The Garden of Sorrows is an astonishing collaboration between two creators: the award-winning John Hughes and the artist Marco Luccio. The book is a collection of fourteen fables that invert Aesop’s Fables and their successors, taking the reader back to the beginnings of time when the world was in a state of flux and animals were yet to acquire the human qualities that we associate with them. The fables are about New World fauna: the crocodile, platypus, lyrebird, turtle, possum, albatross and the kangaroo; the spider, Tasmanian tiger, mosquito, emu, koala, shark, and the ant. The settings are not the familiar peasant simplicity of Ancient Greece but rather the world still in formation, and Australia as its crucible. The Garden, itself an allusion to the Paradise that was, is a world of mangroves and paperbarks, and the rhythms of cicada song. But the creatures’ names that populate these fables often allude to Greek myth – Hades the Platypus, Orpheus the Lyrebird, and Prometheus the Possum – and so do some of the plots: Alcestis the Albatross uses the myth of Icarus to explain his missing feathers to a jealous mate, and Aesop’s race between the hare and the tortoise becomes a bitter contest between the green turtle and a frill-necked lizard, though the consequences are much sophisticated:
The old turtle smiled as Time seemed to pull her to him, warm and soft, and stroked her skin until it tingled with the touch and seemed to melt, poured through the cave like wax that Time then took in his gentle hands to crease and fold, slow like the night, first the knotted hands and feet, then the arms and gnarled legs, a body which was as the sand that holds the ghost of the sea in its wrinkles. The bent human figure crept forth from the cave and hobbled across the hard uneven path of sleeping turtles at last from the sea. (p.43)
The collection begins with ‘The Making of Sorrow’ in which Kaos the crocodile had never harmed another creature.
The story is haunting: these often violent fables are for older children and for adults, and the impact of trust betrayed and the emergence of cruel revenge is enhanced by the moody black-and-white etchings that are a lavish accompaniment to the fables. Kaos has a symbiotic deal with a small plover which eats the ‘wailful choir swarms of small gnats’ that ‘cluster on his tongue’: she will clean them out if he promises never to close his mouth while she is within because she must always be able to see the sky. The double-page etching which accompanies this scene superbly expresses the trust in this relationship along with the bird’s vulnerability.
But, one fateful afternoon, jabbing Kaos with her spurwing, the bird tried to fly out before his mouth had fully opened and cut her breast against his tooth. She rebuked him noisily for the mishap but flew off unconcerned to her nest where she rested until the bleeding stopped. She didn’t look back to see the change that had come like night over the giant crocodile. For unknown to her, the daylight world had disappeared for Kaos. His head was whirling and his body shuddered uncontrollably. The taste of the plover’s blood upon his tongue had made the crocodile mad.
For the first time in a hundred years he began to eat. First the mud in which he wallowed, then rocks and sand and blades of grass and tiny shrubs and flowers. He mauled great chunks out of the trunks of trees with a ravenousness terrible to behold and a sound that chilled the blood, and he began to look at the other animals in a way that made their legs tremble. But nothing would satisfy this strange new desire, nothing would fill the emptiness he discovered in the taste of the small bird’s blood. He had to devour her, all of her, or he would die. (p.7)
Panoramic in scope, these fables form an Australian creation myth , and complement indigenous Dreaming stories, as can be seen from the titles:
The Making of Sorrow,
The Tree of Knowledge,
The Birth of Tragedy,
The Making of Time,
The Irony of Medicine,
The Origin of Exile,
The Origin of War, (and how appropriate that it derives from the boxing kangaroo!)
The Birth of Architecture, (the spider, of course)
The Origin of Death,
The Birth of Politics,
The Birth of Wisdom,
The Birth of Agriculture,
The Fall of Icarus and
The Paradox of the Champion.
I suspect that secondary teachers would find this book irresistible.
PS Although this video depicts the creation of a series of paintings called The Island, do have a look at how Marco Luccio works en plein air. It certainly made me wonder what perils he might have undertaken for some of the artwork in The Making of Sorrow. You can also see a few of the images from the book at the Visit Melbourne website where you can also find details of the exhibition of these artworks at Steps Gallery from 8 Nov 2013 – 1 Dec 2013.
Author: John Hughes
Title: The Garden of Sorrows
Artwork by Marco Luccio
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP