Banking executive David Mapleton is working in his Sydney office when he receives a phone call from wealthy business and newspaperman Charles Reynolds. Charles would like Mapleton to join his covert organisation, The Hammer. Reynolds has grown impatient with the failures of the United Nations and other government agencies, and has assembled a group of people who may be able to bring some justice to what he sees as a corrupt body politic. Mapleton has the necessary financial and educational background required by Reynolds, but is he ready for an unknown and dangerous reality that will cause him to re-evaluate himself, his country and his ideals?
The story in this novella is told by David Mapleton, contrasting his deepening involvement in The Hammer’s activities with periods of introspection. Moving between Australia and Europe, Hammerhead also examines the difficulties that come for David and his two companions, Thérèse Sablon and Anton Partl, as they negotiate what Mapleton calls ‘My violent, improbable world.’
With the growing incongruities that culminate above the waters of Sydney Harbour, this tale of fantastical intrigue finds a contemporary parallel for the uncertainties and ethical dilemmas of the post-9/11 era.
Geographical and idiomatic usages are referenced below.
Arnhem Land one of five regions in the Northern Territory; includes Kakadu National Park
ASIS Australian Security Intelligence Service
Bilderbergers The Bilderberg Group consists of influential people in business, politics and defence. There is an invitation-only annual conference, usually in Europe.
Conflict Diamonds also referred to as blood diamonds; diamonds originating from areas dominated by groups opposed to legitimate governments who use funds for illegal purposes
Dandenongs mountain ranges east of Melbourne, Victoria
Darwin capital city of the Northern Territory
Davos the World Economic Forum meets annually in Davos, Switzerland
ECHELON intelligence analysis network operated on behalf of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States
Flinders Ranges South Australia’s largest mountain range
Interpol large international organisation that facilitates co-operation between police forces around the world
Melbourne capital city of Victoria
MI5 the United Kingdom’s internal counterintelligence and security agency
MI6 the United Kingdom’s external intelligence agency, the Secret Intelligence Service
Schlagsahne Ger. whipped cream
Schwarzwald Black Forest in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany
Stephansdom Saint Stephans, Saint Stephens; Romanesque and Gothic cathedral in Vienna
Sydney eastern seaboard capital of New South Wales
Tonton Macoutes Haitian secret police force
Upper Belvedere part of the Baroque palaces built in Vienna by Prince Eugene of Savoy; now used primarily as an art gallery
U.S. Department of State Cabinet-level foreign affairs agency of the United States government
David Mapleton, Australian banking executive, Australian
His father, Australian
His mother, Australian
Celia, his sister, Australian
Chris, her son, Australian
Charles Reynolds, Australian business and newspaperman, Australian
Roy, his partner, member of The Hammer, Australian
Anton Partl, member of The Hammer, Austrian
Florian Partl, his brother, latterly a member of The Hammer, Austrian
Thérèse Sablon, French/German member of The Hammer
Dame Enid Hartnell, ex-Cabinet Minister, member of The Hammer, British
Sir Nicholas Vansittart, retired Oxford lecturer in philosophy,
member of The Hammer, British
Edwin Sethman, philanthropist, member of The Hammer, American
Shevchenko, Russian, resident in Paris, Russian
Antonio Vella, Melbourne diamond and gold merchant, Italian
Tonton Jacmel, army colonel, Haitian
Carascaolo, drug czar
‘Jonty’ Squires, cocaine distributor
Sumner Priestnall, member of the State Department, American
Sylke, housemaid at Berlin villa, German
Carol and Jim Sanderson, Australian
Nora James, art curator, Aboriginal Australian
Sydney, Melbourne, Victorian Alps (Victoria), Munich, Neuschwanstein castle (Bavaria), Vienna, Berlin, London, Skyros, Flinders Ranges (South Australia), Northern Territory
Charles Edward Brookes Amazon review 2012
Mr Nicholson’s absorbing novella treats themes that couldn’t be more topical, in particular the incompetence of many of our institutions and also of the control organs supposedly watching over them. Of course, more than mere incompetence is involved. There are downright evil operators in today’s world whose actions are only dimly known to the general public--for example, certain hedge fund managers.
These various forces create an atmosphere of nihilism in our society that is destructive to the last degree. Already in 1955 Flannery O’Connor wrote: ‘If you live today you breathe in nihilism. . . . Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.’
In the book a mysterious organization known as The Hammer undertakes to change this state of affairs--by quite unconventional means.
Without giving away any of the organization’s secrets, one can suggest the kind of moral dilemma which it faces and resolves in its own way. If I have a chance to kill Hitler and don’t do so, are my hands clean? They’re evidently clean of the Führer’s blood. But what of the blood of the millions who will perish if he stays around?
Readers will hope Mr Nicholson will give us a sequel to this fine novella.
Some people have asked me about Hammerhead, or commented on it, and I thought it would be useful to say a few things myself about this text.
Hammerhead is a novella, what I’ve called a serious entertainment. A lot happens in its limited span, given its circumscribed development. The protagonist, David, enters a fantastical world of intrigue and violence, very different to the banking environment he is used to, though not really so very different if you want to draw comparisons with the unpredictable gyrations of the market place. David has to accept a new way of being which, at first, he resists. He has studied Nietzsche, and other philosophers, at Oxford, but here he suddenly finds himself challenged by the need for practical Nietzschean self-actualisation. He wants to achieve something important in the world, but discovers it is not easy to do that: he must compromise what has hitherto been for him a rather convenient morality that hasn’t yet confronted the question as to whether liberal humanism will fail us, our utopian ideals a delusion.
A film or television adaptation might place David's growth from banker to active political participant in the context of a character such as Marcello, the journalist, in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Marcello wants to change. Some inner lack of resolve stops him from progressing and the film ends in failure for Marcello. David moves beyond Marcello's moral uncertainty but, all the same, he must respond to a new kind of challenge, and in the process reconsider his entire life over.
The actual reading process and how that can capture reality is one of the leitmotifs that recur in Hammerhead. At the beginning of Part Two David borrows a book to distract himself from his growing involvement in what seems to be classic thriller territory, where the police and officialdom are on the periphery of events. He comments on the difference between what he reads and what he knows he is going to have to do to attain the changes he is seeking within. ‘Maybe this frenetic, digital age of information overload requires a more compact narrative, the author acting as a harsh editor of our brilliant, tragic destinies, giving us prose études of entertainment, self-slaughter. Not sober, accelerated, gesticulating, boring realism smashed to bits. But, no doubt, I am wrong.’ p. 56 The question arises as to whether the story in Hammerhead is simply a daydream in the office where David works. Can the reader trust David’s narrative? And if we can’t believe this fiction, can we then believe in the ‘facts’ as they are reported to us by the media? Should all language be distrusted, our responses ironised and then trapped by the tokenism of our own bad faith?
I see David’s progress as more of an interior monologue with himself, even though there’s lots of action as the story progresses. This action often takes place in monumental architecture, another recurring motif, acting as both a practical and metaphorical stimulus to David as he tries to think through his involvement with Charles, Anton and Thérèse. The banking office building where he works; the converted castle, Hohentor, where The Hammer has its headquarters; Saint Stephans cathedral in Vienna; Neuschwanstein Castle, the Fernsehturm television tower in Berlin; the Sydney Opera House: all these shape David’s growing sense of himself as an agent of change in an unpredictable world. ‘Some of the most exciting photographs of the Sydney Opera House were those taken during its construction--the ribs thrusting upwards, the unclad temple steps. Those photographs made you feel how marvellously complex and interrelated our lives were, how fantastic it was we had come so far.’ p. 144
So much happens to David, and so quickly, that he hardly has the opportunity to register what he is dealing with. His experiences are now the opposite of the calm he knew in the tutorial room where he once had time to examine the relations between ethical behaviour and political action. Throw love and friendship into the mix and you have a vortex of conflicting feelings. David has committed himself to The Hammer’s agenda without thinking through the implications of such an act, and, as a consequence, he is, at first, hesitant and confused. The fact that not many of his relationships seem to cohere reinforces his sense of alienation. There is a suggestion of this disaffection early on. After showering, David comments: ‘But if I closed my eyes I found it hard to picture myself. Sometimes I seemed a blank.’ p. 5 At the end there are no tidy endings. Everything is open-ended and the story ends with a challenging ‘what if’.
In this novella I tried to adapt a large theme to a small space. The energy from that compression runs over the sides of the pages, the story reading as a short, sharp shock, on the edge of possibilities, at the brink of turning into a novel. This energy mirrors David’s growing assurance, despite the violence about him. Aspects of characterisation are sketched rather than filled out, as is possible in a longer work of fiction. If some events in Hammerhead are increasingly improbable, they resemble the improbabilities and disjunctions of our own lives that, nevertheless, we have to believe in. ‘My story was distending, less believable by the minute. I am an unreliable narrator and everything I say is a lie.’ p. 141
Hammerhead veers around the cusp of several genres, and perhaps this unsettled quality reflects the tensions of our own lives today, caught as they are between domestic certainties and the extreme terror now visited randomly across the globe. How do we integrate our multiple selves in this distended psychic space? How are we to act in this crossfire? Choose only safe options, or be like David and offer up our courage, daring the fates onward.
Written 2003 Published September 2011
It would be so.'
Grady Harp Amazon review 2012
Peter Nicholson writes so extraordinarily well that it takes some time while becoming absorbed in this unique novel of intrigue to appreciate the two levels on which the story seems to be written. Perhaps it is the philosopher in Nicholson, perhaps it is the poet in Nicholson, or perhaps it is the intense concern for the current milieu in which society finds itself/ourselves that makes the novel so intensely poignant. And it entirely possible that this reader has missed the mark in believing this book is more a meditation on social mores than merely a well-crafted story. That will be each reader’s choice. Whatever brings attention to this novel the rewards are both those of entertainment of the highest calibre as well as food for thought and hopefully some social action.
The story (unless it is a train of thought from the mind of our main character, banking executive David Mapleton as he sits at his desk in Australia daydreaming a fantasy to give answers to the world situation and his own decisions about how to deal with what is happening with his life) involves the invitation for Mapleton to join a group called the Hammer (‘The Hammer wants to seek out those who are abusing power. The United Nations is hopeless. Enough is enough.’) With colleagues Charles Reynolds, a wealthy newspaperman, his soon to die cohort Roy, the enigmatic Dame Enid, the facilitator Anton and the one love interest Thérèse, the covert operatives fly throughout the world disposing of those in power whose abuse of that power keeps them from being controlled for the better of society. As David states, ‘I know what we were involved in was unlawful, but such a consideration could not be allowed to predominate here. Democratic sovereign states have the right to defend their territory and people. We had seen them do that spectacularly and effectively in recent times. Our group, a kind of fight club for a just world, was different. We were a mixture of political idealists, and I knew from my own experience that if ideals could survive your thirties, then they were real. We would leave the talk about ethics for others. Youth wasn’t always wasted on the young if you could learn from your past inaction and immaturity.’
Rather than his contribution to the Hammer as an advisor in money and banking, Mapleton becomes actively involved in the hunt and chase of the designated ‘victims’ to be brought to justice. It is this direct involvement in intended death that at first unsettles him but gradually finds a role in his psyche. The incidents that come at bullet speed take the reader to Munich, Vienna, Berlin as well as locations in Australia. At each location Mapleton is absorbed by the architectural wonders as well as the history of the great minds whose home or influence passed through these same portals. ‘It passed like a phantasmagoria at the far distance from repose.’ To share more details of the story would be to deflate the balloon of suspense that bears its shadow on every page.
It is quite refreshing to read an author who is comfortable in delving into psychology (Mapleton frequently recalls the influence of Nietzsche whom he studied at Oxford--and for those who need a bit of refresher: Nietzsche recognized the emergence of a new human he called an Übermensch, a new, better human with personality qualities far beyond those of the ordinary human of that time. As described by Nietzsche, this higher, advanced person was a self-created person who was emotionally ‘harder’ than the average person in part because of having synthesized many contradictory personality dimensions. In addition, such ‘free spirits’ were morally stronger and easily resistant to external social controls because of the development of their own individual values for living. Nicholson is equally concerned with the poetics of writing and his descriptions of places and sites glow: on a plane ride back to Australia, Mapleton opens: ‘Below, on the shards of countries hugged by oceans, rough destinies collided as I sampled fine food and an impressive wine list. I gradually withdrew from my fellow passengers to consider the seriousness of what the world had become for me, veering into violence. . . .
Crops would soon take in the morning sun as water ran from mountain top to delta. With what splendour came incomprehensible lives, from bright nervelines of desire to the plump, crying torso, from defeated, arthritic decades into that looming and most uncertain renewal of all . . . Ideals were still possible.’
And so it is in many ways the reader’s choice which avenue into the lyricism of Peter Nicholson’s novella Hammerhead to pursue. Either is justifiable. This is a most impressive achievement.
Peter Nicholson email: poetnic (at) yahoo.com