Over­loaded camel ter­rain

The Land­scape of De­sire By Kevin Ra­bal­ais Scribe, 280pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cath Ken­neally

DAVID Malouf says of this novel, loosely based on the Burke and Wills story, that it retells a familiar episode ‘‘ that gets less and less familiar as we read’’. You need to know the ba­sics of that myth- en­gen­der­ing jour­ney quite well not to get lost read­ing this frag­mented, time- hop­ping, voice- swap­ping ac­count. Younger read­ers, prod­ucts of an Aus­tralian ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem that didn’t push the early white ex­plor­ers of this land so hard, may be at sea. Here’s a crib from a less vis­ited point of view, from a book on Aus­tralia’s Mus­lim cameleers: ‘‘( Dost Mohamed) ac­com­pa­nied Brahe’s party when it left for Menindee on the very morn­ing of ( Robert) Burke’s long- over­due re­turn to the Cooper de­pot . . . ( Nearly a year later) Howitt’s Vic­to­rian Re­lief Ex­pe­di­tion . . . re­cov­ered the bod­ies of Burke and ( William) Wills.’’

So many in­di­vid­u­als who played mi­nor roles in the fated ex­pe­di­tion ( such as, say, Ge­orge Lan­dells, who’d gone to Karachi to fetch camels) are re­sus­ci­tated, pop­ping up uniden­ti­fied to speak, that The Land­scape of De­sire could do with an ap­pen­dix.

The real stum­bling block for Ra­bal­ais, though, is lan­guage: his 19th- cen­tury dic­tion wa­vers; di­a­logue, es­pe­cially, slips badly. When some­one calls up more drinks with ‘‘ Hey, bar­keep!’’, we’re in Paint Your Wagon, not 1860s Melbourne.

The res­ur­rected pro­tag­o­nists, too, are slip­pery. Burke is imag­ined as vain and work- shy, driven by the urge to ‘‘ be­gin with the facts this life of­fers and end in myth’’. Sur­veyor Wills is punc­til­ious, a note­taker, de­cent and loyal. This much we gather from the vi­gnettes that of­fer them up. Again, Ra­bal­ais chooses a prose style that ob­scures rather than re­veals, avoid­ing plain state­ment in favour of cir­cum­lo­cu­tion, per­haps be­cause it feels more true to pe­riod or seems to fit the stature of his sub­jects.

The au­thor imag­ines a com­mon love in­ter­est for the two men in the per­son of Ju­lia Matthews, a young ac­tor with a trav­el­ling com­pany. On the first page, as mem­bers of the ex­pe­di­tion bury trea­sures for pos­ter­ity, both ex­plor­ers in­ter a glove be­long­ing to Ju­lia. A fair pro­por­tion of text is de­voted to their af­fairs ( one stymied by a cir­cum­spect mamma, the other left cu­ri­ously un­hin­dered), but lit­tle depth is thereby added to our im­pres­sion of Burke or Wills, and Ju­lia and her mother re­main stead­fastly two- di­men­sional.

We approach the fa­mous duo rather more suc­cess­fully through the judg­ments of their peers, and through the au­thor’s eyes, in ear­lier pe­ri­ods of their lives: in Burke’s case in the Aus­trian army and as a coun­try sergeant in Beech­worth; Wills work­ing with his doc­tor fa­ther in Bal­larat. Over­all, they are fairly cred­itably fleshed out.

What Ra­bal­ais does well, and might have done much more of, is set a scene with res­o­nant de­tail, as where he brings to life Ni­cholas Che­va­lier’s Mem­o­ran­dum of the Start of the Ex­plor­ing Ex­pe­di­tion with a few strong par­tic­u­lars: ‘‘ Each man car­ries a pocket char­coal fil­ter to ob­tain drink­able wa­ter. Inside the crates, a large Union Jack, neatly folded; a blue light stored inside a lined case; three rock­ets, should any­one get lost, and, should those rock­ets fail, a Chi­nese gong tied to the rear of the third wagon.’’ Mem­o­rable too, rem­i­nis­cent of Voss in their haunt­ing qual­ity, are the short seg­ments in the al­most dis­em­bod­ied voice of John King, re­cov­er­ing from dread­ful pri­va­tion in the care of lo­cal tribes­peo­ple.

The Land­scape of De­sire is proof that the story Ra­bal­ais has cho­sen to re­visit is still po­tent. As he sends his search party af­ter the dis­ap­peared men, we find our­selves ea­ger to go with them, to look for traces along with them. This an­tic­i­pa­tion is sus­tained in the sec­tions of the text that hover clos­est to what is known about the doomed ex­pe­di­tion: where we meet the wan­der­ing Brahe or in­habit King’s trou­bled brain.

Malouf calls the book ‘‘ lyri­cal, pre­cise, mys­te­ri­ous’’. A wise men­tor would have urged a first­time nov­el­ist to stay with ‘‘ pre­cise’’ rather than strive af­ter the other two ep­i­thets. Cath Ken­neally is an Ade­laide- based nov­el­ist, poet and broad­caster.

Myth- en­gen­der­ing jour­ney: Sid­ney Nolan’s Burke and Wills

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