Always galvanized by injustice towards the poor and homeless, inspired by an eclectic medley of teachers (Marx to Gandhi to Malcolm X to name a very few) Liz was impossible to ignore or avoid. Blonde with classic Italianate bone structure, congenitally vibrant and geared towards a cause, she was able to overcome with a few phone calls or car drives or air flights what it would take most of us years to achieve.
She was never one to do things by half measures. The Sandinista’s need help from their overseas camarada’s? Liz flew over and lived side by side with them drinking rum, smoking Cuban cigars and regularly going out on anti Contra field trips with an AK-47. The East Timorese need health services? An exceptional medical doctor, she worked far into the night for no pay and partied hard on scanty rations and contraband with gunfire all around her.
But it wasn’t all politics and sturm und drang, not by any means. She preferred Rubenstein’s interpretation of Chopin’s nocturnes to say, Horovitz or Michelangeli’s and Liz was the first person I knew who discerned that her adored ‘fatso’ Pavarotti wasn’t quite hitting the high C’s as he used to. And of course Anna Moffo made the best recording of ‘Songs Of The Auvergne’.
Though Liz grew up in Melbourne she always longed for warmer climes and less formal cultures. She was sunny and impulsive, Mediterranean by nature, averse to the dark clothes and reserve that characterizes Melbourne. She always felt she belonged somewhere else, a stranger in a strange land.
As a counterpoint to her infectious laughter and sense of mischief Liz was afflicted with occasional depression throughout her life. Regardless of hereditary or environmental factors her private demons proliferated with increased exposure to local and global inequality and discrimination.
Liz Varrenti was an exotic assortment of contradictions. One week you’d walk into her momento-strewn lounge and she’d be on her treadmill with Mozart’s Requiem in D minor playing way above conversation level, the next week she’d be gorging herself on Belgian chocolates whilst watching DVD’s of the love of her life, Freddie Mercury, with the music cranked up to concert intensity volume.
As you entered her house you were confronted with wall to wall kitsch, beauty and political credos nailed on any spare space available. There was a sticker on her front door – “This Is Ned Kelly Territory”. Kelly was an Irish/Australian bushranger who spent his short charismatic life as an antipodean Robin Hood fighting against ‘English oppression’. Opening the front door the first image that hit your eyes was a life sized photograph of Freddy Mercury. That was just the beginning. Her walls were covered with gorgeous Chagall reproductions and beneath haunting faces looking at you from Central American paintings and photographs were little tables covered with plastic machine guns that squirted water, piled up with South American market trinkets and little squeaky animal toys bought for the entertainment of her timid Russell Terrier, inevitably but inappropriately named Tosca.
I met her on her first day at Melbourne University, we both attended some rally and then walked back to my student room with a group of lefties. At seventeen she was already a heavy smoker and drinker and I was miffed that she knew the lyrics to every single Beatles song. I was then astonished to find out how much she knew about Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Che Guevara. Her study and understanding was deep and as our friendship developed I learnt much from her.
It was never just books, tedious cramming and undergraduate political gravitas. Far, far from it. The one thing that can never be captured in words is Liz’s laughter and capacity for fun and mischief. While she was at school she teamed up with her high school classmate and life long best friend Nina Zimmerman and wrote hilarious lyrics about the dark side of Stalin’s reign, setting it to the melody of Heart And Soul and renaming it “Stalin’s Purges”.
While studying and working as a doctor Liz took time off to travel to five continents. She met many of her heroes, Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega to name a few, and had mysterious John le Carre style encounters with CIA operatives and traditionalist Catholic priests fronting as progressive leftwingers. A whole book would be needed to cover half of what she did and describe her meetings with an assortment of disparate celebrities; her encounter with Mick Jagger alone would make an absorbing little footnote. Her hot blooded affairs with farm workers and ministers of state would make up another very readable tome.
Fiery and passionate in all things Liz would often ring or drop in to talk about her latest crush; chain smoking and curling her hair with her forefinger, she’d talk about someone she’d known a few days with all the gravity one would give a life long amour, completely forgetting that for every man she fancied there were dozens who wanted to marry her. When reminded of this she would be pleased for a while but would soon lapse back into a fretful dolour.
A fluent Italian and Spanish speaker who read Ignazio Silone, Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda in the original, Liz had a lovely voice and in mellow moods she would sing lilting songs by composers like Carlos Godoy:
Oh Nicaragua, Nicaragua
the most beautiful flower of all,
fertilized by the blessed blood of Dirianga
Oh Nicaragua you are sweeter
than the honey of Tamagas
But now that you are free little Nicaragua
I love you much more…
During one of her trips through Central America Liz visited the chapel crypt in San Salvador where the bodies of brilliant liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuria and five other Jesuit martyrs had been placed after being brutally killed by the army on the orders of Salvadorian conservatives. Both John Paul II and the then cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) had come down hard on these priest scholars because of their socialist theories and use of Marxist terminology.
At some stage shortly after her visit to the memorial Liz had a vision of the assassinated priests. She has left behind an incredibly moving and beautifully written account of this revelation. Her rationalist/atheist paradigms were turned upside down. Back in Australia, shocked and amazed by her experience Liz immersed herself in liberation theology and a study of the Gospels. She studied Oscar Romero and Archbishop Helder Camara (“When I gave food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”).
This led to inner isolation despite being surrounded by friends. In Asia her vision would have been accepted or interpreted as a mental projection of suppressed numinous intimations.
In Melbourne most of her associates tended to dismiss her epiphany as a deliberate or accidental hallucinogenic episode and there were few who could acknowledge her awakening. They failed to grasp the depth and authenticity of her experience. But this was no born-again ersatz caprice. Through her encounter with other modes of thought Liz spontaneously understood the higher truths of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. This was patently obvious in the clarity of her speech and writings on Asian philosophies.
Her ideologically stay-at-home colleagues saw her change as further evidence of romantic phantasms and delusions. This was to be expected. Monocultural, monolingual, never having heard a gun fired with intent to kill, the only changes of consciousness they were familiar with were brought about by drugs, alcohol and the occasional nervous breakdown. They couldn’t engender any response that would necessitate changes in comfortable archetypes and lifestyles. This was part of Liz’s bravery and ridicule was one of the prices she paid for it.
But Liz continued on her way and we often talked about the violence of ostracism and the impossibility of convincing others about the validity of the paths we had chosen. She was very pleased when I sent her a little Indian story I had loved since teenage years:
“A king asked a sage to explain the Truth. In response the sage asked the king how he would convey the taste of a mango to someone who had never eaten anything sweet. No matter how hard the king tried, he could not adequately describe the flavor of the fruit. In frustration, he demanded of the sage “Tell me then, how would you describe it?” The sage picked up a mango and handed it to the king saying “This is very sweet. Try eating it!”
You could ring Liz up at any time if there was a crisis and she would be there as soon as her car would transport her. Patients, friends with relationship problems or on the verge of a collapse, Liz was available for all of them. There’d be a call at 4 a.m. – “I’m at Evans place, he’s had another panic attack about his hair loss would you believe, he’s taken some ecstasy so I gave him a sedative, he should be OK soon…” There were hundreds of calls like that, sometimes from other cities or countries on the other side of the planet.
The last ten years of her life were spent helping refugees. She found the attitude of the Australian government (either faction) totally reprehensible. Nearly all of her money earned as a physician was spent trying to get people out of concentration camp style internment centres and rehabilitating them into an alien environment. She wrote letters relentlessly, sent off emails, canvassed social workers, politicians, lawyers – anyone who could help. Her constant refugee work, support for Aboriginal rights and sponsoring of the RSPCA wore her out despite her tremendous reserves of energy. She was often exhausted and sleepless.
The knowledge that El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Paraguay now have leaders who acknowledge their debt to liberation theology may have come a bit too late.
When Liz died last week I heard stories of
sleeping tablets, uppers, downers and dejection. But it was the commonplace, the mediocre and ignorance that finally put her to sleep. In ‘On The Road’ Jack Kerouac writes “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.
Jack would have treasured Liz. In her forty-two years she burned like a roman candle and lived over a dozen lives.
Wherever you are Liz, I’d love one more 4 a.m. phone call …
By Stefan Abeysekera