Sven Lindqvist’s Terra Nul­lius has emerged as a defin­ing ac­count of Aus­tralia’s place in the wider world, a de­vel­op­ment that raises dif­fi­cult ques­tions, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Adecade ago, the vet­eran Swedish writer and con­nois­seur of colo­nial op­pres­sions Sven Lindqvist re­leased Terra Nul­lius: A Jour­ney Through No One’s Land, his bleak ac­count of a sea­son spent trav­el­ling the high­ways of re­mote Aus­tralia and turn­ing over the half-for­got­ten his­tory of the Abo­rig­i­nal fron­tier in his thoughts. The book re­mains in print, and in­flu­en­tial among for­eign read­ers.

It has re­cently been re­pub­lished in hand­some new edi­tions by Granta in Bri­tain and the New Press in the US and, much like Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines or Marlo Mor­gan’s con­tentious Mu­tant Mes­sage Down Un­der, is on the way to be­com­ing a clas­sic of an­tipodean jour­ney lit­er­a­ture, a canon­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion, at least for in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences, to the Aus­tralian past: one of the hand­ful of touris­tic mem­oirs that de­fine this na­tion’s im­age in the wider world.

But the brief re­views of Terra Nul­lius by Aus­tralian crit­ics when it was pub­lished here in trans­la­tion in mid-2007 were, for the most part, sharply, scorn­fully crit­i­cal. The ex­pa­tri­ate writer Peter Con­rad di­ag­nosed a bad case of political cor­rect­ness in Lindqvist, and even hinted at a moral cow­ardice in the book’s per­spec­tive. The his­to­rian Inga Clendin­nen, widely seen as an ar­biter of fine-honed judg­ments, felt Lindqvist had come to Aus­tralia with his mind closed and eyes wide shut.

There is a pat­tern here, and a prob­lem. Main­stream Aus­tralia’s idea of it­self and the lo­cal lit­er­ary in­tel­li­gentsia’s widely shared con­cep­tion of a mod­ern, pro­gres­sive Aus­tralian na­tion­state are at vari­ance with the view of the coun­try that pre­vails abroad. Aus­tralian voices and Aus­tralian ac­counts of the colo­nial past usu­ally do not carry weight with gen­eral au­di­ences over­seas — with the sole ex­cep­tion of that peren­nial favourite of rip-roar­ing, jour­nal­is­ing his­tory, that cat­a­logue of foun­da­tional atroc­i­ties, Robert Hughes’s The Fa­tal Shore. The promi­nence of Aus­tralian writ­ing in the world has de­clined over the past four decades de­spite the spread­ing pop­u­lar­ity of ex­otic lit­er­a­tures in Western mar­kets, and de­spite the best ef­forts of Aus­tralia’s state-funded cul­tural pro­mo­tion agen­cies.

Books such as The Songlines and Terra Nul­lius have, of course, some­thing in com­mon, some­thing that lies at the core of their ap­peal for for­eign read­ers: they are prin­ci­pally about Abo­rig­ines and their cul­tures, and the harsh story of the colo­nial fron­tier and its mod­ern con­se­quences. De­spite the sub­stan­tial, nu­anced and de­lib­er­a­tive Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture and his­tory deal­ing with th­ese themes, lo­cal writ­ers are inevitably viewed by for­eign read­ers as sus­pect au­thor­i­ties. Out­siders, though, can be seen as in­de­pen­dent, veridi­cal, well placed to see the buried pat­terns in the his­tory of the con­ti­nent.

Hence the par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance of a book such as Terra Nul­lius, and the sig­nif­i­cance of its longevity and its emer­gence as a stan­dard work. Hence the need, now the ini­tial flash of its first re­lease is done, to sift its pre­sen­ta­tion of events and its ar­gu­ments anew: the claims Lindqvist makes, the analo­gies he draws, the abrupt shafts of light he sends down into a past Aus­tralian his­to­ri­ans see in a more fine-grained frame.

Over the course of his ca­reer Lindqvist has de­vel­oped a dis­tinc­tive style. His ex­ten­sive Sa­ha­ran trav­els paved the way for his best­known book, Ex­ter­mi­nate All the Brutes, an ac­count of Euro­pean colo­nial cru­el­ties in Africa. He runs three com­po­nents to­gether in stac­cato fash­ion: an eye­wit­ness ac­count, usu­ally sketchy, of the places he passes through; a scat­ter of re­flec­tions drawn from his child­hood; and ex­cerpts from the sci­en­tific writ­ings on race and an­thro­pol­ogy that shaped the colo­nial en­ter­prise. This is the method em­ployed in Terra Nul­lius: the par­al­lel drawn be­tween the African and the Aus­tralian record is ex­plicit — in­deed, the new US edi­tion, pub­lished by New Press, in­cludes his Aus­tralian trav­el­ogue as a kind of se­quel in the same vol­ume as his chief Sa­ha­ran nar­ra­tive, un­der the joint ti­tle of The Dead Do Not Die.

Lindqvist be­gins his tale as he means to con­tinue: with a com­bat­ive and art­fully man­aged pre­sen­ta­tion of the ev­i­dence. He checks in at the South Aus­tralian Mu­seum, the great­est repos­i­tory of an­thro­po­log­i­cal ex­per­tise on the con­ti­nent, and elic­its a blank from the in­for­ma­tion desk when he asks about Moorundie, the site of an early mas­sacre. From here, the road leads up to­wards the Stu­art High­way and Port Au­gusta, where Lindqvist meets his first Abo­rig­ine, a woman chang­ing money in the gam­ing hall of the Pas­toral Ho­tel: “We avoid eye con­tact.”

The way sta­tions from then on are the stan­dard ones: Woomera, where he seeks to draw analo­gies be­tween con­tem­po­rary treat­ment of asy­lum-seek­ers and past treat­ment of Abo­rig­ines, then Ay­ers Rock and Alice Springs, which makes a poor im­pres­sion. “Abo­rig­ines are to be found work­ing in pri­vate and govern­ment of­fices, as shop as­sis­tants, jan­i­tors, and park­ing at­ten­dants, and as trou­ble­some drunken layabouts in the parks. I see them as clients at court, as hos­pi­tal pa­tients, as artists in art gal­leries, and oc­ca­sion­ally as restau­rant guests, usu­ally in the com­pany of white peo­ple. I prac­ti­cally never en­counter an Abo­rig­ine in any sit­u­a­tion of­fer­ing an op­por­tu­nity or rea­son for ‘meet­ing’, ‘talk­ing’, ‘go­ing for a coffee’ or even ac­knowl­edg­ing one an­other’s ex­is­tence.”

And how hard it is to get per­mis­sion to go to re­mote com­mu­ni­ties! “Well,” muses Lindqvist, “why should a long-de­spised peo­ple, now it is no longer faced with cer­tain an­ni­hi­la­tion, go about long­ing to so­cialise with its for­mer an­ni­hi­la­tors and de­spis­ers? Why should a long-ex­ploited peo­ple be pre­pared to of­fer it­self as an ex­otic, un­paid bait in the tourist traps?”

There is much in th­ese sur­face ob­ser­va­tions that is per­cep­tive and ac­cu­rate, and much that is sub­tly out of true, as is the case with a num­ber of Lindqvist’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions and con­clu­sions, and as would be the case if a trav­eller from a dif­fer­ent cul­ture made a trip through Swe­den or any other Western coun­try and tried to pro­vide an anatomy of its most com­plex so­cial is­sues af­ter a brief look round.

Of course the fresh, un­know­ing eye sees things the lo­cal can never see: the naive per­spec­tive has its value. But when it comes to his­tory and the thought-world of to­day’s Aus­tralia, first im­pres­sions are a less cer­tain guide.

Lindqvist’s views inevitably re­flect the lim­i­ta­tions of his read­ing mat­ter, which he draws on con­stantly and lists at the back of his book — and the book reads very much like an ac­cre­tion of all th­ese guide points. The char­ac­ters who loom in its nar­ra­tive are the usual an­thro­po­log­i­cal sus­pects: Daisy Bates, Spencer and Gillen, Theo Strehlow, Rad­cliffe-Brown. The vil­lains are also the fa­mil­iar ones — the West Aus­tralian chief pro­tec­tor of Abo­rig­ines and ar­chi­tect of child re­movals, AO Neville, the Kim­ber­ley grave-rob­ber Eric Mjoberg, even Wil­liam Will­shire, the vain­glo­ri­ous Cen­tral Aus­tralian com­man­der of na­tive po­lice. Th­ese fig­ures are all ex­am­ined against the back­drop of the par­tic­u­lar land­scape where their words and the mem­o­ries of their ac­tions still res­onate.

In­deed the route Lindqvist fol­lows is in essence the one laid out in John Mul­vaney’s es­sen­tial guide to fron­tier meet­ings be­tween cul­tures, En­coun­ters in Place. Hence vis­its to the park where Kahlin Com­pound once stood in Dar­win, to Roe­bourne jail and to the site of the Pin­jarra mas­sacre are du­ti­fully ticked off — the must-see des­ti­na­tions on the disas­ter trail. Lindqvist also passes close to a num­ber of re­moter points of con­flict, and dwells on their his­to­ries: Wave Hill, on the edge of the Vic­to­ria River District, the scene of the 1966 walk-off by Abo­rig­i­nal stock­men, and Bernier and Dorre Is­lands, iso­la­tion hospi­tals where Abo­rig­ines with in­fec­tious dis­eases were kept in harsh con­di­tions a cen­tury ago.

Like many out­back trav­ellers, he is over­whelmed by the coun­try. Here he is, driv­ing the fea­ture­less Great North­ern High­way on the 600km stretch be­tween Broome and Port Hed­land, and tempted to equate the seem­ing des­o­la­tion of the plains around him with his view of the con­ti­nent as a realm stripped of its her­itage, a no man’s land: “There are no roads lead­ing out into the desert, no roads lead­ing down to the sea; noth­ing hap­pens along the road ex­cept the grubby and di­lap­i­dated lit­tle Sand­fire Road­house, to­tally free of any re­deem­ing fea­tures. There’s a turn-off down to an equally charm­less camp­site by the beach, from which you are grate­ful to re­turn to the main high­way.”

A de­fender of the coun­try might ar­gue that Sand­fire is full of his­tory, and Eighty Mile Beach full of fas­ci­nat­ing, slowly re­vealed beau­ties, while the desert in­land off the high­way is Aus­tralia’s most ma­jes­tic dune­field park­land, alive with lovely sights and mys­te­ri­ous sounds — but Lindqvist is hur­ry­ing through, ab­sorb­ing only what the eye in its first scan sees.

Here he is over­fly­ing the south­ern desert in a light plane, look­ing down on salt lake coun­try, bound from Ce­duna to Alice Springs: “I see black fern pat­terns in light sand. I see light ribs on a dark back­ground — an opened chest cav­ity

Sven Lindqvist; an aerial view of Uluru and the Ol­gas, top

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