February’s Book: An Aboriginal (and) Australian Masterpiece

Once upon a time, longer ago than seems possible, I left home to study literature at college. I thought I’d had a fairly sophisticated taste of English lit up to that point, thanks to wonderful teachers who had supplemented John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens with the likes of James Joyce and Joyce Cary. But even sophisticated suburbia hadn’t prepared me for the radical transformations in literature that I quickly encountered at the university, where Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook had recently revolutionized the voice of women in contemporary fiction and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude shattered the English-speaking world’s belief in its monopoly on the production of experimental narrative strategies.  I felt the literary landscape rumble with similar seismic shifts when I was about a hundred pages into Alexis Wright’s latest novel Carpentaria (Giramondo, 2006). I will risk hyperbole gladly to say that I think this is the most magnificent Australian literary adventure I’ve encountered; it is certainly a historic moment in the genre of Aboriginal writing. If you haven’t already done so, make your way to the nearest Dymock’s or A&R for a copy. Then call your local library and make sure they’ve ordered a copy, too. Those of you in America will have to cough up the exorbitant shipping rates from Australia, I’m afraid, but it will be worth it. (And call your library, too; I’ve checked, and they haven’t bought it yet.) I won’t try to summarize the action of the book. There are good reviews published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age that do that. Rather, I want to look at what makes this work truly “novel” in its own way.The story begins in a picaresque style, each of the early chapters introducing key incidents in the life of one denizen of the Gulf Country town of Desperance. The town itself almost deserves to be given recognition as a character in the novel, an idea entirely in keeping with the Aboriginal identification of people and land. It is a bastard town built by a mining company on Aboriginal land that refuses to give up its serpentine character. It is a town full of whitefellas, all bearing the surname Smith, and all in some way indebted to the Gurfurrit Mine for their continuing and precarious existence. It has a mayor named Bruiser, and a policeman named Truthful. The town’s name is a motherlode of ambiguity in its own right, tottering between hope and despair, and resisting attempts by interfering officials to rename it “Masterson” as its inhabitants persist in tearing down any signs identifying it so. Legend has it (at least in the book: I can find no independent confirmation) that “Desperance” was Matthew Flinders’ middle name.

Desperance is bordered on either side by rival settlements of the Pricklebush mob, Eastside and Westside. The breakaway Eastside mob is led by old Joseph Midnight. They split from the Westside mob after a battle broke out in the local rubbish tip. Angel Day, the one-time wife of Westside’s old man, Normal Phantom, precipitated the dust-up in her urgency to retain possession of a statue of the Virgin Mary she discovered in the tip one day, and which she was convinced gave her control of the white man’s luck. Disregarding the riot she engendered, she took the statue home, painted its skin black, and set it up in the garden of her ramshackle, endless home, likewise built from scavengings at the dump. One of the couple’s seven children, Will Phantom, has been disowned by his father for marrying Joseph Midnight’s daughter. Will has also disappeared from town in the company of a convoy of derelict vehicles led by Mozzie Fishman that is a modern-day incarnation of the desert’s Red Ochre men. If you’ve read Garcia Marquez, you are no doubt beginning to understand why the “magical realism” and narrative structure of his books come to mind so quickly.

Once these several characters have been introduced, the episodic and somewhat disconnected narrative of the book begins to coalesce into a more conventional story line. But even as a sort of forward movement of events begins to take shape, Wright continues to confound expectations. The progress of time (or narrative) is never quite clear cut in the book. And I don’t think this is simply because the many threads that make up the story are told independently of one another, or because the characters remain throughout unaware of the progress of each other’s adventures. Nor do I think that Wright is attempting to infuse the novel with a Dreamtime temporal logic akin to Stanner’s “everywhen,” although that seems at one level a plausible explanation. There certainly is a story being told here that relies on Western notions of causality, and of one action following on another. The novel does build to a climax, a resolution, and ending and a new beginning. But simultaneously, these conventional notions of story-telling are disrupted as some events seem to occur both before and after others. Perhaps a subsequent reading of the novel will clarify some of this narrative unfolding for me, but I think not.

Similarly, Wright displays an extraordinary skill in balancing what I would otherwise call realism and metaphor–hence the comparison to the Latin American school of magical realism. But in the works of Fuentes or Garcia Marquez there are episodes or actions that clearly violate the principles of realistic fiction, and thus demand that we abandon our expectations of conventional logic and accept them as metaphorical. In Carpentaria, the language of description operates in two worlds simultaneously and is entirely and logically consistent in both. Thus when Will and Mozzie engineer a cataclysmic explosion late in the novel, the earth moves in complete accordance with both the laws of geophysics and the awakening of the Great Serpent as it sloughs off a dead skin. 

This resolution of opposites into a single but in some way still dual reality manages to remain true to both the European and Aboriginal methods of story telling, and is crucial to the success of both in the novel. In Western story telling, of course, the resolution of conflict is the engine of narrative; in the Aboriginal worldview the balanced existence of duality creates the world in its wholeness. And so Elias Smith rises from the sea and sets in motion a series of events that are fully resolved only after Hope falls from the sky (a lovely metaphor that is brutally ugly in its literal sense). Just so, Angel Day and Joseph Midnight’s children in turn become the parents of Bala, the child who survives the cyclonic destruction of a quite realistically sited Desperance and an island whose precise location is charted only in mythic terms. That child is led by the old man Phantom to begin creating the future anew at the book’s conclusion.

Along the way the story is studded with incident that reveals an encyclopedic and kaleidoscopic portayal of Aboriginal life in the 21st century. Mozzie’s convoy is a mixture of political refugees and religious initiates whose red ochre coloring owes as much to simple dust and dirt as it does to ceremony. The summary incarceration of Mozzie’s sons after the murder–never explained–of Gordie Smith is a study in rough justice of the worst kind. It is an action that leads to deaths in custody that remain equally unexplained, and also, tellingly, to the madness of the policeman Truthful. The devastation the mine brings to Desperance is not just environmental but also personal; it leads to the physical and mental incapacitation of Norm Phantom’s favored son Kevin and to the co-opting of his older sons while making an outlaw of Will. It is violence made manifest. Equally, there are wonderful sequences that demonstrate the links of the Pricklebush mob to their physical and spiritual worlds: Norm’s extended sea voyage for the final burial of Elias and the red ochre convoy’s parallel journey into the depths of the earth to send the spirits of Mozzie’s sons into the next world are two of the most vivid examples.

Throughout, the richness of Wright’s language is the key to the book’s success. It is true to both worlds, the Aboriginal and the Anglo-Australian in both diction and narrative strategy. The way in which Wright is able to make these voices speak simultaneously is the great literary achievement of the novel for me. It is also, as I hope I’ve been able to suggest, a great story full of smaller and equally wonderful stories. Carpentaria is the literary equivalent of the emergence of painting in the Western Desert thirty-five years ago. It is utterly true to two systems of expression, as dazzling and unexpected to the ear as Papunya painting was to the eye. I hope it is a signpost toward a literary future that is as compelling in its explication of Aboriginal thought and culture as those works of the Pintupi masters were in the visual arts almost four decades ago.


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One Response to February’s Book: An Aboriginal (and) Australian Masterpiece

  1. Pingback: Black Arm Band Premiers ‘Dirtsong’ in the US | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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