This book was published in 2003, but its subject matter remains only too relevant in Australia today. It is a bitter indictment by Keneally of Australia’s policies towards asylum seekers.
The story begins with the narrator visiting a detention centre – one of the ‘double-walled gulags’ established to house refugees who arrive in Australia without having observed the proper migration protocols. Keneally doesn’t name the centre, but it is clearly Villawood in western Sydney. And he doesn’t try and hide his contempt for the way Australia deals with asylum seekers: ‘a tyranny of chance to match the tyranny of intent or danger they had run from, floated or flown away from’. Keneally’s narrator is there to visit an asylum seeker from an unnamed country which is obviously Iraq. This man is in limbo – ‘the government would neither give him asylum nor send him back to his country, for fear of what the regime would do to him.’ After several visits, the man tells the narrator how it was he came to seek asylum, and his story forms the body of the book.
The asylum seeker chooses to be known as Alan Sheriff. This is not really to protect friends back in Iraq; rather it is a device Keneally has adopted to remind the reader that asylum seekers are no less human than Australians or other westerners. As Alan says, how different might things be if the prefix to asylum seeker names was Mac rather than Ibn? The book was written at a time when the Australian government was actively seeking to dehumanise asylum seekers in the aftermath of the Tampa affair, when the government refused permission for the Norwegian freighter Tampa, carrying 438 rescued refugees from a distressed fishing vessel, to enter Australian waters.The device is maintained throughout the story Alan tells; everyone in it (except for the dictator, who is only ever called the ‘Great Uncle’) has an Anglo name. Alan, furthermore, is a writer who comes from the intellectual elite of his country. He and his friends have a social life very like any group of intellectuals anywhere: dinner round the pool, coffee and discussion of the World Cup. Of course life isn’t the same; they live in a brutal and arbitrary dictatorship. But they have the same hopes and fears as anyone else.
Alan’s story is set in the mid to late nineteen nineties – at the time of telling, he has spent three years in Australia in various detention camps. He had fought as a conscript in the war against the Iranians, called here ‘the Others’. He made his reputation as a writer of short stories about that war, though he chose to empathise bravery and endurance rather than the reality – including the use of poison gas – which he reveals to the narrator. He has also written a nearly completed novel about the effect of the sanctions imposed by the West after the first Iraq war. Unsurprisingly the sanctions had a detrimental effect on ordinary poor people – ie most of the population – and were routinely evaded to the enrichment of the dictator’s family and friends. ‘The book,’ Alan says, ‘was intended as a paean and an elegy for the valour of those who maintain the dignity of their hunger in the face of crazy international measures, aimed to undermine Great Uncle, but cutting like a buzz-saw through less elevated people whose chief politics were … endurance.’ The sanctions also play an important part in Alan’s own story. Keneally makes his view of them pretty clear.
Alan says the story of why he had to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere is the ‘saddest and silliest’ story imaginable. Sad it certainly is, but not silly. There are a number of factors that force the decision upon him. It is his position as one of the relatively privileged members of the society that initially puts him in danger from the intolerable demands of the Great Uncle. Others who displease the regime are more summarily dealt with, but that doesn’t make Alan’s position any easier or safer. The fact that there is a preposterous humour in his situation just shows how clever Keneally is being. But Keneally is too subtle a writer to show Alan fleeing purely because of direct actions of the tyrant; his own conscience ultimately decides his destiny. Alan sticks with his judgement of sad and silly, compared to the stories of other refugees, who, he says, ‘have been involved in genuine tragedy’. Readers might not agree with his assessment of his own situation.
Keneally’s novel, published in June 2003, was perhaps overshadowed by the invasion of Iraq by the ‘coalition of the willing’ – including of course Australia – in March 2003. It became official that Iraq was a rogue state. But identifying Saddam Hussein’s regime as a cruel dictatorship (no weapons of mass destruction having been found) didn’t improve the situation for Iraqi refugees in Australia, where their stand against the dictatorship counted for nothing. And though for a time, the processing of refugee claims and their resettlement were speeded up, Australia has now reverted to an even more draconian approach, with further attempts by the current government to dehumanise and even criminalise refugees. For all its passion, The Tyrant’s Novel seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears.