Adelaide Hills author Eva Hornung is a “little surprised” The Last Garden has attracted the attention of literary judges but her 2017 novel – which is on the Miles Franklin shortlist after winning the South Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction earlier this year – is a powerful Australian fable.
“It’s an odd little book,” Hornung says from her farm in the Adelaide Hills.
“It’s almost a quiet meditation on how human beings negotiate the natural world and what role religion plays in that. So, I was a little surprised that it attracted attention, but it has been very pleasant seeing it win and be shortlisted for things.”
Hornung, who was formerly published as Eva Sallis, thinks the Miles Franklin Literary Award is a “bit of string that holds the history of Australian literature”.
“If somebody came to Australia and wanted to get a handle on the country, if they just read every Miles Franklin winner they would pick up something of Australia’s cultural history in quite an extraordinary way.”
The Last Garden is Hornung’s first novel to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, which will be announced at the end of August, as her celebrated 2010 book Dog Boy was ineligible due to its Moscow setting. Hornung’s latest has a Germanic religious community awaiting the return of the messiah in an imaginary rural South Australia. Protagonist Benedict Orion returns home from boarding school to find his mother and father dead by his father’s hand. Watched over by the community’s religious leader, Pastor Helfgott, Benedict retreats from the homestead to live in the barn, finding companionship with the farm’s animals.
Like the imagined South Australian setting, which Hornung uses to “sketch the background very lightly” she also invents a “closed religious community” for the book. Her father was part of a German religious community based in Palestine called The Templars, who were expelled from the Lutheran church.
“I had a look at making the community Lutheran [for the book], but the rules are so strict that I would have had to make it recognisably accurate where as I more needed this as a believable but invented sketch of a faith,” she says. “And it is believable because, like my father’s original community, there were a great many of these small millenarian sects in America and Russia and Germany, and travelling all around the world actually, usually excommunicated from their original churches. So, it was a believable trope, if you like, on which to create something that was simply true to itself and articulated a way of encountering a strangle land.”
The Last Garden wasn’t easy for Hornung to write. She had writer’s block after the release of Dog Boy.
“After the breakdown of my marriage – and leaving the city and coming up to the farm – I really did not feel at all connected with the person I had been and that included with the person who I was as a writer. So, it was like writing a first novel rather than writing a seventh. It was very hard to write. But it did have its own momentum and it did drag me back by the scruff to keep at it. As I said, I really like it, I feel as though it proved me to myself for this phase of my life.”
Hornung questioned whether she was a writer after Dog Boy.
“It was really a major endorsement for the Australia Council to back this book and then for my publisher to back it and my agent. And then for it to be successful once it was published, it really made me feel, in this second major phase of my life, I am still a writer.”
This hasn’t sparked a rapid phase of original writing but Hornung has been working on an Adnyamathanha (people from the Flinders Ranges) language program for the past 10 years, which she helped set up.
“The end result of that is quite a number of publications that I’ve been the handmaiden for. The Griffith Review published part of a thing in one of their recent editions, and I was very pleased to see that because I would like to focus a lot on Aboriginal languages in this part of my life as well.”
Hornung calls the Adnyamathanha language one of the great South Australian languages and says the project, Inhaadi Adnyamathanha Ngawarla, was set-up to “create resources that would make it so somebody who is learning a language would have some in-depth and inspiring works to get their teeth into”.
“It would be lovely to have more people learning it rather than losing it with each elder who passes away,” she says.
Inhaadi Adnyamathanha Ngawarla was Australians Against Racism’s (AAR) final project, which was formed by Hornung and designer Mariana Hardwick to counter destructive stereotyping of race and culture.
“We ran a lot of creative projects in arts and media to try and inspire people with a different point of view,” she says.
“The Aboriginal language project was our final project with AAR and then it took off and got a life of its own, which I’ve just worked on as a consultant since.”
A 2003 piece from The Age stated that Hornung was angry at the treatment of refugees in isolated detention centres but she felt fiction was not a strong enough weapon and only activism could remove injustice. Does she still feel this way?
“I think fiction and activism are not strong enough,” Hornung answers. “I feel… a kind of distrust of my younger self that felt so confident that I could change things. I do think The Marsh Birds , which is the book I wrote out of that time, is my finest book. I think it’s better than anything I’ve written before or since. I feel incapable of engaging with activism in the sense that I might have understood it 20 years ago. What I feel capable of doing now is trying to save an Aboriginal language. I do feel as though what Australia allows itself to do as a people, and the politics, is intimately related with what it has committed itself to ignore in terms of what happened to Aboriginal people.”
Hornung believes that Australia will be a very different country if every Australian child learns an Aboriginal language.
“I think a lot of the wilful ignoring and wilful negativity and ignorance would simply fade away,” she says. “You can’t learn a language without changing who you are and how you view the world, never mind learning one of our languages.”
What did the Adnyamathanha language teach Hornung?
“Learning Adnyamathanha language has both made me far more sensitive to Australian identity and far more aware of a love of land and love of place and history and ancestry. I don’t think it is possible to fully understand Australia without immersing yourself in an Aboriginal language. That sounds pretty extreme but that’s my experience.”
The Last Garden is published by Text Publishing. The winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Prize will be announced on Sunday, August 26. Perpetual is the trustee of the Miles Franklin and Copyright Agency is a supporter of the award.
More information: milesfranklin.com.au