Matilde Waltzing. By Elise Valmorbida. Allen & Unwin, 256pp. $16.95.
Reviewer: Christopher Bantick
29 November 1997
Dogs seem to be a new voice in contemporary fiction. First there was Muffy, the little white terrier cross, in Bernard Cohen’s The Blindman’s Hat, his 1996 Vogel-winning novel. Muffy was given to saying things like “The humans are in the process of learning that fulfilment is in itself pleasure-giving.”
In Elise Valmorbida’s new and structurally creative novel, there is a Scottie dog which, along with being part of a wall mural, has the disarming ability to become animated and offer insightful comments on prevailing circumstances.
Dogs aside, Matilde Waltzing – notwithstanding the juxtaposed word play on A. B. Paterson’s Australian bush anthem, Waltzing Matilda – is a story which encompasses a considerable sweep of European history. This attention to the past of the Old World is the novel's ballast as it addresses the themes of identity and migration.
At the centre of Valmorbida’s concerns is the journey Matilde Manin makes from the Italy of the Old World to the vastness of Australia. There is a little of the initial astringent mustard of Rachel Henning – recorded in her inimitable letters on arriving in Australia – in Matilde’s ambivalence about leaving what is familiar. In a letter to her brother Lorenzo, Matilde writes of prewar Melbourne:
“Do you know that many of the roads here are not sealed, just mud and dust like in the country, but no fields and no excuse, just slums and people making scenes at night. There sre stray dogs and wooden cottages all the same as each other, children going round with bare feet, and on the weekends, there are drunks on the streets. It can be quite dangerous.”
Yet, as Valmorbida – who is herself Italian – describes, the Italy Matilde leaves is not the civilisation rich with the resonance of Medici patronage. Matilde’s lot is rather more mundane. This is the time of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism under Benito Mussolini.
Yet, where the story has its most significance is in Matilde’s imagining of a new life and a new start. This is not an easy journey. Whether Matilde is still clinging to the memories of home from the small coffee cups she had brought with her to the belief that the climate would grow good vegetables, Australia is shown as the rudimentary New World.
Matilde is essentially the symbolic representative of the great migrant waves that have sustained Australia since before the war and more particularly after it. Through her Valmorbida is able to explore notions of identity and the tensions and grieving this can bring to new settlers.
The novel evaluates the idea of how identity is learned or, more sharply, imbued in the individual. In the case of Matilde, this was gradual and not without its difficulties.
Today, we would call this culture shock. In the thirties and forties, a more common view, if not dismissal, was that New Australians needed to quickly get used to what was unfamiliar.
Apart from the strong story line, Matilde Waltzing is an experimental novel. This is not a distraction, but rather more an enrichment to the linear plot development. Although Valmorbida has presented the actual text in a number of forms on the page with summaries, a heavy use of italics for the description of letters along with emphasis throughout, the novel is not compromised by visual innovation.
This is a story told with zest. It is clear that Valmorbida writes with energy and challenges the conventionality of what language can achieve. Matilde Waltzing offers a fresh look at Australia and the European migrant diaspora which ended here for many settlers. It is an engaging, often funny, sometimes poignant story. Matilde tells it well.