WE CER­TAINLY DON’T THINK ABOUT THE POPE — BUT YOU HIT THOSE POT­HOLES AND YOU KNOW YOU’VE DE­SCENDED INTO A ROAD-TRIP VER­SION OF HELL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

East and west of the line the sand and spinifex run away un­chang­ing. East and west of it the desert com­mu­ni­ties are near-iden­ti­cal; homes of brothers, of cousins. The bor­der splits a sin­gle cul­tural bloc in ar­bi­trary fash­ion. For desert peo­ple it is a line with­out deep mean­ing, their sto­ries wind and snake across it freely — but the fron­tier does have real world ef­fects, and some­times they can be spec­tac­u­lar. Five years ago, Docker River fell un­der the harsh pro­vi­sions of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory in­ter­ven­tion. An hour west along the track, the lit­tle com­mu­nity of Warakurna was un­touched.

Damian McLean, res­i­dent in­tel­lec­tual of the cen­tral deserts and long-term pres­i­dent of the shire of Ngaany­at­jar­raku, west of the line, knows well how his­tory shapes po­lit­i­cal bound­aries, de­fines space, builds dif­fer­ences. His shire reaches from the state fron­tier to a dis­used track near Wiluna town­ship: the path of the old, near-van­ished rab­bit-proof fence. It’s a shire with state re­gional funds, and so west of the bor­der line the Great Cen­tral Road is like a red-sand car­pet, graded, beau­ti­fully main­tained; but things change with a vengeance on the Ter­ri­tory side: ‘‘ When we cross into the Ter­ri­tory,’’ he muses, ‘‘ we cer­tainly don’t think about the Pope or the Vat­i­can — but there is an ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal com­po­nent: you hit those bumps and pot­holes and you know you’ve sud­denly de­scended into a road-trip ver­sion of hell.’’ GOD’S name was to the fore, though, in 1493, when the in­tensely lib­er­tine art-lov­ing Pope Alexan­der VI con­sid­ered the changed map of the world con­fronting him. Colum­bus had just re­turned with tid­ings of a new land in the far west, at the fur­thest ex­treme of the At­lantic Ocean. But whose land was it? Did it be­long by right to the Catholic king of Spain, or to Por­tu­gal, the other great sea­far­ing power of the day? The Pope, a Bor­gia, a former arch­bishop of Va­len­cia, Span­ish-born, is­sued a brisk de­cree grant­ing all the lands west­ward of the Azores is­lands to the Span­ish crown, a piece of favouritism ill-viewed in Lis­bon by King John II, who was thereby blocked from his mod­est short-term goal of oc­cu­py­ing and rul­ing the In­dian con­ti­nent.

A year on, the diplo­mats of Spain and Por­tu­gal met at Torde­sil­las, near their shared fron­tier, held talks of their own and di­vided up the un­charted reaches of the globe. They drew a line of more nu­anced def­i­ni­tion, one cut­ting through the land­mass of the Amer­i­cas. To the west would be Span­ish pos­ses­sions, to the east, Por­tuguese. This schematic ap­proach to em­pire-build­ing was en­trenched, a gen­er­a­tion later, at a fur­ther con­fer­ence, where the line was ad­justed and pro­longed around the world, trac­ing out an anti-merid­ian, a fur­ther, yet more folk­loric bor­der, de­mar­cat­ing the seas all round the newly dis­cov­ered spice is­lands, the re­mote East Indies — and what­ever strange, un­known con­ti­nent might lie to the south.

Torde­sil­las bears scant trace to­day of this brief brush with world-di­vid­ing. It is low-key and dusty, a back­wa­ter. But by chance the town and its his­tory are a par­tic­u­lar ob­ses­sion of Aus­tralia’s lead­ing his­panophile lit­ter­a­teur, the man­ager of The Mel­bourne Re­view, Luke Stege­mann.

Debonair, pos­sessed of a sin­u­ous style and a pro­nounced lean to­wards bleak sub­jects, Stege­mann has long been caught up by the Torde­sil­las re­gion’s most fa­mous drama. When young and study­ing cine­matog­ra­phy in Madrid, he found him­self gripped by the sight of a ro­man­tic tableau paint­ing. It was in the Prado, and promi­nently hung. It was from the brush of Fran­cisco Pradilla Or­tiz. It showed a scene ev­ery Spa­niard knows: Queen Juana the Mad lead­ing her hus­band’s funeral cortege across the Span­ish heath­lands. Even­tu­ally she was in­car­cer­ated in the Santa Clara con­vent at Torde­sil­las, and her tale gave rise to one of Stege­mann’s long early po­ems, as well as a pil­grim­age he made to the con­vent and the town. His mem­o­ries of that first trip dwell on

Ap­proach­ing the world’s long­est line in the sand

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