Cover of The MountainBook Title
The Mountain

Published by Picador
Graham Henderson

The Mountain teases us out of thought as does Eternity
Brian Mathews,
the best first novel written in Australia this year
Helen Daniel,
The Weekend Australian
a new novelist of very remarkable power
Stephen Knight,
The Sydney Morning Herald
Henderson’s stunning debut
Peter Pierce, The Herald
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Book Description
...I sit here in a vast concrete mausoleum translation ancient poetry, writing letters to you, writing 'letters' to the end and absent - letters I'll never send - playing chess and getting drunk, nursing a madwoman, staring at the walls - the 'investigation' all but forgotten. It's ludicrous. And the most ludicrous thing of all is that I actually find myself day by day growing fonder and fonder of these people, these people who mean absolutely nothing to me, four forgotten survivors of an imaginary war, four forgotten strangers in a godforsaken town at the corner of the world. I almost feel like a character in one of Hartman's tales, a character trapped in some inscrutable conspiracy of affection...

The Mountain is a mystery, the story of an investigation. It is also a meditation on the nature of fiction.

In a series of haunting tales within tales, contained in letters sent by Investigating Commissioner Gruner to his wife, we discover the imaginery country that is the setting for this intriguing novel. Compelled by the memory of a mysterious writer, Gruner is inexorably drawn into a kind of conspiracy involving the lives of the five people who dwell in the Mountain - where the living, the dead and the dreamed exist together.

ISBN 033027158X
Published 1989 (Picador)
171 pgs
The Mountain book sample

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Plotting 5, a Quarterly Account of Recent Fiction
The Mountain
Helen Daniel
Overland, No. 117, February 1990 (pgs 52-57)

[Text not yet available]

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Scaling the Mountain
Brian Mathews
Scripsi, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1990

Over the past week I've noticed an odd thing. When we’re sitting opposite each other. [Doctor Somerville has] taken to assuming the identical position in his chair that I do in mine. If I slump down or cross my legs, or put my hands in my pockets, after a while he does the same. At first I found it slightly disconcerting, but then it just became ridiculous and I decided to say something to him. Only for some reason. I couldn’t - I was too embarrassed to. Now he’s started copying all my gestures, even my facial expressions.

It gives me an eerie sort of feeling, as if I’m looking at myself in a mirror, knowing that someone else is standing on the other side of the glass, watching me through my own reflection.

Charles Maclean, The Watcher, ‘Extract from Martin Gregory’s Diary’

[Gregory’s] manner changed noticeably soon after he had settled into his chair. On adopting the same posture as I had. which has now become an automatic reflex with him. he grew much calmer. We were soon making synchronous gestures and movements reflecting the rhythms of our conversation. Postural congruence, however, is less conspicuous than interactional synchrony, which suggests that some of the time he may be consciously copying my gestures.

My influence over the patient has grown recently, but the therapist can never escape completely from the impact of his patient’s troubles. I had an unpleasant sense of foreboding...

Charles Maclean, The Watcher, From Doctor Somerville’s notes on Session Ten with the patient. Martin Gregory.

The Mountain begins deftly and unequivocally with the same shuddering dislocation one feels on first looking into Kafka’s Trial (‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K...’):

It all seems so far away, the quiet room in the capital where I wrote of an early evening, staring down onto the Street of Roses in the sluggish nightfall, the waters of the Yar already black in the distance, crawling blindly towards the deep black bay.

If this is a world we feel we vaguely know, its attenuated familiarity is swiftly and ever more seriously subverted by references to ‘the convoy’ inching its way through the abandoned emptiness of ‘the Northern countryside,’ the ‘towns depopulated and ghostly,’ the deepening ‘desolation’ beyond the South/North border, ‘the chaos of the Modernization”, ‘the Years of Revolt”, the ‘vast upheavals of the Reaction”, the ‘New Cities of the South”, the surviving ‘handful of crumbling Resettlement Stations’...

It is not that these are in themselves either unrecognisable or surprising: as intimations of kinds of disruption and derangement they could readily be located through a range of historical and contemporary upheavals in a variety of countries. Yet. one is denied the comfort of such displacement into history or across safe contemporary distances - first, by the fact that, in The Mountain, these chilling scenes are not dispersed throughout some global disaster - as at first glance we might assume - but are confined to one place, one ‘country’ stretching away in chaos and man-made wilderness from the curiously frenetic cocoon of its southern ‘capital’; and second, by the narrator’s tone which, far from being sensationally revelatory and thus offering both comfortable psychological displacement and the disjunction afforded by the truly exotic, is on the contrary somewhat resigned. Despite the contemplation of ‘wholesale misery’ among the border refugees and despite ‘the disgust and anger’ he feels in his heart, there is still something fatalistic about the voice and the movement of the observing eye - as if he is seeing now only what he had so far successfully repressed, looked away from, so that, psychologically, he is witnessing what had always been his worst and truest fears...

He is Jacob Gruner. He is on his way to Resettlement Station 59, a huge, sprawling structure mazed with corridors and pocked with rooms and known to the four remaining inhabitants of the town of Sumer as The Mountain. Gruner’s observations on the events at the ‘border’ and beyond are contained in letters to his wife. Sarah, whom he has left behind in the ‘capital.’ What border? What capital? What was ‘the Modernization”? When was it? Where was it? What were the Tears of Revolt”? What were they a revolt against? When did they...? Good questions all. Though, in the end, not the important questions.

The swift erosion of its fragile surface realism (the realism of historical events - revolts, revamps, refugee problems etc.) is characteristic of what happens in The Mountain: it is a fiction of mirrors and mirror images; distortions and misperceptions; doubles, repetitions and re-runs: labyrinthine narratives, surfacing dreams. The ‘Mountain’ is not a mountain; Jacob Gruner’s task is not what he thinks it is, not even a task; the convoys belie their name by never arriving; the objects and priorities of internal narratives - fictional ‘tales’ - merge with an in any case tendentious, ungraspable reality... Ostensibly, Jacob Gruncr has been sent to Sumer to unravel a case of misrepresentation and fraud: he is an investigator. But his role in fact is in a continual state of metamorphosis: successive transmutations brought about by his own research and brooding, his experience of virtual imprisonment in The Mountain, and his exposure to the narratives (the ‘tales’) of Gabriel Hartman. reveal a different and more awful truth.

Gruner’s sense of reality and his apprehension of his own identity begin to decay amid the strange pressures and influences within The Mountain. Besieged by nature (a gale known as the Dawn Tiger blows for weeks); intrigued and then anguished by the behaviour of Hartman and his odd ‘family’; unsustained by his own poetic creations which almost from the moment of his arrival at The Mountain begin to seem to him worthless and cold; shaken and psychologically decentred by obscurities, mysteries and above all by Hartman’s haunting ‘tales’ which constantly elide the boundaries between fiction and the reality of life and relationships inside The Mountain. Jacob Gruncr degenerates temporarily into a state of alcoholic vagueness and resigned alienation.

In a long concluding sequence. Gruncr reads Hartman’s latest ‘tale’ - ‘The Accusation.’ It tells the story of one Jared Gurner who ‘has been sent to a remote town in the North to mount an investigation, only to become the subject of an investigation himself.’ Horrified, Gruner reads the anagrammatic mirror-image of his own experiences. In the tale. Hartman is called Harmon and. towards the end of this narrative. Harmon gives Gurner a manuscript to read: it is called ‘The Betrayal.’ With disbelief, the character, Gurner, reads of a character called Jacob Gruner and another called Hartman. realising as he does so that the text is a transparently doctored version of his own diary which Harmon has been secretly reading...

Gurner sees all the self-doubts and questionings of his diary somehow distorted by Harmon into something else - into the symptoms of a kind of ‘sickness.’ The ‘letters’ reveal a mind slowly surrendering to the most irrational suspicions and feelings of persecution. Gurner keeps telling himself they’re not his words - and yet inescapably they arc. He reads Jacob Gruner’s description of Hartman’s disfigurement, of Gruner’s fascination for Hartman as a ‘psychological type,’ with ‘a sort of sadness, the most desolate sadness.’ Helplessly Gurner realizes how much pain Harmon must have suffered when he read through the diary, when he read of his own naivety, his own ‘childlikeness.’

The Mountain teases us out of thought as does Eternity. Jacob Gurner’s description of his journey to Sumer, which occupies the first few pages, is like a descent into the underworld; but once he arrives at his destination, he becomes locked into a cycle of events which goes on repeating itself, though each repetition, it is true, involves slight variations and new. mysterious accretions. All crucial episodes are submitted to various lines of vision but the result is not always greater clarity - resulting from multiple perspectives - but greater mystery: the re-view does not always illuminate. For example: when Harmon covertly reads the first few pages of Gurner/Gruner’s diary, he is actually reading what we recognise as the first few pages of the novel, The Mountain. The experience deeply disturbs Harmon, as it disturbed Gruner when he made the actual journey and recorded it; as it disturbs the reader thrown unceremoniously into it in The Mountain’s opening moves; as it disturbs Hartman, Harmon’s creator. But the disturbance, the unease, simply compounds; it is not allayed and certainly not explained.

Two days later Harmon ‘stumbles across’ Jared Gurner’s ‘diary’ and reads it ‘with an increasing sense of regret at his indiscretion’... As Harmon reads through the pages he feels at one and the same time resentment, compassion, bewilderment, shame - and finally a sort of sadness, ‘the most desolate sadness.’

For the first time Harmon is given a glimpse of the world. Moved and fascinated he reads about the capital, the modernization, the years of revolt, the reaction; of the Mountain itself (or Resettlement Station 59 as Gurner refers to it)...

There is a marvellous and complex irony in the idea that the surreal nightmare of unexplained disasters and disruptions which Gurner/Gruner records must necessarily strike Harmon as a ‘glimpse of the world’ when even Gruner describes them in apocalyptic terms - ‘vast upheavals,’ ‘forgotten world,’ ‘those tragic times’ - and the reader likewise is shocked by what seems to be their grim fantasy.

It is true that the cycle depends for much of its momentum on the unfolding ‘tales’ and it is therefore not extraordinary to regard the book as ‘a meditation on the nature of fiction’ - to quote the blurb. My own inclination, though, is to say ‘So what?’ if all we have here is a meditation on the nature of fiction. Jacob Gruner’s plight is more serious and more acute and his fate more chilling than is implied in ‘a meditation on the nature of fiction.’ It makes more sense - does the book more justice - to see Gruncr locked into some allegory of psychotherapeutic encounter in which therapist and patient merge, become identical, hate each other, fall in love; in which, in the end. resolution of Gruner’s profound guilt and his unknowable ‘crime’ (what is it, for example, that so disturbs him about his relationship with his beloved and always absent Sarah?) can only be at the expense of his self, his personality, his identity. The mystery, which Gruner thinks he has been sent to investigate, is solved only when he ceases to be Gruncr and becomes... But that would be telling.

Even better: if ever there was a case for being ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ The Mountain must be a prime candidate. Its passionate and ingenious labyrinths of episode and language (‘...language itself is the prison... language itself is the insanity which imprisons...’) are in themselves the point of the novel: they mime modern anxieties, perplexities and disintegrations. It is the mimesis that counts (in just the same way that the phenomenon and experience of waiting may be what counts in Waiting For Godot): attempts to unravel beyond it - through an intensifying network of mirrors, dreams, mirror-imaged shapes and events, fictions and criss-crossing memories - will only result in multiplication of the images - a hall of mirrors like the Room of Mirrors in The Mountain, where every move and expression and no move and no expression is important amidst a grotesquerie of breaking visions...

The book is probably needlessly puzzling at times and. in the manner of such constructions, sometimes teeters on the edge of pretension and pompousness (‘The Year of Mists,’ ‘the Third Exodus... in the Year of The Grey Moons...,’ ‘The Bridge of The April Heroes’): this is critically vulnerable to one style of contemporary reviewing that proceeds by selective quotation and heavily skewed paraphrase; and it is infinitely parodiable. But overall Henderson seems to me to meet successfully the challenges of register and tone that his intricate, evocative and allusive fiction poses.

The Mountain sounds some interestingly resonant notes when placed experimentally alongside fiction like The Trial, 1984, David Karp’s One, Charles Maclean’s The Watcher, perhaps Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, perhaps some of Ian McEwan, perhaps Mark Henshaw’s Out Of The Line of Fire (and no doubt others that could be brought to mind), in which a kind of decayed, last gasp vision-and-dream romanticism - grim, residual and mostly repressed - defies the reader to keep pace with potentially visionary leaps and assumptions, while the visions themselves are being subverted and made sinister by a perception that psychological, psychoanalytical and linguistic probing can be reductive, diminishing and catastrophically transforming as easily as they can be liberating and revelatory.

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The Mountain
Helen Daniel (author and critic)
The Good Reading Guide, Helen Daniel (ed.) (McPhee Gribble, 1989)

A brilliant first novel, poetric and mythooeic, a work of intellectual intrigue and elegance. In an ancient landscape, a strange ziggurat, a talismatic place of exile and hiatus, contains an architecture of the imagination, with extension, curvature, mysterious conjunctions. Inside the Mountain, Henderson lures the reader through a labyrinth of allusion and ambiguity, in a Borgesian series of mirrors and masques. Through tales and fabrications, through the space and sheen of the writing, Henderson engages a vast range of fictional correlations, as if tilting narratives into conjoined worlds. With a haunting sense of expatriation and displacement, the novel explores antecedent and parallel selves, in antipodean symmetries of character, place, time. At once perpetually inner and yet constantly transmuted into shifting spheres of place and time, the novel has a shimmering lucency and magical power.

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Fiction Threatens to Swallow the Reader
The Mountain
Katharine England
The Advertiser, 16 December 1989 (pg. 15)

[Text not yet available]

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Ethos Evocative of Kafka
The Mountain
Ralph Elliott
The Canberra Times, 18 November 1989 (B5)

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Oceanas fine and sos the mountain
Helen Daniel
The Weekend Australian
, 11-12 November 1989

Even in this period of extraordinary fertility in contemporary Australian fiction, with new writers emerging almost daily, rarely are there first novels of the dazzling power and intellectual elegance of Tom Flood’s Oceana Fine and Graham Henderson’s The Mountain.

Both Flood and Henderson are major new Australian writers, exploring mysterious conjunctions of self and shadow-selves, and mysteries of truth and fabrication.

Chance companions here, curiously both novels are centred on a structure that looms large in a flat, distant landscape, a towering wheat bin in Oceana Fine, a ziggurat mountain in Henderson’s novel. While Henderson’s lies within the arcane mysteries of figures of the self, Tom Flood’s novel traffics across the real and the surreal, an intrigue of place, time and memory, through the decades of a family in the West Australian wheatfields...

The Mountain is Graham Henderson’s first novel, after his 1979 small press publication of short fiction. The Anguish of Departure. Like Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire, it is a novel of the configurations of the self, at once a mystery intrigue and an investigation of fiction. Henderson’s vision, however, is more Kafkaesque and tormented than Henshaw’s, with a profound sense of exile and enclosure. With a curiously spare and chaste style, it has much to do with characters inhabiting others, with impersonations and disfigurements of self.

The novel takes the form of Investigating Commissioner Joseph Gruner’s letters to his wife in the South. The novel begins with Gruner’s reflections on his journey across the border to the Resettlement Station in the North, assigned to investigate requisitions forged in the name of the writer Jacob Bruner, exiled there years before. There, waiting for the next convoy, Gruner enters his own exile, living in the Mountain with Eva, her daughter Ursula, Katerina, and Gabriel Hartman, the disfigured forger and writer of stories.

Both in form and in content, The Mountain is an architectonic work, with strata and curvature and dark foundations. Here the polarities of the self are transformed into spatial terms, the division of the barren North find the cultural South is both geographic and inner. Yet the movement of the novel between polarities of time and space, despair and belief, suggests these are “not contrarieties at all. but ineffably mysterious identities.”

In the concrete ziggurat containing its own compartments and passages, its own storeys and stories, rival selves brush against each other, offering fabrications to each other. Inside shifting symmetries of Hartman’s stories and Gruner’s reflections, patterns of mystery and explanation unfold and tilt, the characters sliding across intervals in Hartman’s tales into new configurations.

With recurring images of roses, seashells, blurred vision and birthmark disfigurements and with the motif of translation from ancient Chinese poets, the whole novel suggests translations of the self in which language is the only conjunction. As Gabriel Hartman’s tales take Gruner into an anguish of self, figures crowd around: Gruner and Gurner, Hartman, Harmon and Hurt, Joseph, Jacob and Jared, each one displaced within the G and H patterns of character and writer rivalry.

Where Gerald Murnane’s fiction celebrates the habitats of his own inner landscape, Henderson’s The Mountain becomes a dark and haunted vision, yet with a contrary glow from the ease and lucency of the writing. A hermetic narrative, it moves with ascetic precision through a maze of figuring and disfiguring, transmuting into shifting spheres of self and Borgesian dreaming. The Mountain is a beautifully polished work, which, like Oceana Fine, shines and shimmers.

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Far from Athens, a Tragedy
The Mountain
Kate Veitch
The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1989 (pg. 84)

[Text not yet available]

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A Topography of Words
The Mountain
Linda Adair
Editions, No. 4, November 1989 (pg.16)

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Hendersons stunning debut
Peter Pierce (editor, The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia)
The Herald, 20 October 1989

Graham Hendersons distinguished first novel, The Mountain, prompts curiosity about the reading and living hes subsumed in his fiction.

This book deserves to gain him many readers eager to see where he goes next. For the moment they can experience a subtle testing of his capabilities as a writer. They can also be grateful that minimalist autobiography need not be the only narrative fare offered by Australians.

The opening of The Mountain confidently imagines another place and time. The writer and bureaucrat Joseph Gruner, writing to his wife Sarah, remembers his room in the capital of their unnamed, presumably North European country: ‘where I wrote of an early evening, staring down on to the Street of Roses, in the sluggish nightfall, the waters of the Yar already black. in the distance, crawling blindly towards the deep black bay.

The memory is poignant, because Gruner has been sent to the desolate north of his land. He laments how ‘the south seems so far away, Sarah, it’s like another country here, another century. This lonely voice-of the writer in exile, speaking of severance and want of communion, of encounters with a barbaric dialect and people, recalls David Malouf’s treatment of Ovid in An Imaginary Life. But unlike Malouf’s Ovid, Gruner will neither accommodate nor transcend his place of exile. The convulsions of the recent history of Gruner’s nation are remarked in general terms - the Years of Revolt, the Reaction, the Modernisation. They seem typical notations of the history so much of Europe has known this century. Gruner comes north to the near-abandoned town of Sumer where the political upheavals of the south appear as fabrications and where time is remembered poetically: Year of Mists, Year of Red Suns, Year of the White Butterflies.

Fifty years earlier another writer, Jacob Bruner, had been sent into exile here. Though Bruner is long dead his orders are being forged by his illegitimate son. Gabriel Hartman, so that supply convoys continue to come north. The handful of Sumer’s residents live in the Mountain, ‘an 80 ft high hill of reinforced concrete, grey and smooth’, a labyrinth clandestinely built, ‘a sort of sheer-sided ziggurat’.

Here Gruner’s tenuous hold on his identity is loosened. His letters home reiterate his wife’s name desperately, to assure himself of that connection. For distraction, he translates the work of the Chinese poet, Tu Fu. with whom he feels affinity, though the other has been dead 1200 years. Like Gruner and Bruner, Tu Fu was a minor official whose reputation was eclipsed by more fashionable poets and who endured ‘a long and bitter exile in the wilderness’. Despite these attempts to protect himself, Gruner finds his name changing and his sense of self melting away. Henderson plays chillingly with the arbitrariness and instability of names, all the while letting Hartman insist on how literally they signify people’s essences: Gabriel means chosen, Jacob deceiver...’

This ‘tale of ‘stolen words’’, of interpretation and misappropriation of stories, is imbued not only with a knowledge of European post-modernist fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s treatments of disfigurement, sexual guilt and his personal myth of ‘a 10-year exile’ are also instinct in The Mountain. This cerebral, exacting, hermetic novel is lovely and calm in its movement, despite the agonies of the action that it discloses. There’ll need to be a coruscating debut elsewhere for The Mountain not to be acclaimed as the best first novel written in Australia this year.

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A difficult and rewarding ascent
Peter Craven (literary editor and critic)
The Age, 14 October 1989

I doubt that this year will produce a more accomplished first novel than Graham Henderson's The Mountain, though accomplishment is the last word that one would reach for automatically.

The Mountain is an ambitious attempt at a novel in the parabolic mode. It is written in a grey, deliberate prose in a portentously “European” manner and it asks, more insistently than we expect any work written in this country to ask, to be compared with the loftier heights of the German 20th Century tradition - with Kafka and Thomas Bernhard.

By these standards the book fails but its failure is more interesting, and more impressive, than most kinds of success. The obvious comparison (and the fairer one) is with Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire - both books strive for the high ground of modernity (or post-modernity), both effect a total elimination of any Australian locus, both adhere to forms of literary language that are more common in the German (and Eastern European) tradition than they are elsewhere.

Compared with Henshaw, Henderson comes off well, though better in artistic than in readerly terms. Out of the Line of Fire was a dazzling first novel that some people mistook for a great novel because it was so patently a great read.

The Mountain has none of the seductiveness of Henshaw’s intellectualised mix of sex and mystery and it has very little of his charm and narrative propulsion but it is a deeply serious work by a man with an uncanny vision and the verbal equipment to substantiate nightmares of paranoia and coincidence on the page.

The Mountain abstracts a vision of life in which separate individuals are almost like so many interchangeable symbols in an equation. In one way it is a meditation on the idea of structure and the idea of story, an animation of the kind of minimal variation in narrative motifs that fascinated an investigator like Propp. In another way it is an allegory of how the mind may lose its balance by the contemplation of symbolic patterns on the basis of mere coincidence.

The dialectic between these two visions of a shifting reality (which within the Chinese boxes of the narrative’s exfoliation may have no reality except in the words spun by God Knows Who) is none the less elaborated with a grim and mesmerising power because the torment behind the permutations and combinations of narrative typology communicates itself to the reader like a bad dream or a presentiment of annihilation.

The setting is nowhere knowable: in the primitive North of a country that has a cultivated South and that might be communist only because its emblems are so bleached of color that they connote some totalitarianism of the spirit. The names, are generically Germanic though the only direct literary references are to the great poets of the Tang dynasty whom the narrator (his identity is as fissured and problematic as everything else in the story) is trying to translate.

So not China either. The format of the book is a series of letters written by an investigator to his wife in the South. He has been sent to investigate the confidence tricks of a local administrator (a man with a disfiguring birthmark) who has forged documents and insinuated his own identity with a dead and celebrated Writer with whom our narrator is much obsessed. But there are missing connections everywhere: although the subject of the investigation is a local power, the place he dominates seems to have no inhabitants but the intimates of this man and of the Writer, whose identity he has usurped. Although he has usurped this identity by forgery he is himself some kind of literary genius because the stories he tells are prescient of deeper structures than he knows. Where does the Author end and where does his traducer start?

In its last compelling movement everything shifts seismically, minimally. Our sense of perspectives and of origins (of who is imagined to be saying what, to what purpose and to what last term) is confounded and revised.

The Mountain is a fatiguing book with an unyielding fascination. It has something of the quality of John A. Scott’s long verse narratives where an action that is shocking is wrapped in a language that repels but asks to be penetrated.

Henderson makes no concession to the reader. The book begins with a deliberate proliferation of names so that only an effort of will and concentration of memory can equip these slenderly propelled creatures with any identity at all.

That is part of the point, though it is made with an unbending rigor that is not separate from awkwardness. Something similar is true of both the overall effects of The Mountain and its local details. The novel is in various ways too abstract for its own good. Not only does Graham Henderson eschew dialogue, in the manner of Gerald Murnane, but he has none of the sensuous detail that makes Kafka, at his greatest, such a master of probable impossibility. There is not enough refraction of reality in The Mountain for the terror that runs through it to be, with complete consistency, a more than private thing. Henderson needs an access of sweat and laughter and skylines: of words that will suggest a world of things that can then, in turn, if necessary, be shown to be a blank house of cards, directionless and void.

He is not always the master of prose that he needs to be. Kafka studied Flaubert because he knew that the special effects of estrangement need a medium that looks transparent. Graham Henderson has the ability to push his language across great wastes of connection and confusion. His strength is spareness and indirection. He should have shed the odd adverb in this book - especially “literally,” which is the one word that can never be used metaphorically.

Graham Henderson is on the brink of being a superb writer. Many people will like this entangled meditation on the self’s extinction more than I did. If it often reads like a series of notes towards a novel that the author could not write, its distinction is not in doubt.

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Exiles to the Future and Beyond
The Mountain
Mark Roberts
Australian Book Review, No. 115, October 1989 (pgs 34-35)

[Text not yet available]

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Brilliant debut of a writer of stunning power
Stephen Knight (academic)
The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1989

What do reader’s expect in a novel? Is it just a good story, a good read, rounded characters you can believe in, moral dilemmas to identify with?

No doubt many still do: and as a result Wilbur Smith and Jackie Collins can bank on a wealth of popularity for their degraded realism, based as it is on two dimensional characters and amoral dilemmas.

But it seems a substantial audience dissents from that sometimes banal notion of the novel.

A striking feature of recent Australian writing has been the success of basically non-realist writers such as Murray Bail, Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley and Gerald Murnane.

Evidently, Australian writing now has a substantial place for fiction that defies the classic curves of the realist novel; for writing that questions notions of limitation in art; writing that probes the bases of identity and certainty in, and around, human self-consciousness.

Perhaps those possibilities were always there - let’s not forget Furphy and Stead. But they are developing more now, and to this newly substantial category of non-realist writers another name should be added. Graham Henderson’s first novel, The Mountain, is a profound, even gleaming, piece of post-modernist fiction, a sequence of fully assured writing that consistently proposes possibilities of explanation and then disposes of them in favour of something yet more complex.

We can start with a story, of sorts: he allows us that. One Joseph Gruner is sent on a special investigation to the north; it concerns some apparently forged orders made in the name of the an apparently dead person, involving the supplies and activities of a place sometimes called The Mountain but also known more grimly as Resettlement Station 59.

To the waste north, beyond the borders, here are sent political and social undesirables from the southern state that, we learn, went through a Modernisation, and then through a dramatic Reaction.

The shadows of politics are outlined, but, remain indecipherable; is it Russia this century, or America since the Civil War, or just eastern Australia since 1972? None: and all of these, of course. But the story winds inwards, away from politics, away from human responses, into the true regime of the post-modern writer; the multiple relativities of meaning that human beings tend to simplify into ideas of being and value.

The figures of the fiction are not stable. Gruner investigates Bruner; a suspicious relation of names, brown and green, living and dying, interpenetrating. Then there is Hartman, forger, author, disfigured hero and plain criminal: he is the dissolving focus of most of these thoughts. Katerina, Ursula and Eva, the women, interact with their own alternative possibilities, but never quite as major local figures. Masculinism may be one of the few uncontested values in this text.

Short though the book is, it offers a rich story, or story within story. Here are many narratives of relativity about visitors to the north, inhabitants of The Mountain, relations with the southern metropolis - past more than present - all fed by Henderson into an increasingly puzzling and critical range of interpretations. Each sequence brings new vectors of a variable veracity.

Some brilliant manoeuvres occur. Suddenly, in chapter nine, another entire narrative overlays the text, and one Jared Gurner emerges as the central figure who experiences a tale about one Jacob Gruner, his own fictional avatar.

Other characters whirl about and through each other: how did Hartman become so scarred and what did it have to do with Hurt, the text's long-dead authority; dead with all other authors in this world of non-worlds.

Henderson, it is clear, owes much to Borges and his intellectually infinite regresses of impossibility as in Labyrinths.

But Henderson also - as Borges never really did - assays a full narrative, not just picking off the post-modernist points but developing at length the web of mystery and relativity that is basic to this most modern and for many most truth-telling of forms. That is difficult, and brilliantly man aged here,

No doubt those who like a plain yarn will find this fiction beyond unravelling; a stronger complaint might be that those who prefer books to be a political documents would see this as a tissue of evasions. Feminists may have other objections, not hard to predict, not easy to reject. But no-one who admires writing - and understands what types of writing are most searching at the present - will fail to recognise The Mountain as a book of substantial achievement, and Henderson as a new novelist of very remarkable power.

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Henderson biography
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