November 2008

Arts & Letters

What might have been

By Christina Thompson

Kate Grenville’s ‘The Lieutenant’

In many respects, Kate Grenville's latest novel, The Lieutenant (Text Publishing, 320pp; $45), feels like a sequel to her 2005 book, The Secret River. Or, to be more precise, thematically it feels like a sequel; chronologically, its events actually predate those of the earlier work. This is only noticeable, or indeed significant, because both books are closely tied to Australian history. The Secret River concerns the settlement of the Hawkesbury region by convicts who had been in the colony long enough to earn their ticket of leave. The Lieutenant is set during the first year of European settlement in Sydney Cove.

The story of The Lieutenant is fairly simple. Daniel Rooke, a child prodigy with a strong mathematical bent, dreams of a position with the Astronomer Royal "at the Observatory, or in any other observatory, anywhere he might go on watching the heavens and performing solitary calculations". However, in the late 1770s there are no such positions; instead there is war, and a need for men to fight it. Rooke therefore signs on with His Majesty's Marines and is assigned to a ship of the line. "Not quite an astronomer" on board, he is "at least a navigator". And thus, he finds a place for himself "working through the arithmetic of longitude and latitude" in the "large quiet light of the Great Cabin".

To a large extent the novel is about this process of finding a home. The Great Cabin, like the Observatory, or the Portsmouth Naval Academy, where he studied as a boy, are but stages on the way to Rooke's discovery of the place where - quite unexpectedly - he will be happiest, the penal colony of New South Wales. In 1786, when he is 24, Rooke receives a letter from the Astronomer Royal suggesting he join the expedition being fitted out for Botany Bay. There are many reasons for an astronomer, a man of science, to accompany the prison ships. Dr Vickery's comet, for example, which is due to return in 1788 and will only be visible in the southern hemisphere, as well as the innumerable wonders of the Antipodes. The place, Rooke thinks to himself (in classic eighteenth-century fashion), is "a smooth page waiting to be written on. Quadrupeds, birds, ants and their habitations: for the sixteen years since the visit by the Endeavour they had gone about their business under the antipodean sun" with no one to record their movements.

Of course, Botany Bay, when they reach it, proves hopeless, and they make instead for an opening a little farther north. Once through this "notch in a high yellow cliff", Rooke gains his first glimpse of the new country.

Beyond the cliff an enormous body of quiet water curved away to the west. Sirius glided past bays lined with crescents of yellow sand and headlands of dense forest. There was something about this vast hidden harbour - bay after perfect bay, headland after shapely headland - that put Rooke in a trance. He felt he could have travelled along it forever into the heart of this unknown land. It was the going forward that was the point, not the arriving, the water creaming away under the bow, drawn so deeply along this crack in the continent that there might never be any need to stop.

Readers of The Secret River will recognise this rich, hypnotic vision and its effect upon young Rooke. Here, as in the earlier novel, Grenville achieves what few Australian writers have accomplished: a convincing paean to Australia's seductiveness. Of course, trouble will come (in the very next paragraph, in fact), but for a moment the reader, like the voyager, is invited simply to luxuriate in the otherworldly beauty of the place.

Then, "As Sirius rounded a rocky island, Rooke saw men running along the shore, shaking spears. He could hear them on the wind calling the same word over and over: Warra! Warra! He did not think that they were calling Welcome! Welcome! He suspected a polite translation might be something like Go to the Devil!" And thus we are introduced to the novel's central theme.

This issue of contact and conflict between two mutually incomprehensible peoples was also central to Grenville's previous novel, which told the story of William Thornhill's determination to take possession of a piece of land. There is much that is continuous between the books, including achingly beautiful descriptions of the landscape and a resonant empathy for those who inhabit it. But, even more strikingly, there is a kind of character - and a corresponding psychological question - that runs like a visible thread through the weave of both novels.

In The Secret River, one of Thornhill's sons is a small, guarded boy named Dick, who develops a secret relationship with the Aboriginal people camped on his father's land. In the scheme of things, Dick is a minor figure, but he clearly represents an alternative point of view. Grenville explicitly associates him with the only other character in the book who crosses the grain of colonisation, a man who has, in the stock phrase of frontier narratives, gone native. Neither is central to the action, but you can feel the strength of Grenville's interest in them. In a sense, then, The Lieutenant may be seen as an answer to the question: What was it like to become untethered, even besotted, by what one could only ever partially understand?

On the surface, Daniel Rooke is quite unlike these characters. Educated, cerebral, rather shy, he is less at ease with people than with logic and instruments and numbers. In this, he resembles countless figures in exploration history, whose adamantine refusal to report subjectively on their experience has confounded many a later reader, including Kate Grenville. The journals of these explorers, she wrote in 1988, in Joan Makes History, "were full of no wild hopes, nor the terse phrases of despair, but of numbers: of pounds of flour per man, of spare horseshoe nails ... of miles covered and logged in the neat little book so the wild was reduced to small crawling figures in columns". It is intriguing to see how Grenville's thinking on the subject has evolved. No longer content to mock the explorers' tedious reticence, she has set herself the far more daunting task of imagining how one such man might actually tick. A scientific man like Daniel Rooke, she concludes, might become fascinated not only by the "Quadrupeds, birds, ants and their habitations", but by the people who come and go, intermittently presenting themselves and then vanishing back into the bush - particularly if there were a way to think about them analytically.

Rooke is permitted to set up an observatory at some distance from the main camp and it is here, in the privacy of his own little intellectual universe, that he encounters a group of the Cadigal people, who inhabit the region of Sydney Cove. Among them is a lively, quick-witted girl named Tagaran, who is as intrigued by the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange as Rooke. There is, in the background, a kind of romance, a dawning of understanding on Rooke's part about what people can mean to one another, and a frustrated acknowledgment of the unbridgeable gulf that separates these two. But Grenville sensibly treads lightly here, focusing her attention on what does actually pass between them, which is words.

William Dawes, the First Fleet lieutenant upon whom the character of Daniel Rooke is based, was, Grenville writes, "a considerable scholar ... The record he left of the language of the indigenous people of the Sydney area is by far the most extensive we have. It contains not only word lists and speculations about the grammatical structure of the language, but conversations between him and the indigenous people." And here, for my money, lies the genius of this book. Daniel Rooke becomes the first linguist of the colony, the first (and for a while the only) European able to communicate with the Cadigal in any meaningful way.

What Grenville envisions in The Lieutenant is an alternative beginning, a starting point that might, if things had gone differently, have led to a happier end. Hers is not fundamentally a book of recriminations or holier-than-thou pronouncements about what went wrong, but rather an examination of possibilities that were never fully explored. What was missing, she suggests, was the basic ability to understand one another; thus, she has given us the story of a man who "knew, with as much certainty as he knew his own name", that the compilation of a Cadigal grammar "would be his proper work".

Rooke is an Enlightenment hero and he cannot or will not - in any case, does not - commit himself to the curious limbo of the transculturite's life. But his character still seems like an extended exploration of the question that gave rise to little Dick Thornhill: what happens to colonial Europeans whose instincts lead them beyond the accepted limits of their world? And what is it about them that leads them there? It is the sort of question Grenville has asked before, in other books in which she probed other boundaries, but here the historical framework raises the stakes.

There has been a great deal of claptrap written about this history, a lot of posturing and side-taking and making sure that one or another thing gets said. In this context, The Lieutenant is refreshingly delicate, even refined. Grenville is careful, that is evident, and you sometimes have a fleeting awareness of extreme discretion in her portrait of the Cadigal. But character is one of her strong suits, and this vision of a budding relationship between the sparkling Aboriginal girl and the sensitive young man of science is a triumph of imaginative history. Grenville's book has a point of view, to be sure, but it also has a sense of humour - and its power, like that of all great novels, derives from the author's deep and abiding affection for all concerned. 

Cover: November 2008
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