John Strehlow, son of the great an­thro­pol­o­gist, grand­son of the trail­blaz­ing mis­sion­ary, has added his own in­dis­pens­able con­tri­bu­tion to the lit­er­a­ture of re­mote indige­nous Australia, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

BY way of ori­en­ta­tion, in the early pages of his vast, com­pelling fam­ily his­tory, which is also, given his de­scent­line, the his­tory of Euro­pean in­volve­ment with the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple of cen­tral Australia, John Strehlow re­calls two dis­tinct episodes of diary read­ing. These are sketched with a novelist’s eye for de­tail, a chron­i­cler’s pre­ci­sion and a drama­tist’s sense of scene.

In the first, the au­thor pic­tures him­self as a boy, about 10 years old, glanc­ing through a set of note­books packed away in the fam­ily garage in­side dark green camel boxes. They are field diaries from the desert, writ­ten by his fa­ther, Ted Strehlow, the fa­mous an­thro­pol­o­gist whose re­searches brought the song cy­cles of the cen­tre to the wider world.

The boy opens the diaries. He reads, and is trans­fixed: cer­e­monies, the moon in the sky cast­ing its light, men singing, their chants ris­ing in the clear air: ‘‘ It was writ­ten with such aching love, such nostal­gia.’’ At which point his fa­ther’s car draws up, the boy hur­riedly re­turns the for­bid­den books to their hid­ing place and makes him­self scarce.

As an adult, many years later, John Strehlow set out on a quest: he wanted to un­der­stand the predica­ment of cen­tral Australia and the plight of the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples liv­ing in the com­mu­ni­ties round Alice Springs. His fa­ther had stud­ied them; his grand­fa­ther, the Lutheran mis­sion­ary Carl Strehlow, had de­voted his life to them, learned their lan­guage and spent al­most three decades in the re­mote set­tle­ment of Her­manns­burg.

In 1922 Carl fell gravely ill at his post. He re­treated, bound for Ade­laide, and died on the tor­tur­ous south­ward jour­ney, and that death was turned into lit­er­a­ture in his son’s jewel-like book Jour­ney to Horse­shoe Bend. What could an­other Strehlow do to un­der­stand his fore­bears? John scoured the records kept from Carl’s mis­sion days: there was lit­tle in the way of pri­vate ma­te­ri­als left.

Then he re­mem­bered the diaries of his grand­mother, Carl’s wife, Frieda, writ­ten in Ger­man, in the old script, and locked in a steel trunk in a cel­lar in Ber­lin. At that stage he had no idea those diaries had ac­com­pa­nied Frieda when she was a refugee in 1945, flee­ing the Red Army on the roads of Sile­sia, or that she had car­ried them with her on her jour­ney through the desert floods near Ood­na­datta in 1910 — but some­thing of this spe­cial prove­nance could be felt: ‘‘ The first diary was per­haps the most ex­cit­ing ob­ject I had ever held, largely be­cause of what I was hop­ing to find — the key which would un­lock the se­crets of a vic­tory over death and de­spair in a by­gone age about which lit­tle or noth­ing was known, and which had trou­bled me ever since I could re­mem­ber.’’

Sprung from these roots of in­her­i­tance and in­tu­ition, The Tale of Frieda Keysser, 17 years in the writ­ing, al­most 1200 pages and 600,000 words long, is the re­sult: at once a painstak­ing re­con­struc­tion of the past and an in­tense ques­tion­ing of to­day’s con­ven­tional wis­dom; a de­tec­tive story, a land­mark in in­tel­lec­tual his­tory; an ac­count of the Aus­tralian fron­tier and its scape­grace dra­mas, a work that stands in a tra­di­tion and com­pletes an arc.

Carl Strehlow’s own pi­o­neer­ing study of the be­liefs and prac­tices he re­searched at Her­manns­burg, The Aranda and Loritja Tribes of Cen­tral Australia, was pub­lished in Frank­furt, in eight parts, from 1908 on­wards, un­der the tute­lage of a gifted ama­teur, Moritz von Leon­hardi. That book took the learned so­ci­eties of Europe by storm, and re­de­fined the fash­ion­able new field of Aus­tralian ethnog­ra­phy. It was much praised, much crit­i­cised and much pla­gia­rised, but never pub­lished in English.

Per­haps its deep­est in­flu­ence was ex­erted on Ted Strehlow, who pub­lished his own 800-page mag­num opus, Songs of Cen­tral Australia, in 1971, al­most half a cen­tury af­ter his fa­ther’s death. Songs, an un­find­able trea­sure for bi­b­lio­philes, the only book to bring a clas­si­cal sen­si­bil­ity to Abo­rig­i­nal song po­etry, still seems im­bued with the em­blem­atic grief and grandeur of Ted Strehlow: pa­trol of­fi­cer, col­lec­tor, un­quiet spirit, be­trayer of much he loved.

The shad­ows of these two vol­umes loom over John Strehlow’s The Tale of Freida Keysser. To­gether, the three books now dom­i­nate the land­scape of cen­tral Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, much like the three great tors ris­ing from the desert’s ter­rain: Mount Con­nor, the Ol­gas and Ay­ers Rock.

This pub­li­ca­tion, then, is an event. It puts for­ward for the first time, from Frieda’s diaries, a de­tailed record of day-to-day life at Her­manns­burg in the cru­cial years when the shape of the fron­tier was be­ing forged, and the sur­vival of the Aranda and Lu­ritja peo­ple of the cen­tre hung in the bal­ance. It ex­plores the Lutheran en­ter­prise and makes plain the con­stant pres­sures the mis­sion­ar­ies faced: it de­scribes in de­tail their ap­proach to the col­li­sion be­tween western and Abo­rig­i­nal cul­tures, and sets that ap­proach against the par­a­digm ad­vanced by pas­toral­ists and colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Grad­u­ally, in­sis­tently, Strehlow moves to­wards an ap­praisal. There were two ri­val blue­prints for Abo­rig­i­nal re­mote Australia. They were very dif­fer­ent in their pre­scrip­tions and their as­sump­tions. Their ef­fects can now be judged.

In the con­text of the con­tin­u­ing com­mon­wealth in­ter­ven­tion in the re­mote com­mu­ni­ties of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, Strehlow’s ver­dict in this book is strik­ing: with an ex­ca­vat­ing arche­ol­o­gist’s cool per­sis­tence he traces el­e­ments in the out­look and the poli­cies of the mod­ern bu­reau­cratic es­tab­lish­ment back to their deep sources in the sec­u­lar an­thro­pol­ogy of a cen­tury ago. He is ex­plicit about this: he hopes his readers may in­clude ‘‘ those with an in­ter­est in abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who have wit­nessed the re­cent laud­able ef­forts of gov­ern­ments to re­dress the wrongs of the past, and noted that too of­ten things seem not to be get­ting bet­ter’’.

Bi­og­ra­phy. His­tory. Cul­tural in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Strehlow’s Tale is all these things, but it would not be truly Strehlo­vian if it were not, at its heart, a story of dis­place­ment, ex­ile and re­turn, an evo­ca­tion in words of the In­land, its hard, ser­ried para­graphs shel­ter­ing abrupt pas­sages of ro­man­tic, lyric force. Rain comes, the desert blooms:

Budgeri­gars ap­pear from nowhere in flocks of thou­sands, at dawn and dusk swoop­ing and cours­ing through the sky in fan­tas­tic fast­mov­ing for­ma­tions as they await their turn at

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