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Peter Carey navigates Australia’s past

By Claire Corbett
‘A Long Way from Home’ takes on new relevance following debate about Australia Day

Even in the scant months since Peter Carey’s latest novel, A Long Way from Home (Hamish Hamilton; $32.99), was published, reading it for the second time post-Australia Day 2018 – or Survival Day or Invasion Day – the novel has grown in relevance as the intensity of debate around January 26 markedly increased this year.

It is surprising to read one reviewer complaining that Carey has set his novel during the 1950s given that so many contemporary issues for Indigenous Australians are so urgent, as if by setting his novel in the 1950s Carey were somehow tackling purely historical issues. But Carey’s novel illuminates the effects of a policy – the Stolen Generations – which is both a violent continuation of past dispossession and an aspect of it that will haunt Indigenous families for years.

Willie Bachhuber, Carey’s pivotal character, is a schoolteacher and he knows a lot. He knows so much that he can win a radio quiz show week after week. But he doesn’t know the most basic things: who he is, where he comes from, who his family are.

Believing himself to be of German heritage, Willie yearns for a country far away, as do so many Australians and characters in Australian fiction (Henry Handel Richardson’s Richard Mahony comes to mind):

… of course I had my own ancient scars and fears, my deep sense of displacement, that I was not from here, that this was not my landscape, that I had been denied my natural land which had been accurately depicted by Caspar David Friedrich.

But Willie’s recurring dreams of feathered snakes and rivers, which leave him filled with light and happiness, as well as with a sense of disquiet, suggest that his unconscious knows better:

I felt the horror of my relentless dreams which were peopled not only by snakes but creatures like possums that would end up being born as children if I did not kill them. The rivers in my sleep were filled with fish which broke apart like wet cardboard.

It’s perfect, then, that Bachhuber becomes the navigator for Irene and Titch Bobs, his neighbours from Carey’s home town of Bacchus Marsh, in their quest to win the 1954 Redex Reliability Trial.

What a brilliant idea, to set a novel about discovering Australia and a self – and a self in relation to Australia – during the gruelling Redex trials, which can be read as an attempt, as Carey shows, to fabricate a kind of white dreaming track, both mythic and commercial, snaking around the country.

Carey is the writer to pull this off. He has always been fantastically fluent in writing about the world of cars and the many layers – personal, social, practical and metaphorical – that they embody as part of Australian life in the 20th century, from the fabulous transformation of man into tow truck of the story “Crabs” to the dysfunctional Catchprice Motors family in The Tax Inspector.

A major aspect of “Crabs” was the conflation of cars in mid-20th-century Australia with notions of (white) masculinity, freedom and even Australianness. “Crabs” conveyed a sense that the car both expressed and denied an essential (white) Australianness. Part of being a white Australian was in a sense to be nowhere, to operate in a liminal space, to be insulated inside the interior of the car. There was no reality to the country outside the boundaries of the car, which were the boundaries of the (male) body. Consistent with this theme, there is a nod to the drive-in in A Long Way from Home. The Darley tip, which seems to be another synecdoche for Australia, is described as “a great democratic institution”.

Moreover, as “Crabs” explored white Australian masculinity’s interdependence with the car, A Long Way from Home introduces nascent feminism, showing how Irene Bobs uses her driving ability to forge her identity and independence.

The metamorphic, and metaphoric, power of the car in Australia is as powerfully rendered in this novel as anywhere in Carey’s work:

Forever after the Peugeot would be fondly called the jeep. It was now stripped and burnished, with the brutal appearance of a rocket or a racing car or that great Australian machine gun, the Owen, with its grim metal magazine. I mean, the stock car had become a war machine.

Themes of homelessness and an uncertain relation to family surface repeatedly in Carey’s work. Often the stories or novels are set in uncanny, not-very-homely “homes”: the drive-in as concentration camp, the factory in “War Crimes”, the boarding house in “The Fat Man in History”, the garage in The Tax Inspector, the pet shop in Illywhacker, and the theatre in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. The families too are ambiguous: Tristan Smith has three fathers; in His Illegal Self, Che is transplanted to another family and continent by his former babysitter; Harry Joy in Bliss decides his family are impostors; Jack Maggs finally realises who his true children are. And so on.

The uncertainty extends to the physical body of the land itself. There’s a strong link between the disappearing land incompletely mapped by the Cartographers in Carey’s story “Do You Love Me?”, and the literally white-washed map of Australia disappearing beneath Indigenous knowledge in A Long Way from Home. Of course, Willie the lost navigator is fascinated by maps, describing:

… the unsettling emotions engendered in me by maps. This was grief he said. He offered Jung: I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors.

The way, perhaps, for a non-Indigenous writer to write about Indigenous themes could only be from a space created by lies and further dispossession, by the violence of not belonging and not knowing imposed by the Stolen Generations policies. In this way, Carey’s Indigenous character is made to experience the disorientation and homelessness that most of his white characters feel.

The suspicion arises that white authorities have been so keen on this further dispossession because the only way they see of claiming the country is for Aboriginal people to know it as little as they do. To take the country from Indigenous people is only the first half of the equation; people must then be taken from country to make dispossession complete.

There is deep irony in Willie Bachhuber only gradually being made to suspect his true origins through the hyper-suspicious appraisals of white Australians used to discriminating gradations of colour and feature. In short, it is the experienced racists who see Willie for what he is.

As Willie does not know his true father for most of the book, neither does he know his own son, and there’s a sleight-of-hand bit of plotting to achieve this, also turning on racial identity, which I felt was the book’s main weakness, its only overt bit of cleverness. It would have been worth sacrificing the symmetry and sentiment this neatness provided, though the point is taken that racialised discourse infects all who come into contact with it.

While we see the more virulent and obvious forms of racism in Willie’s encounters with rural Australians along the route of the Redex trials and later at the cattle station, Carey avoids the trap of portraying racism as a problem caused by some unpleasant individuals who should just be nicer and more enlightened.

The central character’s remarks in Jessica Anderson’s 1975 novel The Commandant, that “Being prodded by London, you know, where they say, in effect, that we must dispossess the natives with kindness,” articulate the central dilemma: there is no nice way to steal someone’s land.

Voice is of central importance to Carey’s fiction, and he’s done his homework for this novel; you can feel his delight in the power and vitality of Aboriginal English, particularly as it’s spoken in remote areas and on the vast cattle stations. It is both practical, with not a word wasted, and yet as suited to the storytelling and mythic register, with the ability to range across space and time and compress epic events and tragedies into legend, as any Homeric verse. Take, for instance, a child telling the story of how Captain Cook stole the country:

Captain Cook put the bullet in his magazine, start to shooting people, same like Sydney. ‘Really beautiful country,’ Captain Cook reckoned. ‘That’s why I’m cleaning up people, take it away.’

Captain Cook follow the sea right around. ‘I’d like to put my building there. I like to put my horses there.’ …

They been fight whitefellah. They been have a spear and whitefellah been have a rifle. If whitefellow been come up got no bit of a gun, couldn’t been roundem up, killing all the people. They never been give him fair go.

Captain Cook reckons, ‘This no more blackfellah country. Belong to me fellow,’ he said.

I can’t pronounce on whether non-Indigenous authors should tell aspects of Indigenous-themed stories, with Carey himself remarking on his deep ambivalence about writing A Long Way from Home: “I have to do this; I can’t be doing this.” I would suggest two things, though. The first is that Indigenous people are not responsible for the painful aspects of our shared history. Non-Indigenous writers and artists need to deal with this too, as Carey has, and not just leave it to Indigenous creators as if it were their burden alone. It’s often said that white people have the luxury of choosing not to deal with racism; perhaps Australian artists don’t or shouldn’t have that luxury.

The second is that it’s critical to engage with Indigenous creative work and amplify support for it, so that the voices of those for whom these stories are not homework but lived reality are the vital thread in the national conversation. In this context, by all means read A Long Way from Home, but also read, for example, the astonishing work of Indigenous writer Marie Munkara. Her novel, Every Secret Thing, is shocking and funny, expressing truths no non-Indigenous writer could touch.

As Munkara says, “the issues in the book, like the removal of children, or clergy molesting children in their care, are everyday things for me.” Her memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, shows the realities that are fictionalised in A Long Way from Home, describing her experience of being stolen, abuse by her foster family and reconnection with her birth family with devastating and humorous truth-telling.

As artists mature they sometimes embrace a radical simplicity as they grow more assured. You can see this in the work of visual artists as well as writers. There’s no anxiety, no showing off of research or invention or style – what is the style of no style, you can almost hear some artists challenge.

A Long Way from Home echoes the simplicity of Carey’s early short stories, but it is, as his publisher accurately notes, a “late style” and no doubt hard-earned. The book is beautiful, layered and resonant, and hard to put down. For this reason, it repays more than one reading.

Willie is the navigator who doesn’t know who he is or where he’s really going, and will only understand his destination long after he arrives. At least Willie has the opportunity to understand his place in the world.

The stunning last sentence of Carey’s novel indicates that there’s a long way to go yet for non-Indigenous Australians in having any idea where we are, no matter what maps we try to make.

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.

www.clairecorbett.com

 

@ccorbettauthor

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