‘A gun that shoots right through history’, Honest History, 27 May 2017
Is there anything new to be said about Chinese-Australian sniper Billy Sing, who killed so many Turks at Gallipoli that he earned the nickname ‘The Murderer’? The Australian War Memorial has an informative website (filed in the Education section, interestingly), and then there is John Hamilton’s Gallipoli Sniper: The Life of Billy Sing (Pan Macmillan, 2008).
Hamilton’s book is a big, hefty tome, the product of years of research. It unfolds a richly detailed account of this ‘common soldier who was an uncommon man’, as Hamilton explains, ‘a man who became famous – infamous – on Gallipoli, then went on to France and Belgium, and survived’. With care and precision, Hamilton traces the lives of Sing’s Chinese father and English mother, the fortunes of his two sisters, and Bill’s own adventures, from rural Queensland to Europe and back again.
From Hamilton’s pages an insecure, bullied boy emerges, a feared and decorated sniper, and a largely forgotten war hero who is eventually ‘found dead in his pyjamas in a Brisbane boarding house’. Ouyang Yu’s new novel, Billy Sing, tells us, as only a novel can, how it might have felt to be in the midst of this story, to be living it, grappling with it, remembering it.
It’s hard to think of a better author for this novel. Chinese-Australian writer Ouyang Yu calls himself ‘a bilingual animal’, ‘a bilingual force moving in between’. Among many other Australian books, he’s translated Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia into Chinese, and he’s written a PhD at La Trobe University on the Chinese in Australian fiction. He’s a prolific writer himself, with over 80 books to his name, including his award-winning novel, The English Class (2010).
Now a Professor of English at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, Yu insists that he is not ‘a non-mother tongue writer’, but ‘a writer and creator of two languages – English and Chinese. If we use father and mother as metaphors, then Chinese is my mother tongue while English is my father tongue.’
Yu lets Billy Sing tell his own story – from the grave: ‘I am happy where I am, living in the eternity of death …’ Billy recalls a difficult childhood, lived in loneliness and isolation, but also with a father who, when he was not out droving, might cook a beautiful braised leg of pork with soy sauce, and teach his son metaphors, such as ‘ear wind’, for rumour, and with a wonderful Indigenous friend, Spark. The War Memorial’s website tells us that Billy ‘rushed to sign up’, but, in this novel, Bill enlists because he can’t think of a better option. ‘I did not have a choice. It was either the farm or the world, perhaps the latter.’
The war turns out to be ‘a bloody bore’, but it’s manageable, thanks to some extra rations of dried tobacco, a special privilege granted to one of the AIF’s most reliable snipers: ‘In a way, killing people is easier than killing kangaroos. You pull the trigger and he is dead. Pretty pure and clean, not a single drop of blood staining your hands. Plus the food is good and one goes to sleep shortly after, night after night.’
Coming back is not so easy, even though Bill’s ability to recite the citation for his Distinguished Conduct Medal helps him woo a wife. But he can’t hold on to her.
When I touched myself, I touched all my war memories and the pain caused from making love to the war whores. She was right about it; it was not World War One. Rather, it was World War One Hundred or Two Hundred or Three Hundred. Ad infinitum … With no enemies in sight, one seemed to have become one’s own enemy, a constant object to wrestle with. Physically in ruins, I wasn’t good for anything much.
Ouyang Yu’s Billy Sing is adamant that he’s neither an avid reader nor a brilliant writer. His school teacher returns his essay with a C+ (‘could have made it more uplifting’). When his mate, Ion (writer Ion Idriess, in fact), a diligent diarist, tells him to start recording his experiences, he can’t. ‘ “No way”, I said. “I don’t know how. Dreaming is more than enough for me. If I dream, I feel alive.” He got the hint and said, “Then if I write, I feel dead?” ’
And when his Scottish wife surrounds herself with books, Tristram Shandy and Far from the Madding Crowd, he is nonplussed (‘If there was one book in the whole world I wanted to read, it was her, my darling Brownie, Mrs Sing …’) But the references to Laurence Sterne’s rollicking Tristram Shandy are no accident: Yu’s Sing narrates his life like Sterne’s Shandy does, playfully, rambling, with plenty of digressions and ruminations, and a keen interest in sex.
Billy Sing (Wikipedia)
Ouyang Yu’s Billy Sing is easily one of the most daring, most experimental novels about Australia’s experience of World War I. The slim volume, with its grainy picture of Billy Sing, a pipe in the corner of his mouth, looks different from the (many!) novels that have so far flanked the war’s centenary. To those browsing Australian fiction shelves, the war now often comes in big, chunky books, such as Fiona McIntosh’s Nightingale (2014), Pamela Hart’s The Soldier’s Wife (2015) or (most recently) Jackie French’s Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies (2017), with covers graced by ladies in beautiful, often sumptuous period dress. If you liked Downton Abbey, these novels seem to promise, you’ll love us!
These books themselves are markedly more adventurous with (and less nostalgic about) their material than they let on, but they tend not to experiment with the ways in which they tell their stories. Billy Sing is different: Yu’s first-person narrator loves to pull the rug from under our feet. ‘Nothing like that happened’, he concludes his account of a youthful brawl, where he attacks and defeats a bullying schoolmate twice his size. ‘I was just daydreaming by the billabong.’
At one point, the novel is interrupted by a conversation in italics. The author himself seems to appear on the page, challenged to defend himself: ‘ “You can’t write like you was him” ’, a man (whose identity remains undisclosed) insists. A reviewer? A creative writing student? A publisher? The brief scene elicits some of the book’s most beautiful lines: ‘Language is a powerful weapon, sometimes the most powerful weapon, particularly for those who have nothing much else … a gun that shoots right through history’.
John Hamilton, in his (hugely informative) non-fiction book about Sing, insists that ‘Billy Sing’s legend lives on’, that he’s ‘dead, but not forgotten’. The Billy Sing of Ouyang Yu’s novel is not so sure about his legacy: ‘Large tracts of my life remain unrecorded’, he explains. And he asks us: ‘Why do you think that people still pay respects and lay wreaths on my grave? Is it because they believe that the dead never die or is it because they are merely hypocritical, thinking they can get away by cheating the people with memories long enough to remember.’ And: ‘Think of how many died in the war. What for? Just so that their memory lives? Where does it live and how long does it last?’
This is a poetic, beautifully unsettling book. It doesn’t just take pot-shots at the Anzac legend – the hallowed word appears only twice, in references to the beach on Gallipoli, and the Day to commemorate it – but asks bigger, challenging questions about what it is to remember, and what it means to belong.
[*] Christina Spittel is a Lecturer in English and Media Studies at UNSW Canberra. She reviewed JP McKinney’s novel Crucible for Honest History and also wrote an important review of the Australian War Memorial’s refurbished World War I galleries. Dr Spittel would like to thank Dr Beibei Chen for her expertise on Ouyang Yu, and Dr Peter Londey, as always.
Billy Sing memorial plaque, Lutwyche cemetery, Brisbane (Sniper Forums)