Reviewed by Rod McLary
In his previous book The Passage of Love, Alex Miller wrote a fictionalised memoir. In that book, he speaks of Martin Bloch – a close friend who encouraged him in his writing. The Passage of Love was reviewed in these pages in April 2018.
The fictionalised Martin Bloch in the previous book now becomes the subject of Max – as Max Blatt.
Max is Alex Miller’s tribute to Max Blatt – the author’s ‘dearest friend and mentor’ – and is a piecing together of Max’s history from his hometown of Wroclaw in Poland to his eventual settling in Melbourne. However, in writing Max’s story, Alex Miller also examines the concept of memory and how we are sometimes unable to reconcile the differences between our memory of an event and new facts laid before us about that event.
Max Blatt died in 1981 and ‘left the world as quietly as he had lived in it, his story unknown’ . But his story was ‘a broken one, the fragments detached from one another in time and place’ . Using a metaphor which resonates through the book, the author likens Max’s fragmented history to the ‘shards of a once beautiful vessel scattered among ruins’ . Undertaking to write Max’s story as a tribute to him, the author sets out on a journey which takes him to Germany, Poland and Israel as he gradually reassembles the shards of Max’s history. Echoing though through his journey of discovery is the intrusive thought that perhaps what will be found will somehow dishonour the author’s memory of Max and their friendship.
To reinforce the fragmentary nature of Max’s history, each section of the book is entitled ‘Fragment’ followed by a number and a title reflecting the content of or an incident described in the Fragment. For example, Fragment 5 is called ‘A Green Pump’ which refers to a green pump found by the author in a park in Wroclaw the Polish town in which Max spent his life as a boy and teenager. The pump ‘had come unscathed through the hell of the last days of Breslau [the German name for Wroclaw]’  and is seen by the author as an emblem of an older time – and a link between past and present.
The author brilliantly chronicles the slow piecing together of the fragments of Max’s life and how the discovery of one fragment will unexpectedly lead to another. But there is sometimes a confrontation between a memory and a newly-discovered fact. In the Fragment ‘A Green Pump’ mentioned above, the author describes his response when he is told that Max would have been brought to the headquarters of the Breslau Gestapo when he was arrested ; but Alex Miller had always pictured Max as being ‘tossed out onto the street in front of the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin’ . As the author says: ‘that scene was fixed in my mind and refused to be shifted. Fiction, in this instance, triumphed over fact’ .
The author also describes his conviction that he would not ever present Max’s story as whole and complete – to do so would be a betrayal of his [Max’s] truth – his life had been smashed beyond recovery by his experiences during World War II and his written story must reflect that.
What Alex Miller does present is a moving story of a deep friendship and its importance and significance to the author. It is beautifully written and the emotional connections the author makes with the remaining members of Max’s family shine through the sadness engendered by the uncovering and reassembling of ‘the shards’ of Max’s history.
The novels of Alex Miller all demonstrate a deep honesty and a searching for truth. Both are as amply represented in this his first non-fiction book as they are in all his fictional work.
The text is well supported by two sets of photographs, an Acknowledgements section; and sections entitled Sources [Archives and Unpublished Sources], Books and Articles, and Notes.
Alex Miller has twice won the Miles Franklin Literary Award [in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country], was the overall winner – also in 1993 – of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Ancestor Game; and his novel Conditions of Faith won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in 2001 as did Landscape of Farewell in 2011.
In 2012, he was awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature.
by Alex Miller
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 1 76087 816 0