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
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