was particularly drawn to one of the more curious legends of the road, which suggested that a cohort of Roman legionnaires, captured after the disastrous defeat by the Parthians at Carrhae in 53BC, became mercenaries, first for the Xiung Nu (or Huns) and then for the Han. Eventually they settled in Gansu province in western China. Improbably large traces of Caucasian DNA are still found in the local population, while every year at the town of Liqian there is a “much talked about Roman parade”. How this might have come about is the essence of Grey’s story.

Debra Jopson, who won a Walkley Award for independent journalism in 2014, “spent part of her childhood in Beirut and continued to visit her family there during the first rounds of the 1970s Lebanon civil war”. She has drawn on those memories for Oliver of the Levant.

That neither of these introductions to two new Australian novels is any longer likely to cause surprise is an indication of the unapologetic cosmopolitanism in their choice of subjects of a number of our authors. The Tortoise in Asia is from the small independent British publisher John Libbey,
Much Australian fiction has dealt with uprooting: of convicts and settlers from Britain and Ireland, and consequently that of Aboriginal people from their ancestral lands. Grey and Jopson deal acutely with deracination of a different kind.
The legionnaire Marcus and his companions in Grey’s novel endure an exile from which there can be no homecoming.
The Tortoise in Asia opens ominously as “a lone eagle stares at the ancient road of many-citied Syria”. Four Roman legions, “the long serpentine line of might”, are ready to cross the Euphrates to invade Parthia. They are led by Crassus, the richest and most avaricious man in Rome, for whom the Parthians have reserved a condign punishment. Conqueror of Spartacus’s slave revolt, he is no soldier. Grey cuts to the court of Orodes II, “divine ruler of Parthia”, who is surrounded by oracular Zoroastrian Magi. Orodes dispatches his best general, Surena, to deal with the Romans, in the hope that this potential usurper might not return.
Historical research has been done with care but no solemnity. Grey is also adept at battle descriptions. Carrhae was the worst Roman defeat since the time of Hannibal. An able general, Ventidius, will avenge it, as Grey no doubt recalls from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Cassius, who escapes the rout, will have one more big historical moment as the conspirator with the “lean and hungry look” in Julius Caesar.
Grey is attuned to the many resonances of the Silk Road. It crosses the River Oxus that flows to the Aral Sea, passes through “legendary Samarkand” and “the fearsome Red Desert, home of cobras”. The human cast of traders and travellers is rich. Marcus, with a gift for languages and an intellectual curiosity not quelled by captivity, befriends some of them and learns to converse. He becomes yet another adaptable stranger on the road. After some more gruelling battles (in which the legionnaires fight under “the tortoise”, their defensive shield formation), Grey gifts him with an unlikely Chinese bride, but this, after all, is how the legend has to begin.
Both Jopson and Grey bring a wry worldliness to very different material that could have been unpersuasive in less adroit hands. Each details varying scales of loss — of illusion on Oliver’s part (this is not the Middle East of his hero, Lawrence of Arabia) and of the sustaining culture of the Roman imperium for Marcus. These personal matters are set against the wholesale devastation of clans, communities, tribes and armies. Oliver of the Levant and The Tortoise in Asia are daring debuts, even as they make us wonder where their authors might venture next.
Peter Pierce edited the Cambridge History of Australian Literature.
The Tortoise in Asia
By Tony Grey
John Libbey Publishing, 280pp, $34.95
Oliver of the Levant
By Debra Jopson
Vintage, 368pp, $32.99