The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith
THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH is Peter Carey's liveliest and most unrelenting reflection on the postcolonial dilemma of Australian society. No other contemporary novel addresses so many postcolonial issues in Australian culture.1 Many novels have shared the nationalist concern with the hegemony of British colonization. Some depict the global dominance of the USA. But few have demonstrated with such mischievous clarity the historical connection between these forms of colonial control, the mendacity of Australian political life, and the ambivalence of the relationship between Australia and its political masters. As Australia once again slavishly follows an imperial power into an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state, the novel seems exceptionally topical.
Tristan Smith is driven by a consuming cultural thesis: that all culture, identity, and the power relationships they invoke are a product of simulation. In this respect Tristan's story inhabits one of the most fraught and contested spaces in postcolonial studies: the interface between the material experience of colonization and the necessary discursive strategies by which that experi-
1 Reading Tristan Smith with a postgraduate class when it first appeared, I was
shown a copy of a review that offered the opinion that the novel “reads like an Empire
Writes Back casebook.” The review went on to outline some of the important post-
colonial features of the novel, claiming: “each of these devices is like a signpost on the
road leading to a 'post-colonial reading' of the text.” The critical blindness of this view
is the failure to see that Tristan Smith is a reading as much as a writing: a 'reading' of
contemporary cultural relations. It doesn't simply propose a reading; it is a reading
and, as such, enters, rather than exposes itself to, the field of theoretical discourse.