Academic journal article Antipodes

The Sinner, the Prophet, and the Pietà: Sacrifice and the Sacred in Helen Garner's Narratives1

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Sinner, the Prophet, and the Pietà: Sacrifice and the Sacred in Helen Garner's Narratives1

Article excerpt

IN HER RECENT BESTSELLER JOE CINQUE'S CONSOLATION (2004), Helen Garner documents her investigation of a highly publicised crime involving two law students, Anu Singh and Madhavi Rao. The young women were tried for the murder, by lethal heroin injection, of Singh's boyfriend, Joe Cinque. Gamers true-crime narrative revolves around the courtroom drama and her encounters with the Singh and Cinque families. The narrative also speculates about wider social network within which the crime occurred-of university students and other young people, adrift at the margins of Australia's capital city, Canberra-apprehending it as a bleak world of alienation, amorality, and drug dependency. The following passage from the book conveys Garner's response to a scene outside the courtroom, immediately after the presiding judge, Justice Crispin, has pronounced a ten-year prison sentence on Anu Singh, whom he had some weeks earlier convicted of manslaughter on grounds of reduced responsibility:

I was awestruck by Maria Cinque's composure. Nino Cinque maintained his place, with few words and a sweet expression, alongside the huge, elemental drama of his wife's persona; but such power dwelt in her that others shrivelled in her presence, became wispy, insubstantial. She never grand-standed or behaved falsely; yet as their suffering and outrage intensified, there rose from the depths of her a tremendous, unassailable archetype: the mother. We recognised it. It answered to a need in us as well. Her outburst after the sentence was not a rupture of protocol. On the contrary, we had waited for her to utter. It was an honoured and necessary stage of a ritual: a pietà. We listened in respect, almost in gratitude. We needed to hear the sufferer cry out against her fate, although we knew that for this pain and loss there could be no remedy. (131)

Gamer's prose here not only bears witness to the terrible spectacle of the victim's sorrowing mother, but performs a public, communal ritual. Along with questions of grief, the matter the book most insistently pursues is the apparent failure of the justice system to deal commensurately with the violence engendered by the accused and her accomplice. Though it acknowledges the personal humanity of Justice Crispin, Garner's book presents as inadequate his finding of manslaughter rather than murder. Doubts are also aired as to how much of the ten-year sentence will actually be served; indeed, Singh was released after four years. Not only is the secular law of the modern nation-state unable to assuage the grief of the victims, the Cinque family, it is also found morally and spiritually wanting: it cannot or will not fulfil its role of providing a moral compass to distinguish good from evil. So Gamer's book offers itself up to fill this gap, as prayer or devotion, performing a ritual consolatio. It is Garner's book that atones for the death of Joe Cinque. Throughout the text, Maria Cinque, whose maternal power is magnified in the narrator's own awed response, appears as an elemental, even divine figure. The Biblical cadence of the prose is indicative: "but such power dwelt in her"; "there rose from the depths of her"; "we had waited for her to utter"; and "We needed to hear the sufferer cry out against her fate." The Biblical lexicon, the incantatory rhythms, and the pronominal convergence of reader with witnessing crowd arguably align courtroom with Christian congregation. Yet the passage may also produce a more troubling echo, of the fatalistic voice of the chorus in Greek tragedy.2 The rendering of the Biblical does not cancel an atavistic return to the polytheistic origins of Western culture. Garner's invocation of the sacred might thus be understood as multivalent and ethically ambiguous, betraying an oscillation between myth and religion. Ambiguity attends the law as well-its arcane robes and rituals mystify even as they legitimate a secular institution, routinely conjuring a mystical authority that its rational procedures deny. …

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