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