The novel is based in a brutal colonial settlement at the time of the great 1806 flood on the Hawkesbury.
This flood of “biblical proportions” was described in the colonial newspaper, The Sydney Gazette: “The extensive damage done by the flood cannot yet thoroughly be ascertained: — though it is known that many individuals have lost everything they possessed, and that several have perished in the deluge, which was never before known to arrive to so great a height from eight to 10 feet.”
Waking on the banks of the river after its disastrous swelling, failed farmer and ex-convict Martin Sparrow faces the choice of recovering what he has lost, or running for the legendary paradise on the other side of the mountains.
In an interview with La Fiamma, Cochrane spoke of a folklore in colonial times which was perhaps initiated by the Irish folk.
It was said that beyond the Blue Mountains existed a village of runaways – a Shangri-la idea, a paradisiacal Eden where the traditional owners of the Hawkesbury River– the Darug people – now lived alongside rebels and “freedom lovers”.
Sparrow’s choice to either run or rebuild is influenced by numerous factors.
Although deeply in love with a local “strumpet” named Biddie Happ, he is also deeply in debt to the local constable Alister Mackie.
Despite his love, Sparrow decides to depart.
“He’s lazy,” Cochrane said, adding that the power of the folklore is enticing.
It’s a decision which triggers “a series of really terrible events” that involve other major characters in the novel; besides Mackie there is his deputy, Thaddeus Cuff, the vicious hunter Griffin Pinney, Romany girl Bea Faa and the young Aboriginal men Caleb and Moowut’tin, caught between war and peace.
“I also think he triggers the possibility for redemption,” Cochrane added.
“Because this is a great challenge: can Sparrow be better than he is?
“He’s not a very good man.”
The sub-title to the novel, after the flood comes the reckoning, gives a clue as to one of its greatest considerations... in what sense is Sparrow made?
The text posits questions of personal development at the crossroads of moral and ethical dilemmas which arise in any examination of colonial settlement, which, Cochrane warns, has been represented in all its harsh brutality.
Cochrane is first and foremost a historian and it is certainly to his credit in the making of this book.
He signed the contract in 2010 and subsequently undertook eight years of research into the history of settlement of the Hawkesbury River, while practicing in the fictional side of things, a process which he described as like “osmosis”.
“In history, we have method,” Cochrane said.
“In fiction, you don’t have much method; it’s all about how you get the relationship going between your conscious and your subconscious.”
“A historian is not the most likely person to become a successful novelist,” Dennis Haskell wrote in a review of Martin Sparrow in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“History seeks truth and deals with broad externalities; fiction looks to individual stories and to interiority, to the way characters think and feel.”
In Martin Sparrow, Cochrane has succeeded in both.
He already has a list of historical texts to his name, including Industrialization and Dependence: Australia’s road to economic development (1980), The Western Front 1916-1918 (2004) and Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy, which won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History and the Age Book of the Year in 2007.
The Making of Martin Sparrow is his second fictional book, after the novella Governor Bligh and the Short Man (2012), which was also published by Penguin.
Given its unique place within the field of Australian literature, it comes somewhat as a surprise to learn that after publication, the book was almost immediately picked up by an Italian publishing house.
Rome-based publishing house Jiminez Edizioni published the text as La Grande Occasione di Martin Sparrow earlier this year.
Since its translation by Gianluca Testani, the book has gone on to receive positive reviews, with a favourable evaluation by Susanna Nirenstein recently published in Robinson, the weekly cultural insert in national newspaper La Repubblica.
In that review, Nirenstein described the text as “astonishing” with a narrative containing “a psychoanalytical element which hooks us in, because all of us, like the ex-convict, dream of going beyond ourselves and our limits”.
Nirenstein’s comment could well be indication of the reason why Italians are emerging as totally enthralled by the book; the Italian “dream” of leaving behind the realities of daily life for the neverlands of America and Australia, has long permeated the national consciousness, just as the Australian settlers dream of crossing the Blue Mountains in search of the fabled lands.
In a statement released by Jiminez Edizioni Srls, Michela Carpi, one half of the editing company founded in 2018 by herself and life-partner Testani, described the reasons for choosing to publish Cochrane’s book.
“We are perpetually in search of frontier stories in which the protagonists are pushed toward an imagined better place, and who are willing to give their all and tackle life head on,” Carpi said.
“We were also struck by the richness of the characters in the book and the way in which the author was able to craft them with a strong sense of identity and vitality.
“The fact that Peter Cochrane was also a well-respected historian was another point in favour of the book, because it assured to us that there would be robustness and reliability throughout the entire story.”
Carpi went on to say that the 19th century in Australia is a period which is quite unknown in Italy, and is therefore of great interest to its readers who are also greatly curious as to the geographical obscurities of the country, and in particular “the presence of Indigenous people and the relationship that they had with their land and its new inhabitants”.
The idea of a land and its people that was so notably in harmony with nature, up until so recently, is intriguing to an Italy which has been characterised by settlements of expansion and colonisation since at least the 9th century BC, with the Etruscans in the north and the 8th century BC, when it is thought that the Ancient Greeks settled Sicily.
Italians, however, have always lived according to the rules of nature, as reflected in their age-old cultivation practices and synchronisation with the movements of the skies.
Cochrane, who earlier this year went on a book tour to Rome, Palermo and Rovereto in Trentino, said that in Italy he discovered “a great fascination with the early colonial history of Australia”.
“We did a couple of radio interviews that went for quite a long time and there were people calling up asking about the early years of the colony and particularly about Aboriginal people,” Cochrane added.
“There was a great, great interest in that, including the question: ‘what is the situation now?’.”
At its core, the novel is a “frontier western” which has been greatly influenced by American writers such as Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.
“Because I love frontier westerns and I’ve written a lot of history, I thought I’d really like to write a frontier western based on the early colonial experience,” Cochrane said.
But the frontier is a place of conflict, and any Western must necessarily look to the Indigenous experience of continual displacement and dispossession which is at the heart of the colonial experience.
“Well, I was very careful [writing] about that,” Cochrane said.
“I mean the politics of dispossession is still a huge issue in this country; it’s probably bigger now than it has been for 100 years because, thanks to historians [and Indigenous peoples] we are discovering so much more about what happened with the various frontier wars.”
In Cochrane’s book, the Aboriginal people have already retreated into the mountains and are regarded as mysteriously as the mountains themselves.
Their mythology and the fact of their absence abets the drama in framing its ethical consequences.
Only two of the Aboriginal people encountered in the book have a speaking role: Caleb and Moowut’tin, who both lived as go-betweens within the two cultures.
It’s a decision Cochrane made with the intention of sticking to his capabilities.
As Dennis Haskell said in the Sydney Morning Herald, “this is difficult territory for a white novelist but the characters are sensitively and skilfully drawn”.
There has been a tendency for critics to compare the book to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005), which involved a similar colonial story of settlement on the Hawkesbury River.
Although Cochrane conceded that both books shine a light on original violence, tensions and accommodations between settlers and Aboriginal people, his emphasis was that Grenville’s text is not a “frontier western” but more of a “drama in the wilderness”.
“But any good history or good fiction should contribute to the informed public memory,” he added.
“I hope that Martin Sparrow, a purely fictional character informed by history, contributes to a better understanding of what the circumstances were.”
It seems that the book will be making waves all the way to Italy.
Australian readers can find Peter Cochrane’s La Grande Occasione di Martin Sparrow, translated by Gianluca Testani, on Amazon.
Or visit Penguin to purchase the original English version.