A Necessary Idea
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
After driving from one side of the island to the other, we arrive at a gate blocking the road. Lena Pasternak hops out to open it. Several hundred metres away, cows wade through the sea. Just before we reach the tip of this remote peninsula, Lena points in the direction of some open fields to a large copse of pine trees. The late afternoon sunshine slants across the grass, making it glow.
“That’s where it was filmed,” Lena says. She is talking about The Sacrifice, the final work of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, which was released in 1986. We are on the Swedish island of Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic Sea. It’s on the other side of the world from Australia. Yet Australia haunts Tarkovsky’s film, and Gotland’s landscape, in a curious, almost subliminal way as its antipode, its mythical Other.
Meditative and slow-moving, The Sacrifice is about a modern Chekhovian family gathered to celebrate the father’s fiftieth birthday. The local doctor, in attendance, has grown tired of being at the family’s beck and call and announces that he is going to Australia. “Are you serious?” the father asks.
The family is about to raise a birthday toast when two jets travelling at supersonic speed tear overhead. An announcement on the television confirms everyone’s fears: a nuclear war has broken out. They discuss the possibility of driving north, but conclude there is no escaping. Later, the father performs a ritual act that either restores the world to its previous state or renders the catastrophe a dream.
Conversation returns to the doctor’s plans. The mother is incredulous. “Australia? You must be mad!” The doctor replies that we all want something, implying that everyone has a fantasy or scheme for the future to make the present bearable. “Nothing quite so far-fetched as Australia!” the mother declares. Worn down, the doctor finally gives in: “Australia. It’s absurd.” For Tarkovsky, it would seem, Australia is an idea to be toyed with in times of crisis, even if it is never acted upon – a kind of escape clause.
Lena and I wander along a starkly luminous, limestone-strewn beach where the opening and closing scenes of Tarkovsky’s film were shot. I remind Lena of the antipodean references and she laughs, “Australia is where you disappear to and never come back from!” Or so it has been in the minds of those from this part of the world. Lena believes that Australia, like Gotland, is a place people go to when they want to adopt a fresh identity and start anew.
The sense of isolation, of being at the end of the Earth, also attracts film-makers to both of these islands as settings for movies about the end of the world. As we fossick for fossils along Gotland’s windswept coast, I find myself thinking about Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel On the Beach and its film adaptation, which stars Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. Melbourne is the last place on Earth untouched by nuclear war, and it is only a matter of time before the deadly radiation drifts south. That the Australian characters choose to spend their final days at the beach has always struck me as an act of existential courage. In contrast to this vision of inescapable annihilation, The Sacrifice is concerned with notions of Christian redemption. For all the family’s old-world ennui and bitterness, the father’s sacrificial pact with God appears to save them, albeit at a price.
Until the 1990s, having the Soviet empire just across the Baltic Sea meant that the Swedes had reason to be toey about nuclear attack. In the 1970s, the respected Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer captured his mixed feelings about the Baltic in a poem that begins with an image of a christening font in a dim corner of a Gotland church. The font, with its carved images of good and evil, is a symbol for the Baltic: “Nowhere shelter. Everywhere risk.” Later in the poem, the waves on the Baltic are referred to as originating in “no man’s water”, a reminder of the role the Baltic played as a buffer between West and East.
This mood of anxiety has certainly abated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And yet, one afternoon, as I sit at my desk at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators and look out over the terracotta roofs of the medieval town of Visby to the Baltic Sea beyond, I hear what sounds like a foghorn. There are six loud blasts, then a seventh that goes on interminably. As it is a sunny afternoon, with not a wisp of fog in sight, I assume that a very big boat (presumably one of those gigantic cruise ships that regularly ply these waters) has just docked and is loudly announcing its arrival.
I ask Lena, who runs the Centre, about it that evening over dinner. The noise I heard wasn’t a ship’s horn, she says, but a siren like those that warned people of an approaching air raid during the Blitz. It was only a drill, a reminder of what a nuclear-attack warning would sound like. This hangover from the Cold War sounds at 3 pm on the first Monday of every month, all over Sweden. Each district is assigned a shelter. Lena’s local shelter is a cellar in a nearby house. The irony is that nobody who lives in Sweden notices the siren anymore, but Lena suspects it has become a habit no one is prepared to break.
You may think that the ‘idea’ of Australia would no longer be necessary in this part of the world – if it ever really was. But since the global economic crisis, things have changed yet again. I speak with Luize Pastore, a 22-year-old Latvian writer, who is about to return home after spending a month on Gotland. She is fretting about the coming winter; the predictions are alarming. The Latvian economy is in crisis. She remembers the empty shops and the food shortages after the Soviet Union fell apart. She has heard that the Australian government gives money and land to new immigrants. I try to set her straight but the allure and promise of the new frontier dies hard. “For people my age, Australia is one of the dream countries. The US we know about. But Australia, we haven’t discovered yet. I know many people who want to go.”