In Jungian psychology a mandala is a symbol that represents the effort to reunify the self.
In Patrick White‘s novel twin brothers, Arthur and Waldo Brown, cannot seem to reconcile the fact that they once shared a womb, the two of them being so different in temperament and personality. And yet, there’s a strange kind of reliance on one another, especially in old age, when the two share a bed and often walk about town holding hands.
Even their lack-lustre love lives (neither of them get married) are remarkably similar, when, as teenagers, they both fall for Dulcie Feinstein and then, as adults, when they strike up a close friendship with their neighbour, Mrs Poulter.
But despite their differences and their tendency to secretly loathe one another, they cannot escape their lifelong familial bond. It is their ongoing struggle to find a balance between intimacy and independence that marks the lives of these two very different men.
Arthur, the older of the two, is good-natured, if a little simple, and is content with his lot in life, working as an assistant to Mr Allwright, the grocer. But Waldo, the bookish one who works in a library, has literary aspirations and thinks himself superior to most people but lacks the confidence to chase his dreams.
First published in 1966, The Solid Mandala is Patrick White’s seventh novel (he wrote 12 in total, along with two short story collections, a memoir and a bunch of plays) and is set in Sydney, Australia, in the early part of the 20th century.
The Browns are recently arrived immigrants from England and the twins are already marked out as different by the mere fact that the family refuses to go to church like every other good Australian citizen. This effectively sets a pattern for the rest of their lives, because neither Waldo or Arthur ever really fit in. Even as retired gentlemen their appearance on the street, walking their dogs and holding hands, causes a stir.
“I never saw two men walkin’ hand in hand,” Mrs Dun murmured.
“They are old.” Mrs Poulter sighed. “I expect it helps them. Twins too.”
“But two men!”
“For that matter I never saw two grown women going hand in hand.”
The Solid Mandala follows the day-to-day lives — from cradle to grave — of these seemingly unremarkable men. Both twins have a chapter each in which to narrate the story. This makes the relatively drab subject matter come alive by showing how alternative perspectives on the same events and incidences can be vastly different from one person to another and how those said perspectives are coloured by individual prejudices, personalities and beliefs.
Ruthless and brutal in places, the prose is also illuminated by White’s distinctive literary flourishes — the tendency to drop punctuation when he wants to convey a character’s excitement, for example — and wonderfully descriptive passages about Australian life and landscapes:
It was really the grass that had control at Sarsaparilla, deep and steaming masses of it, lolling yellow and enervated by the end of summer. As for the roads, with the exception of the highway, they almost all petered out, first in dust, then in paddock, with dollops of brown cow manure — or grey spinners — and the brittle spires of seeded thistles.
There is much grace and beauty here and plenty of laughs, but in places I felt overwhelmed by the sadness that effuses the story, the sense of loss and regret and the inability to escape the past and to truly grasp life by the horns. And the near-perfect ending, I have to say, came as somewhat of a shock, so much so it’s taken me a month to write this review, because I wanted to think about this book before I put pen to paper.
Ultimately, The Solid Mandala is a very human book about how two people living one life can grow apart but never grow away from each other. I very much enjoyed it.