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Max by Alex Miller review – a compelling and tender story of one man’s hidden history | Books

ONELex Miller is now considered one of Australia’s best writers – he has won Miles Franklin twice. But he was just a young man who had come to Australia from Great Britain when he met Max Blatt, a German-Jewish intellectual, former communist and member of the resistance against the Nazis. The importance of their friendship cannot be overstated: it was Max who fueled Miller’s desire to become a writer and was one of Miller’s greatest supporters privately.

Miller’s new book Max is material and public evidence of the great and varied value of Blatt’s friendship. It also marks an interesting new development in Miller’s writing – prose which has always been an absolute pleasure to read – as a compelling and delicate tale of a man’s hidden story.

When you read Max, you feel surrounded by the deep personal resonance of Miller’s memories of a character as sympathetic as it is mysterious. We get to know Blatt as the young Miller knew him in the early 1960s. In a formative event for their friendship, Blatt loaned Miller his copy of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, “a sign of his extraordinary leap in faith that one day I would be the serious writer I had dreamed of becoming”. While Miller always viewed his friend as an emigrant, Blatt saw himself as an exile. His admission to Miller that his life was pointless, that he was a failure, remained largely unresolved.

About 30 years after Blatt’s death, Miller has to reflect on the great gifts of their friendship. To his great regret, they were out of touch towards the end of Blatt’s life, and Miller had not attended his friend’s funeral. He is haunted by the many unknowns in Blatt’s past. He wants to know more, understand the mystery and silence that surround a private story.

Australian author and two-time Miles Franklin Award winner Alex Miller.

Australian author and two-time Miles Franklin Award winner Alex Miller. Photo: Julian Kingma

All Miller has is a floor plan: Blatt was tortured by the Gestapo and fled Europe (to China and then to Australia). His loved ones were murdered by the Nazis. The specifics of Max’s childhood or the ability to survive family members seem obscured by the wreckage of history.

We follow Miller as he begins researching the museums and archives of Melbourne and Berlin. He travels to Poland, to Blatt’s former home in Breslau / Breslau and finally to Israel to visit the living members of the Blatt family and to discover a new network of shared memories and friendship.

Miller’s writing in Max is most noticeable, as he weaves repetitive words and phrases into the fabric of the trip. “Silence” is like a leitmotif that takes on a multitude of different meanings and resonances: the silence of the unspoken past, a landscape, two friends in conversation, of siblings in common grief. Like many survivors of massive traumatic events like the Holocaust, Blatt’s silence covers the profound difficulty, almost impossibility, of ever speaking about the past. The vastness of sadness and shame is too great to be expressed. For Blatt, the guilt hidden in his silence is the fact that while most of his family were killed in Nazi-controlled Europe, he escaped.

For a writer who has so often imagined he was a novice in a place – for example, the novels “Central Queensland” like Journey to the Stone Country are stories of discovery – Max is the most personal and vulnerable of Miller’s books. While capturing the excitement of the family historian who uncovered a new fact about his ancestor, each new piece of information also raises a number of difficult questions. Who was Max’s first wife, Hanna? How did she die? How could Max leave his parents, his family and his young wife behind?

While a network of people around the world assist Miller in his quest, getting back into Blatt’s story is sometimes difficult. Miller describes the process of his friend’s “critical” thinking. Given Max’s possible motives for keeping silent about his past, Miller relates how “it felt treacherous to me to think about going beyond the limit I had honored for most of my life.” That is the sanctity of his memory of Max. The book begins with an epitaph by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth: “The shard survives the pot”. This notion of incompleteness permeates Miller’s sense of how to piece together the precious memory fragments he possesses. That we can never know the “full story” is simply the reality of lives that were destroyed and rebuilt after the horrors of the Holocaust.

The encounters Miller has with the people who help him on his journey give Max an unusual emotional depth. Blatt’s niece Liat tells Miller that she has not been to her favorite restaurant since her husband died. Miller’s search brings her a deep sense of healing: “Max said you would come,” she says to Miller. In many ways, meeting the Blatt family lends a sense of peace and unity to the fragmented history. Miller relates how “this group of friends who had arrived in my life – they were real and whole, while Max would remain our common link, a broken vessel, the most precious parts of his life, scattered among the ruins of the terrible past.”

Miller’s book is a moving and masterfully written testimony to the power of friendship.

• • Alex Miller’s Max is now on his way through Allen and Unwin

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