True History of the Kelly Gang

By Peter Carey

Several years ago a bunch of professional historians got together and decided to write a book looking at how history has been portrayed in the movies. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies was the result, and in its many essays there was one complaint the historians seemed to share: Movies simplify history, reducing real people and complex situations into dramatic presentations of right and wrong, good and bad.

Of course, criticizing the film industry for turning history into popular entertainment is a pretty easy game. Scholars simply don’t have the same limitations placed on their research as movies have on their production. Movies have to be around two hours long and, because of the enormous costs involved, be geared toward a mass audience.

But with historical novels it’s a different story.

All this is a long way of introducing True History of the Kelly Gang, the new novel by Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey. For his subject Carey has chosen the real-life story of Ned Kelly, a nineteenth-century Australian outlaw or “bushranger.” After eluding a massive police manhunt for over a year, Kelly was finally captured during a wild shootout in which he wore a remarkable suit of homemade body armour. In 1880 he was hanged in jail.

Whether Kelly really was the latter-day Robin Hood of folk legend, a rebel against the injustice of colonial British tyranny, or simply a thief and murderer, is still a subject of debate. But his status as a cultural icon (in a 1970 film he was played by Mick Jagger), and even a symbol of Australian nationalism, has never been in doubt.

The book takes the form of a series of manuscript “parcels” written by Kelly for his daughter. Kelly’s voice is a remarkable experiment in style, consisting of long run-on sentences full of faulty grammar but driven by a rhythm of spontaneity. Here is Ned getting his horse to cross a swollen river:

Gitup I told him and my God he gitup very rapid he had a heart like a house he swam the flooded river to clamber up the crumbling bank and then the very track were flying under us a mighty beast he were steaming snorting game for anything.

There are moments when the presentation is less than convincing, especially when Ned describes events he did not personally witness, but the quality of the writing is in every other way a triumph. The challenge in handling a naïve narrator is to make a weird and unorthodox use of language seem perfectly clear and natural. In this Carey fully succeeds.

And yet True History of the Kelly Gang also makes one think of those historians complaining about the movies. While not “revisionist” in any important way, Carey’s presentation of history is profoundly sentimental.

By “sentimental” I mean it makes use of the kind of moral simplifications that rely on stock emotional responses. The characters do not have the complexity of fictional creations, but rather tend to be either heroes or villains. Morality is reduced to simple positions of right and wrong.

Needless to say, considering he is the one telling the story, Carey’s Ned Kelly is a hero. “Justice” is a word that comes up a lot, but always as an unknown ideal or ironically as a way of equating English justice with tyranny. Colonialism is, of course, the great evil, and Carey presents the ruling British elite as the usual bunch of nasties (think of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, or even Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams).

If you really believe this to be the meaning of British colonialism, your promised land is bound to be America: a revolutionary nation that successfully threw off the British yoke. Certainly the spirit of this novel is borrowed from American Westerns, with the American West being both the place Kelly’s wife and daughter escape to and an analogy to Australia’s own “wild colonial dark.”

It might even be significant that Carey, who was born in Australia and considers himself an Australian nationalist, lives in New York. After all, Carey’s heroic outlaw, it should surprise no one, is a writer! What the poor man wants more than anything is to get the manuscript of his story published, and it is only the villainy of the local literary establishment – including a duplicitous printer and an evil Shakespeare-spouting scholar – that stands in his way. A suit of armour is what every sensitive soul requires in such a wicked world.

True History of the Kelly Gang is a brilliantly written evocation of a story that remains more interesting as history than fiction. Carey is a wonderful talent, but this book betrays a conventional mind.

Review first published January 27, 2001.


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