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Podcast script 29: Kelleher's Taronga and the Post-Apocalyptic narrative

 

mySF Project podcast, number 29

 

Download at http://media.libsyn.com/media/pataphysics/mysf_029_2010_01_11.mp3

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Index:

Introduction
Links to support classroom materials for Year 8s: the focus class
An admission of guilt
Taronga and the 'imagination of disaster'
The protagonist can Call
Ben's enemies change
Contact with a searing flame
Taronga as inclusion
Forgiveness and a new start
Overall use
Resource List

 

Introduction

Podcast 29 is a different shape from the earlier mySF Project podcasts. While it looks at a short novel for young adults, it also bolts on notes and quotes plus some classroom exercises for an educational project run at the end of 2009.

The novel at the centre of the podcast is Victor Kelleher's Taronga, published by Puffin in Australia, in 1986. This novel can be slotted easily into the sub-genre of Post-Apocalyptic fiction within Science Fiction. In the mySF Project this sub-genre is covered in the Visions of the Future theme area.

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Links to support materials

There is a link to the associated classroom activities for Taronga found in the mySF Blog entry for this podcast, or as a separate icon from the main menu level of the mySF Project, or by clicking here and jumping to that section. The classroom notes, images, video segments and tasks do not all relate directly to Taronga (1986) itself but instead look to the Post-Apocalyptic sub-genre, culminating in a series of classes using short stories and video fragments, then one focus class, because that was required for a school and system-based project. These materials were constructed by this writer, MichaelS, and the wonderful Anne. Our musings on the project are also included with the bolted-on materials.

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An admission of guilt

Before starting, I must immediately make an admission that will not, hopefully, lead to a prosecution. When Australians hear the name 'Taronga' they think of the famous Taronga Zoo Park situated spectacularly on the northern foreshores of Sydney Harbour. Taronga  Zoo Park is the setting for much of the Victor Kelleher novel and within Taronga both in the novel and in my experience, the old, weathered tiger cages provide the principal stage.

Many aeons ago, before recent upgrades to Taronga Zoo, I used visit a very pretty young woman in the northern Sydney suburbs. Often, filled with jumbled adolescent feelings and sometimes even Mercury dry cider, I would park down the side road of Taronga Zoo and then climb up a short gun tree and over the Zoo fence, leaping down beside the tiger cages. This was of great interest to the young, male tiger closest to the fence and after several visits I was even foolhardy enough to climb over a waist-high metal fence before the three metre barred fence of the tiger cage. One night I touched that young tiger's fur as it paced to and fro. All that foolishness ended when the pretty young woman dumped me and they rebuilt the older enclosures, in that order.

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Taronga and the 'Imagination of disaster'

When Taronga the novel was allocated for my Year 8 class in 2009 I was amazed to see that those same locations of the low tree, the fence and the tiger cages were used by Victor Kelleher.  I suspect with the clarity of hindsight (and an indication of Kelleher's age in his bio) that Victor was making late night visits using the same tree, when he was spurned by his young love. That beautiful, excited tiger was certainly the stuff of Apocalyptic vision.

Kelleher's Taronga (1986) falls into Post-Apocalyptic fiction as it reflects Sontag's "imagination of disaster" (Sontag, 1966). Here the disaster seems to have followed a past, dreadful international combat that has also devastated Australia socially and culturally. The disaster that has destroyed Australia was not a nuclear exchange, viral warfare or a pandemic but instead is an ill-defined series of conventional combats that destroyed much of the infrastructure, all the government of Australia and depopulated the landscape leaving overgrown ruins. The novel is "not a serious attempt to envision what life and society might be like in the aftermath" (Booker and Thomas, 2009, p55) but like many other novels in this sub-genre is clearly meant as a commentary on society, in this case seen in a series of analogies: the heart of the protagonist, in the changing nature of the tiger, Raja, and also within and around the microcosm of Taronga Zoo battling desperate gangs outside its walls.

More has been said about Last Man narratives and the Post-Apocalyptic novel in an earlier podcast on the recent remake of I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007), based to a small degree on Matheson's fine novel of that name. Kelleher's Taronga (1986) seems aware of this tradition and also nods to Shelley's The Last Man (1826) and many other texts in this sub-genre, mainly through tropes such as the devoted dog, the overgrown city, and the predator big cat stalking through the streets of the Metropolis.  From later classics in the Post-Apocalyptic tradition Kelleher has included a sort of mutant telepathic ability for the protagonist as well as weapon-toting gangs.

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The protagonist can Call

Kelleher's Taronga (1986) follows a fourteen year old boy, Ben,  who has the ability to Call to animals. Calling is a telepathic ability so that, for instance, kangaroos will stay still so that Ben's master, Greg, can shoot the roo for food.

When Ben leaves Greg he is forced to Call again, this time to turn a horse and rider from catching him. The horse obeys and falls, breaking its leg. Ben takes the rider's rifle while he is trapped under the distraught horse. He Calls again to calm the horse and its "large honey-coloured eyes looked at him again, without trace of fear” (Kelleher, 1986, p18). Ben shoots the horse then smashes the rifle and the readers know he does not share the barbarity of most characters. It is the death of the horse with its trusting eyes that disturbs Ben most and this image is used in a modified form when Ben meets the hatred in Raja the tiger's eyes, in Taronga Zoo.

Just as Ben is a Caller of animals, creating with a telepathic command a lure or bait to keep the animal still, he is Called in turn by a faint cry, from the East. "He listened hard and it came again: the wordless response of a mind so defiant, so savagely distrustful and unforgiving, that he felt momentarily awed. And also strangely compelled, drawn by its mingled suggestion of danger and promise” (Kelleher, 1986, p20). Ben is being lured to the East.

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Lures and snares

Ben is alone because of an earlier lure. Ben's family were themselves lured into stopping their family car during Last Days, by a young man by the road, but behind the young man was a gang who killed Ben's family.  Kelleher's Taronga (1986)  has lures and snares in every direction, to ensnare animals, to trap and kill humans and finally, to trap the competing gangs within Taronga Zoo while the animals are set free in the bushland of Sydney Harbour.

Ben follows the lure of the wild cry he hears most nights. The reader finds his travels marked by some standard Post-Apocalyptic landscapes. The highway has broken apart, “with weeds and grass flourishing in the widening cracks” (Kelleher, 1986, p15), houses have been looted and burnt, cars are abandoned on the shoulder of the road.

Just as in other texts, Ben finds companionship and help from a dog, his only ally as he moves through a landscape familiar from Mad Max (Miller, 1979) to The Road (McCarthy, 2006), with rusted cars clogging bridges, broken signs, bullet holes in suburban landscapes, and, closer to the city of  Sydney, houses with doors and windows smashed, the broken remains of furniture strewn across concrete driveways, “with wrecked cars everywhere, like great metal beats wallowing in the head-high scrub that flourished along the roadside” (Kelleher, 1986, p33). Thankfully, unlike some more hard-nosed Post-Apocalyptic fictions, there are few rotting corpses and indeed the actual occupants of the houses have mostly vanished. The survivors are, for the most part, disorganised and desperate, scavenging amidst the ruins.

Ben's enemies change

Ben's enemies change suddenly from starving wraiths when Ben is forced to sacrifice his dog at the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when an organised gang run by Chas ends up capturing Ben. Chas and his gang control the streets around Taronga Zoo and it is their ambition to break into and conquer Taronga, where a gang of equally heinous villains follow the rule of Molly.

This might seem familiar. Students of Post-Apocalyptic fictions know very well the gang mentality in full and savage cry after the world-wide disaster. Sometimes the rival gangs battle for territory, as in several Kevin Costner films, and sometimes they threaten one, small and organised settlement where law has  been established. There are clear parallels here for students of American literature, where elements of the Western Range Wars have been brought forward to a desolate future. As with the Westerns, it is often the lone gunman, the law-giver male (from Icelandic to Post-Apocalyptic narratives) or the especially gifted Saviour who stands outside all gangs/tribes and moieties who resolves the conflict. In this case, Ben is the gifted Saviour; he can talk to the animals.

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Contact with a searing flame

Chas' gang outside the Zoo do not know Ben can communicate with animals. Ben is used as a lure or bait for the great and sublime tiger Raja, who is freed at night to kill any trespassers into Taronga. Chas and his minions push Ben over but because Ben can Call, he survives. Molly tests him out by telling him to lock the tigers away the next dawn and he uses his telepathic ability to achieve this, even though he knows he has met his match in Raja. Making mental contact with Raja was, “as if he were making contact with a searing flame” (Kelleher, 1986, p76). Ben knows that in this battle of wills, Raja must end up the winner and he will be tiger dinner. Right from the start, he seems to almost want this death.

In Taronga Zoo Ben meets up with Ellie, an Aboriginal girl of about Ben's age, and of course a future romance is destined, but this is always underplayed for the Young Adult audience and really, it is Ben's affair of love ...and death ... with Raja that becomes much more important.

As unlikely as it seems, Ellie was herself put in to Taronga as bait for Raja. There are three more examples of tiger bait thrust through the fence apart from Ellie and Ben (two of whom are eaten) and Kelleher seems to be over- playing this lure/bait idea. However, it is quite effective and works well as a dramatic device for the audience, even though it is hard to work out what the various lures represent or symbolise, as Kelleher is keen to use symbolism in this short novel.

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Symbols and analogies

The description of Raja the tiger in Taronga (1986) borrows unashamedly and with acknowledgement in the postscript from William Blake's poem 'The Tyger' and while Kelleher does not ask his audience to ponder the tiger's fearful symmetry, he does make the tiger a symbol of destruction, freedom, and finally renewal and forgiveness. What a lot for a young Bengal cat

Students see Raja as a symbol of freedom quite readily and most make the connection to Ben's need for freedom. However, only a few students identified the tiger as representing Ben's need for forgiveness for killing the other animals. The novel Taronga (1986) is quite easy to use for a major assignment, as it is chock-a-block full of themes, motifs and characterisation: quite enough and quite plainly signposted so that students in Year 8 could discern them without much help. The notes linked through the mySF Project Scripts section contain a twenty-percent, major creative response topic for the essay, as well as one sample response from a student, used with permission.

The themes of Kelleher's Taronga (1986) are common to other Post-Apocalyptic texts, including the essential nature of humanity at best and worst as well as of course the essential differences between animal and human nature, blurred to some extent through Ben's telepathic connection to Raja and Raja's own changes in attitudes to Ben.

The Aboriginal girl, Ellie, is used by Kelleher at the climax of the novel to give an indigenous overview of the constant fighting seen between the rival gangs. Even though the cause of the global disaster is not made clear it is plain that conflict between nations and creeds was responsible. Just as with the use of lures and baits, the conflict between human communities is highlighted by Kelleher from the national level to the microcosm of Taronga Zoo with the priviledged and greedy few within and the hungry many without.

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Taronga as inclusion

Ellie has a counter suggestion to the violence between the gangs. “’Molly could try helping some of those people,’ she said, ‘maybe even expand Taronga  a bit. That’s our only real hope: to make Taronga bigger and bigger, until everyone’s inside.’” This solution of inclusion and cooperation is seen, finally, by Ben as well.

Ben muses to himself, invoking Taronga as a title for all Australia, “’Taronga!’” he murmured aloud – aware, as he spoke, of the great mass of land pressing at his back; imagining Raja, his striped coat like pale fire in the starlight, pacing restlessly through its regenerating forests; his paws scuffing the dusty surface of its deserts” (Kelleher, 1986, p164). The division between the gangs/tribes of Australia is to be purged by the tiger, bringing new life to the continent - a new start with a new hope.

Ellie gives a final judgement on the freeing of the animals from Taronga Zoo out into the bush. Ben worries, as he does for too much of the novel, that they could have stopped the conflict between the gangs and Ellie answers as a voice from Indigenous Australia, “’No! They didn’t leave us any other choice! They never have done! Never, since the first ships sailed into that harbor down there. Just this once, though, we’ve answered them. We’ve rescued something from the mess they left us’” (Kelleher, 1986, p184).

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Forgiveness and a new start

In the novel's resolution Ben meets again with Raja. Ben promised himself never again to use his Calling power and he kneels before the great tiger awaiting death. Instead, Raja seems to forgive Ben, offering a new compact between animals and humans, as well as for human occupation of the natural world. Ben looks out a top floor window to the West and sees the tigers "“their coats aflame in the golden light that still flooded out across the plains" moving silently "towards the mountains, moving deeper and deeper into the land, as though marking out those new, as yet invisible paths along which Ben and Ellie were soon to wander.” (Kelleher, 1986, p190). Kelleher's Taronga (1986) promises a better future for the freed animals as well as for Ellie and Ben and perhaps, by the extension used throughout the novel, for Australia and the world. Perhaps the deaths of the rival gang leaders and their loyal minions as well as the liberation of the animals is the last in a chain of events to bring homeostasis to the Australian environment.

Kelleher's Taronga (1986) is a bit jumbled in its message but it does have clear political purpose, aimed principally at the inner world seen in Ben's confusion and guilt, then at the treatment of animals for food and exhibition, and finally at humanity's constant conflict. Through the use of the tiger symbol and Raja's changing understanding of humanity, some hope for an Utopian future is offered, evidenced in Ben and Ellie's long walk, hand-in-hand through the sunset, to a new beginning amidst the mulga country in the West, on an inner and outer journey so many others have walked in Post-Apocalyptic literature.

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Overall use

Kelleher's Taronga (1986) is a useful, short novel for teachers of Science Fiction who wish to cover the sub-genre of Post-Apocalyptic narratives in response to student interest or perhaps even to match one of the many new film arrivals in this sub-genre. The response to Taronga (1986) from this writer's class was strong and after the whole focus class and scaffolding on the purposes of  Post-Apocalyptic narratives was completed (please see the link on the mySF Project Scripts section) most students trundled off with their teacher to see the epic disaster film 2012 (Emmerich, 2009) at the cinema, then analysed its themes in comparison to others in the sub-genre, with students initiating this and debating well. 

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Resource List:

Blake, W.  (1794). 'The Tyger' from Songs of Experience. From The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Booker, MK & Thomas A-M. (2009). The Science Fiction Handbook. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Emmerich, R. (Director). (2009). 2019. Written by Kloser, H. And Emmerich, R.  Columbia Pictures.

Kelleher, V. (1986). Taronga. Sydney: Puffin Books.

Lawrence, F. (Director). (2007). I am Legend. Written by Goldsman, A. and Protosevich, M. Based on the novel by Richard Matheson. Warner Brothers Pictures.

McCarthy, C. (2006). The Road. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Miller, G. (Director). (1979). Mad Max. Written by Miller, G., Kennedy, B. and MacCausland, J.  Warner Brothers Pictures.

Shelley, M.  (1826). The Last Man. London.

Sontag, S. (1966). 'The Imagination of Disaster', in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Ends

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Michael Sisley

 

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