The True History of the Kelly Gang

What is “true”? And how is this the most “true” history we have of the famous “bushranger” and outlaw?

Initially, the story of an Australian man who becomes his country’s “Robin Hood” seems far off the map of “post-colonial literature.” Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is of course new, and English language, literature. However, it does not fall into the normal stereotypes of what makes literature post-colonial at all (specifically speaking, it initially seems like it has little to do with race, former colonies [that one is just ignorance], and crossing borders). However, of course this is “post-colonial” literature. There are many signs for it and justifications for the label. Because it’s so easy to take this literature (and much of the “new” literatures being produced) and point out “post-colonial” aspects, I am beginning to wonder if our world is just so marked by colonialism that conceiving anything outside of this hegemony is even possible. If so, I think I am a bit disappointed because there must be other, news ways of talking about literature.

However, I need to illuminate a few reasons this is “post-colonial.” Different ethnic minorities are clearly pointed out fairly early on in the novel. First of all, Australia was an English colony with indigenous people already living on the land, just like many of the UK’s other colonies. Furthermore, these indigenous people (who are/were People of Color) were referred to as “black” and come up several times in the novel, the earliest occasion when Ned and Jem are out and about: “Cor look at them blacks said Jem […] damn them said Jem we was raised to think the blacks the lowest of the low but they had boots not us […]” (Carey 15). The lack of boots indicates an economic status that illuminates a further distinction of social status and class within Australia that extends beyond indigenous groups. One can further consider that Ned Kelly and his family (as well as many of his “peers”) were Irish and therefore another group of colonized people. Am I saying that racism or race/ethnicity relations define a text as post-colonial? Nope. But I do suggest that it is worth discussing in the context.

A more nuanced reading will reveal many other facets that are common themes in post-colonial literature. There is the large question of voice and who is allowed to speak. Ned Kelly is a criminal, yes. But he is also an individual who has experienced suppression and injustice and he is given a voice “in a dazzling act of ventriloquism” (as the eloquent writer on the back of my book writes) that is otherwise denied him. In light of essays like “Can the Subaltern Speak,” this move is rather “post-colonial,” though care must be made to consider that Kelly doesn’t really belong to the subaltern, nor is his representation skewed by a discourse that originally misunderstands/suppresses him (though I suppose someone more educated in criminal anthropology/psychology may disagree).

Perhaps the most valid point about the “post-colonialness” of this novel is that it makes many of the same moves as other post-colonial literature in its “rewriting” of history. Not only is the question of time itself constantly pushed through the forefront, with things like the epigraph by William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It is not even past,” but the way time is represented is challenged in more than just content. One has mixed mediums of parcel titles, letters, and references to newspaper articles and telegrams. The letters are presented as real, non-fiction, and yet they were created by Peter Carey. At the same time, this voice of Ned Kelly seems just as valid as any other voice (perhaps also because it uses the model of a real sequence of letters written by Kelly) that may have been provided by another writer. This complicates our ideas of “objective” history, “true” history, which is again very relevant to the discussion of post-colonial literature.

Gah, I feel like there’s more that needs to be said here… I’ve left some thoughts unfinished, but I have a thesis to go and write, so…

This was a good book and quick to read.  Even taken outside of the post-colonial context, it is a new way of looking at an old story and provides a sympathetic explanation for a few murders and criminal actions (though I still don’t condone it, it’s very western-esque, though labeling it as such opens a whole ‘nother kettle of fish).

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