Jones, Gail. Salonika Burning. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2022. RRP: $34.99, 256pp, ISBN:9781922458834.
Gail Jones’ ninth novel, Salonika Burning, opens with the titular Greek city—these days better known as Thessaloniki—‘all blaze and disintegration’. ‘A group of soldiers standing on the hill watched with indecent pleasure’, Jones writes. ‘The wind locals called the Vardaris blasted from the north, puffed minarets into candles and monuments to blocks of gold’ (1). As Jones’ typically exquisite prose suggests, it is a sight that’s less frightening than ‘strangely beautiful’ to those observing from a distance (1). It’s also a scene whose image recurs throughout the novel, and which was—Jones notes—later portrayed by the artist William Thomas Wood, who depicted the destroyed city the morning after the fire, ‘brightly calm, with a floaty view from the heavens’. Jones writes,
In his signature pastels, remote as a child’s dream and thinly decorative, he painted smoke wafting in floral cumulus above the stricken city. There were no visible human or animal figures. Testimony, he called it, proud of the composition and the palette, and smugly pleased to have painted a Big Event. (3)
And yet this was, Jones adds, nothing more than ‘the pretty lies of art’: ‘Former residents and soldiers said, No, it wasn’t like that’ (4). Representation is inherently partial, of course, but in this case, it appears to have failed to capture something that feels fundamentally truthful.
The significance of such attempts to artistically render the stuff of real life—and the ways they can often fail to capture something close to the complexity of the experience of it—is at the heart of Salonika Burning. The book takes as its starting point a series of four protagonists based loosely on historical figures—the Australian novelist Stella Miles Franklin, British artist Stanley Spencer, Australian adventurer Olive King and pioneering female surgeon-turned-psychoanalyst and surrealist painter Grace Pailthorpe—each of whom is depicted serving in the Salonika region during World War I. However, as Jones states in her author’s note, the novel ‘takes many liberties and is not intended to be read as history’ (246). Partly for this reason, the characters do not have surnames. Thus, it is less interested in strict historical accuracy than the partial but potent possibilities offered by artistic representation.
This is suggested in the way Jones’s protagonists struggle to process the horrors they are witnessing, and to make sense of ‘the illogic of the times’ and its ghastly ‘new economy’: ‘populations of all sorts, humans and beasts, crisscrossing the globe so that men could line up to slaughter each other’ (62). Olive, a volunteer ambulance driver, has been told it is her duty ‘not dwell on that which you have no power to control’ (65). And yet she wants ‘to speak of what she had seen and known’, despite her fear that ‘her heart might rip open from an affliction of memory’ (69): ‘It seemed another kind of duty, not to forget’ (65). What’s more, at times Olive cannot help but remember, during those ‘entire nights when time and geography slipped away and she found herself falling backwards, so that bodies slid in and she revisited the worst of her memories’ (67). At one point, she attempts to raise some of this with Grace, but finds her counterpart ‘hieratic and remote’ (119); indeed, despite passing moments of connection, Jones’ characters mostly remain distant from one another, like planets whose orbits never quite intersect.
Work seems as if it might offer purpose amid the senselessness. Olive’s has allowed her to escape the conventional ‘domestic destiny’ of her pampered Sydney milieu; has ‘remade her’ and allowed her to ‘become resolute and strong’ (17). And though she tells herself that ‘work was a solution to all that snagged at her’ (213), at moments of acute strain she turns to reciting German grammar, a reminder less of the wartime enemy than of a period spent being ‘finished’ in Dresden with her sister as a teenager. It is a practice that helps to bring ‘her wild thoughts under control’ (69). Similarly, having overcome a stiflingly devout upbringing and sexist exclusion to gain her surgical training, Grace has found a role with ‘purpose and meaning’ (50), even as she must remind herself to ‘not consider the human factor’ (49) in order to cope with its emotional toll. Her ‘wandering thoughts’ may be ‘censored by work’ (223), but she has her own set of lists-as-backstop: medical terms, the recollection of which allows her to enter ‘her surgeon-mind, in which the body was interconnected systems of blood and guts’ (49).
That art might be similarly fallible in this regard is implied not only by the reference to Wood’s painting but also by the character of Stella. A self-described ‘incompetent cook and sometime orderly’ (52) who chafes against the lowliness of her role and her lack of writerly fame and success, she seeks to convince herself that the pieces she files for newspapers are a contribution to the national cause, ‘all the while imagining a novel she might one day write about this adventure’ (53). In planning to venture into Salonika to view the wreckage, before she is laid low with malaria, she imagines ‘she might ennoble the city and honour it with her judicious witness […] Stella would like to see “catastrophic”. It would be something to write home about’ (56).
The efforts of stretcher-bearer Stanley—at once humbler and more artistically ambitious—seem more consequential. Regarded as an outsider for his outspoken religiosity, he draws portraits of the soldiers in his unit, an act of ‘bringing them into focus, making the best likeness he could manage’ (85). This gains him a measure of acceptance and, in a setting where the ‘crude deathly logic’ of war has ‘made them all interchangeable’ and fragmentation of selfhood endemic—as suggested by the recurrent imagery relating to mirrors—it offers his subjects a chance to briefly apprehend themselves in totality: ‘It was a charm,’ Jones writes, ‘to show them again full and, for the time being, safe’ (85).
His ‘artist eye’ also offers him some small measure of comfort, suggesting a way of seeing that might feel more truthful than Wood’s pastels and akin to ‘the shifting angles and surfaces, the facets of gold from reflections’ which Stanley spies in a pile of mirrors in the ruined city (32). I would not be the first critic to observe that Jones’ novel—with its blending of fact and fiction, fragmentary narrative and layering of characters and recurrent imagery—might offer something similar. Indeed, in its psychological acuity and at-times startling vividity, Salonika Burning brings to mind the maxim that fiction has the potential to capture reality with an emotional verisimilitude that can elude more earnestly factual accounts. It’s also testament to the ways the knowingly partial and fragmentary can, at times, provide a fleeting glimpse of a whole that might otherwise remain unknowable.
Dalziell, Tanya. ‘Time is Arrested in Gail Jones’ Beautiful New Novel of War and Art, Salonika Burning’. Review of Salonika Burning, by Gail Jones. The Conversation, 20 Dec. 2022. Sourced at: https://theconversation.com/time-is-arrested-in-gail-jones-beautiful-new-novel-of-war-and-art-salonika-burning-195187.
Gemma Nisbet is a writer from Western Australia who lives and works on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja. She recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia, and her work has appeared in publications including Australian Book Review, TEXT, Westerly and The West Australian. Her first book, The Things We Live With: essays on uncertainty, will be published by Upswell in October 2023.