Michael Kirby: Paradoxes and Principles
AJ Brown; Federation Press, 2011; 484 pp;
$59.95 (hardback with pictures)
Janet Malcolm, in her brilliant rumination on the problem of biography in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes,1 writes:
… the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life. … The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that a reader will want to linger awhile among them, rather than to flee…2
A desire to linger awhile is certainly my reaction to reading and enjoying this fulsome account of the first 70 years of Michael Kirby’s life (drawing on over 117 metres of personal records held by the National Archives of Australia, extensive speeches and other papers prepared by the subject, not to mention his court judgments). Brown also skilfully makes space for a few central images and feelings to assist one’s progress through this extensive and absorbing book. The opening image shared with the reader is of the Khyber Pass, where Kirby was travelling for the second time with partner Johan van Vloten. It is 17 December 1973 and ‘This time, at least, there were no guns’. Three and a half years earlier, Afridi tribesmen ‘brandishing rifles’ asked if he was British and ‘the young Australian traveller answered yes’ (p 1).