AFTER A BRIEF LOOK ROUND
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
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