So it’s come to this. Sixty-seven years old and he labours on the docks. Cropped grey-white beard, ex-boxer’s pug nose, he is wiry, rotund and short. His strength is sensed rather than seen, belied by age and excess weight. Vigour is the word. Henry Nissen exudes vigour. His life force is strong. It animates his gestures, powers his determined little walk.
Henry Nissen was a champion boxer, the boy from Amess Street in working-class Carlton who fought his way up to beat some of the world’s best in the 1970s. Now, he works on the Melbourne docks, loading and unloading, taking shifts as they come up. But his real work is on the streets. He’s in and out of police stations and courts giving character statements and providing support, working to give the disaffected another chance.
And all the while, in the background is the memory of another fighter, his mother—and her devastating decline into madness.
The Fighter is a moving and poetic portrait of a compassionate man, but also a window onto the unnoticed recesses of Melbourne.
‘I wanted to take the reader with me as the story moves from scene to scene, into some of Melbourne’s lesser-known liminal spaces, such as the Port Diner, the various shadow-worlds occupied by the displaced and alienated.’ Read an interview with Arnold Zable on the Text blog.
‘Written in Zable’s lyrical style, The Fighter reads like a novel. The text provides many aesthetic pleasures; it also has heart and soul. This is an excellent addition to the literature on the survivors of war, focussing on the grief their families inherit.’
‘Zable’s portrait of this amazing and compassionate man is an interesting and uplifting read.’
‘Arnold Zable performs his own masterclass in literary shadowboxing in The Fighter…[He] has a superb eye for detail and it serves the narrative exceptionally well…Zable channels the story of an ordinary man, a good man, who, to this day, is still winning on points.’
‘[Zable] takes the art of the novel – the attention to tone, rhythm and perspective – and applies it to the true story of Nissen…This book is about more [than boxing]: endeavor, belonging and redemption. It’s the kind of story that made Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One a bestseller…It’s also about Melbourne, its light and shade, and the people who fall between the cracks and the ones who survive.’
‘A poignant tale of fortitude, love and sorrow…Arnold Zable draws an evocative portrait of post-war Carlton, underpinning his story of the compassionate man and the forces that moulded him.’
‘A truly inspiring slice-of-life tale…[Zable] skilfully peels back the layers of Henry’s troubled mum Sonia and the effect it has had on the family.'
‘Nissen is an unlikely hero, and Zable recreates his world with the utmost respect… [It] is an open-ended kind of book, a celebration more than a closed biography…The Fighter is an autumnal book, with leaves of many colours and limbs heavy with fruit. It offers a rich sense of the ways in which pain can mellow and create community.’
‘A study of loss, memory and displacement embodied in the lives of the previous generation, the refugees from Nazism and the war in Europe…During his career as a writer Zable has returned to this subject again and again, but there is nothing stale about the way he probes beneath the historical narrative of wartime Europe for the telling personal details that give meaning to individual lives…In Zable’s sensitive hands, each individual story of survival belongs to all.’
‘Zable is a humane writer who invariably adopts a compassionate view of his subjects. He seeks to ennoble lives that might otherwise remain unheralded. His work recognises the basic decency of ordinary people and honours their struggles in the face of adversity.’
The Fighter does not merely echo the slang of Melbourne’s once mean, working-class streets or the cries and clangs of its equally mean docks, but it also utterly inhabits its protagonist’s voice and perspective. This book is an intriguing, compelling, moving and lyrical hybrid between memoir and fiction, just like the many lives of its subject, Henry Nissen. Boxer, dock worker, social worker, son, brother, husband and father, Jew and Australian, Nissen’s life story is, literally, stranger than fiction—and more heart-breaking and inspiring than any novel could ever imagine. Zable unflinchingly tells Nissen’s inspiring and affecting story. In vivid, evocative prose he celebrates not only Nissen’s many unprecedented achievements in the boxing ring and his tireless, selfless work with Melbourne’s most desperate, but also the achievements of his family, friends, and community. Skilfully juxtaposing the intersections between boxing, fighting and survival, good luck and bad, sanity and madness, this sensitively written book is ultimately a paean of hope and dignity, generosity and optimism, courage and love.