From football to religious cults, Miles Allinson knows all about the slippery nature of memory

Miles Allinson. Picture: Meghan Lawson
Miles Allinson. Picture: Meghan Lawson
  • In Moonland, by Miles Allinson. Scribe, $29.99.

We start by talking Aussie rules. "I'm reading football biographies," says Miles Allinson, on a zoom call from Melbourne. Sporting biographies might seem like prosaic stuff for Allinson, whose cerebral, eclectic and highly original novels have won praise and prizes in recent years.

But he explains that a deep dive into this "absurd" world is being done in the name of research. His current work-in-progress is about a writer, ghost-writing the autobiography of an Aussie Rules football player. Is he writing about actual teams, I ask?

"I'm writing about the Bulldogs. Sort of." The Bulldogs are not his team though. "I barrack for the Bombers." He pauses. "Who are shit. Again. It's been a long time," he laughs.

In Melbourne, football teams are family and destiny; Allinson's father before him barracked for the Bombers for reasons of playground survival.

He tells a story about when his father moved schools as a child. A kid approached him in the playground and said, "If you barrack for the Bombers then I'll back you up in any fight you get into. He chose the Bombers because of this kid. You get stuck with these things."

The dialogue in the novel has a wonderful texture to it, by turns stark, deadpan and hilarious.

The dialogue in the novel has a wonderful texture to it, by turns stark, deadpan and hilarious.

It's an apt story, given that inter-generational themes are familiar terrain for Allinson. His second novel, In Moonland, was one of the most celebrated works of Australian fiction from 2021. It revolves around a few fateful months in 1976, when a young man from Melbourne, Vince, goes to the Pune ashram of the infamous Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Vince is reborn into the cult, renamed and feels himself utterly transformed by both his spiritual encounters and an all-consuming love affair. But after a cataclysmic conflict in the ashram, he is sent packing. He returns to Melbourne, marries, has two children and lives out the rest of his days in Elwood.

His death in a car crash however, which may or may not have been suicide, returns to haunt Vince's son, Joe. The question of what happened to Vince in India also becomes an obsession for Joe when his daughter, Sylvie is born.

In the final section of the book, set in a ravaged future, Sylvie visits Joe when she is about to become a parent, and is unsettled by both the weight and light a new life heralds.

"The character Joe... his father died when he was 17 so there is a kind of fundamental mystery at the heart of his identity: the question of who his father was and why his father died," Allinson says.

"That is a question he doesn't ask for a long time. Then when his daughter is born, he is suddenly thrown back into relationship with his father, by virtue of becoming a father himself."

Becoming a parent often forces us to reckon with our place in a lineage, family or history, he adds. "That occurred to me when my daughter was born, so I gave that psychic disturbance to Joe."

I ask why the search for identity seems to be such a bruising quest for Joe and his friends in In Moonland. "The experience of going to the ashram in the 1970s and setting aside your life, and stepping into a new existence, was a profound and really challenging one for lots of Westerners."

He is cautious however about the notion that this sort of search for identity may be more troublesome for Westerners than for his minor Indian characters.

For the Indian characters in the ashram, there was also a sense of leaving their own tradition and stepping into a new tradition.

"For a lot of Indians, that would have been an experience of betrayal or violation... Bhagwan was a very controversial figure," he says.

"He was hated by the more traditional religious figures and by the government [in India]."

"But my focus was about that generation of Westerners who went there and had this experience as a counterpoint to the Western secularism capitalism that they had grown up with."

The dialogue in the novel has a wonderful texture to it, by turns stark, deadpan and hilarious.

Much of it, he reveals, is based on long interviews he conducted with friends of his father. "I spent a long time transcribing people's actual conversations and using that as a basis to imagine a different type of conversation, a parallel conversation."

When asked how he winnows down his eclectic material, which ranges from UFOs, to rebirth, cults, the hippy trail and experimental Australian films of the 1970s, he happily admits there's no magic formula. "In the case of In Moonland, it was one of trial and error and a very circuitous path towards what the book was in the end," he says.

"Mostly I don't know where I'm going [when I write]. I have a vague sense of the kind of book I would like to write, the kind of atmosphere, the kind of tone that I want. I have maybe a couple of images that are evocative [though] I don't know what they mean, and generally I have a title, and I write towards the title."

In Moonland is also masterful in its restraint: there is a sense of mystery and unanswered questions which resonated long after I had put the book down.

"The books I really love are the ones that continue to be mysterious," he says. "Books where, once you finish them, you don't even know what that was ... I always try to maintain that sense of mystery."

He mentions South American writers he has recently enjoyed reading: Alejandro Zambra's Chilean Poet and Antonio di Bendetto's Zama, a "strange" but fabulous novel set in Paraguay, and published in translation after the writer's death.

The slippery nature of memory and of internal images are also tantalising to him, he says.

"The slippage between what happened, what might've happened, what didn't happen, slippages between dream images and memory images. That space is one that I really love. The intention is always to create something that evokes that experience for a reader."

Like In Moonland, Allinson's first novel, Fever of Animals, is also partly about the living trying to cobble together a coherent account of past events, aided only by the tantalising half-clues left by the dead. In it, a failed Australia painter, Miles, tries to piece together what happened to the Romanian surrealist painter, Emil Bafdesqu, who disappeared in a forest in 1967.

As he obsesses over Bafdesqu, he also sifts through painful memories of the relationship with his ex-lover Alice. Novelist Emily Bitto called the novel "masterful in its treatment of time and memory, and filled with such clarifying moments of observation and insight".

There's no question that Allinson has worked with some downright unusual premises, manipulating them with panache and control into masterful novels.

But getting the tone of his works right is a labour of love which can take years, he says. "For me, that's the hardest work.... making [the tone] lighter or less self-involved or funnier or friendlier."

A labour too, which requires humility and a certain "shrinking" of the ego. "If you approach the page thinking you know what you're doing, you'll be undone pretty quickly. That's been my experience."

Miles Allinson is appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival on May 19, in conversation with novelist Emily Bitto. swf.org.au

This story Miles Allinson knows all about the slippery nature of memory first appeared on The Canberra Times.