Com­pletely in charge and ut­terly in­vis­i­ble

Belo­mor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - De­bra Ade­laide

IT seems cu­ri­ous and al­most per­verse that in th­ese plain pack­ag­ing times a book by any­one, let alone an au­thor such as Ni­co­las Rothwell, should have the same name as a brand of cig­a­rette. And not just any cig­a­rette: Belo­morkanal, to use the full name, re­put­edly one of the strong­est brands around, with at­trac­tive sky blue pack­ag­ing fea­tur­ing a map of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, in com­mem­o­ra­tion of which th­ese Soviet cigarettes were first pro­duced in 1932.

Even more cu­ri­ous is that the cig­a­rette should func­tion as a nar­ra­tive thread in the book, of­fer­ing a sym­bolic sug­ges­tion of unity amid frag­men­ta­tion, al­beit a wispy one, like the smoke it pro­duces.

Belo­mor re­sists easy cat­e­gori­sa­tion. Its many characters are elu­sive, some more types than characters, more mouth­pieces than fully rounded in­di­vid­u­als. But this does not de­tract from this beau­ti­ful and mes­meris­ing book, which en­gages the in­tel­lect as well as the emo­tions.

Writ­ten in Rothwell’s stylish prose, and us­ing an equally fa­mil­iar form of mem­oir and fic­tion, es­say and med­i­ta­tion, dis­tilled his­tory By Ni­co­las Rothwell Text Pub­lish­ing, 256pp, $29.99 and long di­gres­sive con­ver­sa­tion, Belo­mor in­tro­duces a num­ber of ec­cen­tric, half­for­got­ten and fas­ci­nat­ing artists, thinkers and writ­ers, from 18th-cen­tury Dres­den to con­tem­po­rary Ku­nunurra. The vast north­ern Aus­tralian land­scape that Rothwell knows so in­ti­mately is his con­stant ref­er­ence point.

As soon as I write that I know it is mis­lead­ing, as if Rothwell is some sort of cross be­tween Ernes­tine Hill and Croc­o­dile Dundee. His work is of the realm of art and dreams, his­tory and me­mory as much as that of swamps and floods and desert dust; and the sim­i­lar­i­ties he finds be­tween, say, a snake-ob­sessed wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher in Dar­win and the Ger­man artist Aby War­burg in the Pue­blo re­gion of Amer­ica, are in­tri­cate, con­sid­ered, in­tel­lec­tual and poet­i­cal.

The hy­brid form that suits Rothwell’s pur­suit in this book is now well es­tab­lished, and his most ob­vi­ous an­tecedent in this re­spect is the Ger­man au­thor WG Se­bald. Belo­mor is rem­i­nis­cent of Se­bald’s cir­cu­lar his­tory-driven nar­ra­tives — of­ten fea­tur­ing ob­scure or for­got­ten fig­ures — and sim­i­larly re­liant on jour­ney. Closer to home the work of Ger­ald Mur­nane also comes to mind, de­spite its more lim­ited his­tor­i­cal reach, not to men­tion claus­tro­pho­bic nar­ra­tive pat­terns.

In con­trast, Rothwell’s nar­ra­tor is less sat­ur­nine, not so op­pressed and fas­ci­nated by the pat­tern­ing of his own mem­o­ries, and his cir­cling around a topic, while sub­tle, is more ac­ces­si­ble.

But that still does not ex­plain what this book / work / set of pieces is about. There is al­most no plot and there is a heavy re­liance on con­ver­sa­tion struc­tured across four sec­tions. How­ever there are jour­neys, and with­out jour­ney there is no story.

First, the un­named nar­ra­tor trav­els to Dres­den and meets the Belo­morkanal-smok­ing philoso­pher Ste­fan Haffner, who re­counts his devel­op­ment as a young dis­si­dent at the White Sea. The piece con­cern­ing War­burg is much of an es­say, but with the same ex­tremes of peo­ple and places (noc­tur­nal snake han­dling at Fogg Dam on the Ade­laide River, dis­cus­sions on the work of Ayn Rand) that char­ac­terise the whole book.

The peren­nial melan­choly of th­ese sto­ries is oc­ca­sion­ally re­lieved by notes of cau­tious op­ti­mism. The fi­nal sec­tion moves from a chance en­counter in the Tiwi Is­lands, to the small towns of Sten­dal, then Hal­ber­stadt, in Ger­many, then Alice Springs and fi­nally a road­house north of Mintabie. It con­tains in­for­ma­tion about Joachim Specht (who lived briefly in Aus­tralia and wrote out­back ad­ven­ture sto­ries for Ger­man read­ers), Jo­hann Joachim Winck­el­mann, the founder of arche­ol­ogy, and of­fers glimpses of John Cage (in Ger­many) and Chekhov (in the out­back).

From an­other hand such con­nec­tions and di­gres­sions might seem con­trived, or pre­pos­ter­ous. But here it’s as if a life­time of knowl­edge and con­sid­ered re­flec­tion are of­fered to us. In­sights on hu­man his­tory and

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