By Sonia Nair
In classic philosophy, an axiom is seen as a statement that is so obvious or well-established it’s routinely accepted without controversy or question. But in modern logic, an axiom is simply a premise or starting point for reasoning.
With her structurally impressive fourth nonfiction work – which tackles familiar themes from the physical and emotional significance of places that have withstood significant trauma, to the shifting conceptions of home, identity and belonging – Maria Tumarkin both demolishes this first definition and underscores the second. Blurring the lines between memoir, essay and reportage, the book’s chapters unspool from Tumarkin’s encounters with certain people, to encapsulate that ‘nothing is more human than the experience of feeling trapped’.
Turning well-worn axioms on their head in each of the five distinct chapters, Tumarkin dismantles commonly-held but rarely interrogated truisms that reveal both everything and nothing about the way we live. With each letter in lowercase and their endings at times omitted, these axioms are stripped of their inherited meanings.
The first chapter ‘time heals all wounds’ centres on a woman called Frances who lost her 16-year-old sister Katie to suicide. Frances’s fractured sense of self is first rendered through a series of essays she writes about her sister throughout Year 12 and university. The way Tumarkin arranges these recollections in amongst her own reflections about grief, death and loss imbues this chapter with a feel not unlike the start of a novel, although we soon learn that the after-effects of Katie’s death are too real to be contained within any novel – they ripple outwards to affect family, teachers, friends.
Tumarkin dismantles commonly-held but rarely interrogated truisms that reveal both everything and nothing about the way we live.
By contextualising the deaths of young people, Tumarkin examines how schools are irrevocably damaged, and how teachers are often the best placed, yet the most ill-resourced, to navigate the aftermath. The reason Tumarkin has decided to turn her eye to teenage suicide may have something to do with the fact that her daughter ‘has not been well in her soul (her body too) for a while now’. It forces Tumarkin, and by extension her readers, to reckon with the inherent unknowability that accompanies any suicide, and the failure of the framework to account for the deep sorrow and pain young people feel about the geo-political state of the world:
Your life may be privileged, safe, white but that won’t make you immune from despair at the world. Doesn’t mean you don’t feel things with an intensity that turns being in the everyday – to-do lists, plans – excruciating at least some of the time.
In the chapter ‘those who forget the past are condemned to re–’, Tumarkin cleverly delves behind the sensationalist headlines of the time to reveal an astonishing miscarriage of justice that saw a Polish grandmother jailed for acting out of well-placed concern for her grandson, who she purportedly kidnaps and hides away for four months. The writer ties together the unravelling threads that preceded the act, all the while refusing to draw neat parallels between the first year of her life spent in hiding from the Nazis and the effort she took, several decades later, to hide her grandson from his negligent mother. By recognising in the grandmother the autonomy and humanity the justice system robbed her of, Tumarkin rids her from the burden of having to relive her trauma day after day – in other words, the grandmother is saying: ‘don’t use my tragedy to mask your moral failure.’
Tumarkin’s voice is urgent and excoriating as it is tender and wry. Though much of what Tumarkin turns her eye to in the book is grave and distressing, moments of levity and hope punctuate the narrative when least expected, proving that though she specialises in portraying the splintered human condition, Tumarkin’s ultimately optimistic quest lies in piecing together meaning where meaning has been forsaken, and moving forward. The subject matters themselves may be familiar – suicide, intergenerational trauma, misogyny in the legal system, displacement – but everything is as if cast anew when Tumarkin writes about it. Startling new connections between what was and what is are revealed, seizing the reader with moments of lucidity and stark realisations.
The relative brevity of the chapters, so rich in exposition they’re each worthy of a standalone book, belies the slow, gentle way Tumarkin draws each person out, and the generosity and compassion she affords them. Some of the most sharply-rendered portrayals are that of Polish émigré-cum-media personality and socialite Vera Wasowski (one of the few people within the book to be accorded their real unabridged name), and tireless community lawyer Vanda.
Many of Vanda’s clients are entrenched in endless cycles of poverty, abuse and addiction, living their lives on ‘a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks’. It’s Tumarkin’s summation of Vanda’s selfless dedication that comes closest to exemplifying the weight and moral imperatives contained in her writing, even if she is talking about someone else:
Many who advocate on behalf of others don’t want a connection with those they’re advocating for. Aren’t interested in talking politics. Twists and turns of human fate are not up for discussion. Whereas a smart lawyer who gets you, fights well for you, is like a doctor, the provider of an essential service.
Though she specialises in portraying the splintered human condition, Tumarkin’s ultimately optimistic quest lies in piecing together meaning where meaning has been forsaken, and moving forward.
By inhabiting and embodying the spectrum of human pain and suffering, Tumarkin fights for every person encapsulated in Axiomatic, and in doing so has created something deeply original and essential to understanding the core of the human experience. Perhaps it lies in her exemplification of pity – although pity when practised by Tumarkin is contrary to what we’ve been taught, much like the axioms she so adroitly deconstructs, and more like Raimond Gaita’s description in After Romulus:
For the Greeks pity did not carry the connotations of condescension that it often does for us. It referred to a sorrowing compassion that is marked through and through by awe at our vulnerability to misfortune.
Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based writer and critic who has been published by The Wheeler Centre, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and Metro. She blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at whateverfloatsyourbloat.com and tweets @son_nair.
Maria Tumarkin appeared at FWF2018 on It’s Personal: Feminism and Narrative Nonfiction.