Maria Tumarkin is, among other things, fascinated by trauma. We share this affinity, her and I. In all its bruises and ugliness. The word alone is one to deter many, it isn’t an easy subject matter to read about. Teen suicide, sexual assault, drug addiction, the Holocaust- they’re not exactly the ingredients for a light afternoon escape with a cup of chamomile. But they are the ones that imbue the deep enquiry saturating her fourth book Axiomatic.
Tumarkin is a lauded essayist, cultural historian, university lecturer and one of Australia’s most unique voices in experimental non-fiction. Published in May 2018 by independent publishing house Brow Books in Melbourne; Axiomatic navigates the wounds of grief in victims, survivors, perpetrators and institutions alike, and how their scars fracture in the many lustre of a day.
Like a mood. Transient. It challenges commonly known axioms with authentic, vulnerable and stark accounts of trauma experienced by people from a vast background of communities. Despite each case standing alone in its story, there is an underlying theme of time that filters across each of the five essays. How time and history infiltrates the present, how it shapes it, and how it ultimately defines it.
Axiomatic has impressed the Australian literary scene in its first year of life. Not only did it win the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award; it’s been long listed for the Australian 2019 Book Awards, and shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize. Helen Garner praises the collection on the back of the book, which for any writer in this country, is an honour in itself. Garner says “Nobody can write like Maria Tumarkin”, which is rather amusing when the image Tumarkin paints of court rooms, their silence, their sterility strongly reflects Garner-esque subtlety, a-la This House of Grief. There is a strong tether between the women, both shed light on small moments in beautiful agony. It is dazzling. Blinding, almost.
Then again, Tumarkin isn’t an amateur, her prowess in finding sources, extracting the truth, probing the harsh reality, retaining emotional resonance, and filtering her own perception while staying objective is exquisitely executed in Axiomatic. It is a book of great intelligence just as much as it is an education in trauma. She has a keen ability of perception in the way she views the lives around her, and how they interact and flesh out the 200 odd pages. It is, in its entirety, a transformative read. While bending form and perspective, time and space, Tumarkin both gingerly and decisively guides the reader through the treacherous landscape that is the human psyche under fire.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating discrepancies in the novel, for me, is the emblematic title foreshadowing the individual accounts of trauma and how they partner colloquial phrases. Phrases that are intended to be self evident, albeit flawed. For instance the opening chapter Time Heals All Wounds is a saying often heard and accepted to hold truth. A weight of comfort.
A reassurance that surely, yes, it will get better. On the other side, anyone who has been the recipient of a wound that burns deep below the surface, one which festers into a poison that enters the bloodstream, knows truly, how this lesion never really fades.
Tumarkin begins her book ready to denounce the phrase with her study of Frances. The reader is introduced to the very raw pain of discovering a sibling who has died by suicide. A teenager. A child who has decided this life really isn’t for them. The subject matter alone is one of great difficulty to approach, Tumarkin does so with delicacy.
She illustrates grief as a most perplexing emotion, how as it transforms our entire psyche, it evolves over time to almost manifest into a living, breathing organism with which we become accustomed to. It is repulsive and sickening and all consuming pain. It is never ending. It simply changes shape and smell, it shifts into a shadow that follows you about your day.
“I meet Frances as the shifting is beginning. Katie’s death doesn’t sit anymore on her chest at all times, making her work for every breath, its knees pressed into her ribs” (Tumarkin, page 4).
No, time does not heal all wounds, it may act as a bandage, it may mask the abrasion, but it does not wholly heal. War journalist Megan Stack recounts in her book Every Man in this Village is a Liar, the smell of rotting flesh in bombed out hospitals. How the stench entered her nostrils, how it made her gag. She says a doctor told her once, that as soon as the smell makes your throat flex, it is inside of you. There’s no getting rid of it. This is the kind of trauma Tumarkin writes of.
It floods your body and you simply get used to its existence.
This introduction to the book almost guides the reader into a false trajectory of where the subsequent studies would go. While opening strong and full of fire, Tumarkin doesn’t quite demolish the irony of these common axioms addressed after the initial chapter. At least not with the same potency. For example, History Repeats Itself, the third chapter, follows criminals circulating the courts, people who fall into the ugly tar pit of time known as the ‘entrenched disadvantage’ (Tumarkin, page 81). There seems to be little to no evidence that the axiom is challenged here. A real sense of hopelessness permeates the chapter, her voice is constantly thwart and much of this comes across in dark humour. We are introduced to a criminal lawyer Vanda, who to quote Tumarkin defends the ‘people who don’t get to do much choosing in their lives’.
A statement which points to Tumarkin and Vanda’s overarching grievance of the lack of support services in Australia for people in crisis.
The judicial system is critiqued again in Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Re—.
A Holocaust survivor is imprisoned after being found guilty of hiding her grandson in her basement and lying about his whereabouts to the police.
Her history, the experience of being held captive in a death camp is ultimately used against her in trial. The truth of her intention is one overlooked, because supposedly, her childhood trauma burned her sense of reason. According to the court anyway. If anything, this axiom is supported in a way that implies society is at fault for assuming a person’s past is and always will affect their present. That the two cannot be mutually exclusive.
In Give me a Child Before the Age of Seven and I Will Show you the Woman, there poses a question of femininity, of innocence and of resilience in the face of forced migration. In fact, every one of the essays scrutinises what it means to be a female in the face of adversity. In the final chapter, You Can’t Enter the Same River Twice, both prose, form and compass are entirely skewed.
It takes several readings to comprehend exactly what is being said. In the end, you almost feel as if you too have been churned up by the rapids of this fast flowing body of water.
While the intimacy remains potent, it leaves a voyeuristic taste on the tongue.
By and by there is an interrogation of both institution and society, how they perceive those who are broken, or breaking. The only other book I’ve read that comes close to Axiomatic, in measures of raw, precise, hard and soft journalism is Where It Hurts, by Canadian writer Sarah De Leeuw. There is a subtle ache both authors share, and yet they do not shy away from punching you in the chest with their words, leaving you gasping, wondering why.
Perhaps the fierce unknowing of where each essay will take you, is precisely why Tumarkin is so very good at what she does. No matter how destabilising it can be as a reader. There is an honesty in her approach to writing Axiomatic, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t meant to be. It took seven years of her life, and in this as a reader that sense of time is never hovering too far away. It presses down on your shoulders, on your head, just when you thought you were able to get up and stretch your legs, remember the sun is still shining outside. You instead find yourself turning the page of an endless story. Endless as time is, and emotions are, and people’s lives can be, when they are heard, and journaled and immortalised into print by someone who knows how necessary it is to listen. Listen to the ones who know what it is to grieve. For as De Leeuw so finely puts it, “may you never know this truth” (De Leeuw, page 79), and yet, may we never forget the truth of the trauma constantly pulsing at the edge of all our lives.