EMBOLDENED by the roaring Aussie dollar, most people I know are heading overseas with empty suitcases, or scheming to. So it’s been cheering in the midst of this middle-class exodus to follow the Australian adventures of one of my favourite writers, Mark Twain, who sailed to this country on a global lecture tour in the 1890s and published his journal under the beguiling title Following the Equator.
Twain was fascinated by just about everything Australian, from simple yet poetic place names — his favourite, the ‘‘ most musical and gurgly’’, was Woolloomooloo — to a bird for which he doesn’t have a name ‘‘ that opened his head wide and laughed like a demon; or like a maniac who was consumed with a humorous scorn over a cheap and degraded pun’’.
Even before landfall in Sydney he has heard tell of the Aborigines and is halfinclined to believe a boomerang thrown by one of these geniuses can turn a circle in the air and kill a man hiding behind a tree. ‘‘ From reading Australian books and talking with the people I became convinced that the aboriginal trackers’ performances evince a craft, a penetration, a luminous sagacity, and a minuteness and accuracy of observation in the matter of detective work not found in nearly so remarkable degree in any other people . . .’’
He never actually meets an Aborigine, and it dawns on him the reasons why as he hears many grisly accounts of their extermination. These stories prompt him to reflect on ‘‘ the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages’’. But of course this is Mark Twain. He is no bienpensant late-modern, and he goes on to declare that he would walk 30 miles to see a ‘‘ stuffed’’ Aborigine in the absence of any personal encounters.
Twain is a master storyteller with a warm and unhurried narrative style, an ear for dialogue and an eye for the convincing detail, and he is alert to the stories he picks up along the road, which takes him from Sydney to Melbourne and Adelaide and many big towns in between. He is seeing the country at the tail end of its two big gold rushes and dwells often on the paradox of convict beginnings overlaid by extravagant wealth; of good fortune geysering up from the ground.
Melbourne, in particular, he finds a ‘‘ majestic city’’ with an ‘‘ efflorescence of palatial town houses’’ surrounded by ‘‘ ducally spacious grounds’’ unsurpassed in America. These oddities of fortune lead him to conclude that Australian history is ‘‘ almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful of lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones.’’
He meets a man on a train who tells him he came to South Australia with 30 shillings in his pocket at the age of 20 and planned to stay only until he had earned £200, at which point he would return to England. ‘‘ That was more than 50 years ago,’’ the man says. ‘‘ And here I am yet.’’
Twain thinks the story sad and finds himself wishing the man had earned the £200. He mentions it to someone who is acquainted with the South Australian, only to discover the first man is part-owner of a copper mine that has yielded £20,000,000 and saved the economy of South Australia after the collapse of a land boom. ‘‘ There it is again,’’ Twain writes, ‘‘ picturesque history — Australia’s specialty.’’
His gaze is much wider than these tales of providence suggest, for he writes beautifully of the countryside, appreciatively of the colonies’ tolerant spirit, and sharply of his encounters with characters such as ‘‘ a slim creature with teeth which made his mouth look like a neglected churchyard . . . an imitation dude . . . living in a dude dreamland where all his squalid charms were genuine, and himself a sincerity.’’
Evidently Twain didn’t find everything in the country to his liking. But he never ceased to find it strange, curious and wonderful.
Perhaps Australia was more interesting when it was young and isolation had bred and sustained a great range of striking eccentricities, and a prospector for stories such as Twain could find an abundance of riches without raising a sweat. There is a dispiriting sense, in reading Twain on Australia, that some native vitality has been lost, but this is balanced by gratitude, as you read, for its preservation in such an unexpected source. It remains for our storytellers to recapture something of the spirit that Twain first identified in Australia: a spirit of magical realism.