The Book of Science and Antiquities: A misconceived and disjointed footnote to a glorious career

Thomas Keneally is a writer with nothing left to prove. The genial Australian (whose grandparents emigrated from north Cork) will always be most famous for Schindler’s Ark, his 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel that was later filmed by Steven Spielberg as Schindler’s List.

He has also penned more than 50 other books, dealing with such diverse historical subjects as Joan of Arc, the Irish Famine and Antarctic exploration.

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At the age of 83, then, Keneally must feel he has earned the right to indulge himself a little. This is the best explanation for The Book of Science and Antiquities, which was originally published in Australia under the more prosaic but informative title Two Old Men Dying.

Rambling, disjointed and not nearly as profound as Keneally seems to think, it’s a frustrating read in many ways – although the author’s polished prose and quiet intelligence prevents it from being a complete dud.

The primary narrator is Shelby Apple, an elderly Oscar-winning documentary maker from Sydney who wields his camera as “God’s eye in a naughty world”. Newly diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, he has resolved to die in as dignified a manner as possible.

“Exactly as I’ve faced the world frame by frame,” he writes, “excluding with the rectangular limits of the lens whatever does not suit my case; now it is only fair that the world should strike back with the unframe-able, the unfilm-able.”

Before Shelby’s date with what he calls “Jack the Dancer”, however, there is one final item on his to-do list. For decades he has been obsessed with a set of prehistoric human bones discovered near Lake Learned in New South Wales, believed to be the missing link between Africa and Australia’s first inhabitants.

Now Shelby wants Learned Man’s remains returned from the National Museum to his homeland as a symbol of racial reconciliation.

The second narrator is Learned Man himself, facing a set of vaguely similar dilemmas 42,000 years ago. Just like Shelby, he is both a person of distinction among his community and aware that he does not have long to live.

With great power comes great responsibility, of course, landing him with such unpleasant tasks as tracking and executing a man who has raped one of his tribe.

“If you prevail, you are given tasks,” Learned muses in a typically august homily while watching his intended victim. “He does not know that the killing bone is meant to go down the base of his handsome laughing throat.”

Back in the 21st century, meanwhile, Shelby weighs up his past through a series of fragmentary flashbacks. The most striking details his trip to war-torn Eritrea with a charismatic eye doctor (loosely based on the real-life ophthalmologist Fred Hollows) who thinks humanity could be on the verge of another evolutionary leap. “A burst of DNA and we would wake up wiser, finer, less contradictory,” he argues, adding quite understandably, “Now, I know you think I’m bloody mad.”

As the twin narratives unfold, other parallels become clear. Shelby’s creative partner Andy died just a few feet away from him in the Vietnam War and now feels like “my doppelgänger in the shades, someone who has endured the nullity of death on my behalf”.

Learned is equally haunted by the premature loss of his son Unnameable, who fell victim to a wild animal described only as ‘the slicer’ as they hunted together.

What does all this add up to? Every now and then there is a touching reflection on mortality, including Shelby’s realisation that he has reached the final stages of his marriage “when the hands that once tore at the flesh become wielders of wet cloths, or holders of the puke and blood bowl”. But the episodic plotlines are long on philosophy and short on dialogue, giving them a didactic tone that soon becomes more tiresome than thought-provoking.

Perhaps The Book of Science and Antiquities’ biggest problem is that Keneally seems to have no idea how smug or pretentious his chief storyteller can sound. “Cath [his wife] and I had the capacity, as if to seal our suspicions about events, for a deeper discourse, the comfort of caresses,” he recalls at one point, a polite way of saying that wanted a quiet place to have sex.

Later on he sends the Australian prime minister a laughably pompous email that must have gone straight to trash, declaring, “You cannot even find the grit to progress us for fear of the grey neo-fascists of your right wing! Are you thus no more than a palace eunuch?”

Thomas Keneally’s place in literary history is secure. This ponderous and misconceived novel, sadly, will only be remembered as an eccentric footnote.

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