Completely in charge and utterly invisible
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