April Books, Part 2: Varieties of History

Every time I try to read something that Keith Windschuttle has written, I end up, at least metaphorically, throwing the book across the room in disgust. Later, trudging across the metaphorical room to pick the book up, I wonder what it would be like to read a book by Windschuttle that was sympathetic to Aboriginal Australians. I don’t mean that I expect Windschuttle to ever change his tune. But suppose there were a writer who was indeed congenial to the cause of justice for Aboriginal people, but who like Windschuttle, played fast and loose with historical sources. Who compromised his own arguments with half-truths and emotional blackmail. Who cherry-picked his facts to suit his prejudices and to compromise his perceived enemies. How would I react? Would I be similarly enraged? 

Well, I’ve met Sven Lindqvist’s Terra Nullius: a journey through no one’s land (The New Press, 2007, translated from the Swedish original published in 2005) and the answer is, yeah, pretty much that’s how I would feel. Although, metaphorically, I rather favor the image of holding something ripe and smelly at arm’s length to actually hurling it across the room.

On Amazon.com, Lindqvist is variously referred to as an author, a political activist, a traveler, a historian, a writer of original sensibility; his books are “an intoxicating blend of philosophical and political insight.” This last is from a review of Bench Press, a tale of personal bodybuilding that draws for inspiration on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Yukio Mishima. Already this sounds like a bad joke: a Swede, an Austrian, and a Japanese walk into a gym…. Hello? I’ll skip that one, and maybe look for Exterminate All the Brutes, his cheerful history of western imperialism. On second thought, maybe I won’t.

Linqvist’s heart may be in the right place, but his head isn’t. And unfortunately both his head and his heart are full of cliches (“It’s my own gaze that flinches from the solemn truth of death,” p.194). The book is a disjointed perusal of the history of white oppression of black Australians, a history that’s organized by geography, rather than chronologically or thematically. The road trip that he bases his story on starts in Adelaide, heads north on the Stuart Highway through Spencer and Gillen’s Alice Springs to Kahlin Compound outside Darwin. It turns west and travels down the coast through the Moore River Native Settlement and Carrolup. Along the way, Lindqvist gives Radcliffe-Brown and Levi-Strauss a good thrashing before heading back across the Nullarbor to the Central Desert, where a long final chapter offers his insights into Aboriginal art. If you’ve been plotting the course on the map, you’ll notice that he misses the east coast and the First Fleet altogether, rather a striking omission in the story he’s purporting to tell.

In the midst of his trek, he sometimes stops to relate to the reader certain dreams he’s had, such as one about walking through the air in Stockholm on a series of magical sky bridges that span the city’s monuments and landmarks. He never really clarifies the connections of these dreams narratives to his Australian journey. Suffice it to say that this white man got no Dreaming.

If I’ve said enough to convince you not to squander a dollar or two on this book when you see it in the remainder bins where it will be appearing shortly, I’ve done my duty. Do you really need to know that Spencer and Gillen were dupes of the greatest publicity stunt ever engineered by an Aboriginal tribe?

A very personal slant on history also informs Nicolas Rothwell’s Another Country (Black Inc., 2007), to much happier ends. Well, perhaps happy isn’t exactly the mood that this book strikes; Rothwell’s melancholy is spread like the heavy clouds of the Wet across this collection of short pieces, many derived from columns that he has published in The Australian in the past five years. Black and white photographs by Peter Eve preface each of the book’s eight sections, adding atmosphere to the essays and enhancing the sense of place that is core to much of Rothwell’s writing, even in the biographical/critical essays on individual indigenous artists that make up the section entitled “Portraits.”

Perhaps because this is a patchwork book, the current volume feels less accomplished than Wings of the Kite-Hawk, which was also built up out of small fragments but had a cumulative impact that outdistances Another Country. Rothwell’s critical commentary on artists is incisive and illuminating, and in the pages of the newspaper comes across as a revelation. The pieces are less well served by the book, where the brevity of ten portraits in a row tends to make them seem less lustrous. And although I’m sure that many of the essays included here have been reworked for this volume, I would have appreciated an indication of the dates of the original publication. All in all, though, these are minor flaws and I’m delighted to have convenient access to the collected works. As I noted in my previous post, these sorts of “news” stories tend to disappear from public view all too quickly; The Australian is particularly efficient at seeking to make money from its electronic archives. So if you’re looking to re-read “Scams in the Desert” (March 4, 2006) in light of the Senate Inquiry that it helped to spawn, having a copy of Another Country on your bookshelf is your best bet today.

If the sections on art and artists don’t work as well in the collected format as they originally did in The Australian, the third part of the book, “In the Shadows,” gains strength by amassing Rothwell’s concerns about health and welfare in remote Australia. While I’m still not sure that I agree with his recommendations for changes in social policy, including undoing the permit laws, the essays collected here do hold many facets of the crisis up to a personal and impassioned light. They are at their best when helpful in analyzing what might be done to combat the breakdown of both black and white law. In this regard, I found “Borderline Justice” to be one of the stand-out pieces in the book for its examination of the tri-state policing that began operations out of Kintore. It is high drama from start to climactic finish on the football oval, where justice is managed by its custodians on both sides of the racial and cultural border.

My final selection for this month’s review of books is a bit off topic, since Aboriginal people feature only marginally in it. But we’ve just passed Anzac Day, and Andrew McMillan has written two other wonderful books that tell great stories about indigenous Australians, Strict Rules (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) and An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land (Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001). So I’ll make an exception and recommend Catalina Dreaming (Duffy and Snellgrove, 2002). Its extensive subtitle sums up the book’s content: “rescues, exciting missions and other stories about the famous Australian flying boats of WWII.” I’m not truly a history buff, and I don’t think I’ve ever read military history before in my life. But I thoroughly enjoyed McMillan’s tales of ordinary blokes and heroism. The atmosphere of Darwin in the 40s is thrillingly recreated, and not just when the bombs are dropping. He makes the sweat and the beer and the bad food just as compelling. There are brief glimpses of the RAAF’s dealings around Yirrkala and Groote Eylandt during the war years. Some of these stories also appear in the Intruder’s Guide, but with a different focus. Catalina Dreaming is a great yarn all the way through. Each of the three authors discussed here, Lindqvist, Rothwell, and McMillan, write history with passion; Rothwell and McMillan show what can be accomplished when intelligence is added to the mixture.

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One Response to April Books, Part 2: Varieties of History

  1. Pingback: Interior Monologues | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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