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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery

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.

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