The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously — if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. Looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of years ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Those are the opening sentences of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and fair warning they are. If you are uncomfortable with giving yourself up to a book in which spirits, like the serpent, drive or influence the action, it probably isn’t worth your while to take on the remaining 438 pages. If you are willing to enter that world, there is a remarkable journey ahead of you.
Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf — she knows the spirits, the land, the sea, the native people and the intruders that form the story of this novel. It won Australia’s primary fiction prize, the Miles Franklin, in 2007, was published in the United Kingdom last year and finally became available to Canadian readers a month ago. (That’s fairly typical of how long we Canadians have to wait to read outstanding Australian fiction, but I’ll save that for my next post.)
Wright sets up the dialectical tension that will dominate the book and its characters a few pages later when she introduces Desperance, “a town intended to serve as a port for the shipping trade for the hinterland of Northern Australia”:
In one moment, during a Wet season early in the last century, the town lost its harbour waters when the river simply decided to change course, to bypass it by several kilometres. Just like that. Now the waterless port survives with more or less nothing to do. Its citizens continue to engage in a dialogue with themselves passed down the generations, on why the town should continue to exist.
Desperance may be the empty, pointless geographical centre of the book but it is surrounded by teeming action. To the west and east, there is the Pricklebush, home to the indigenous people, some of whom venture into town, some of whom avoid it. To the north, across the tidal mudflats, is the sea, home to its own collections of spirits and opportunities. To the south is the desert, again with its own set of creatures. And looming ominously over this all is the Gurfirrit mine, the latest foreign intrustion into this world. If Desperance represents the hopeless, empty past, the mine represents the equally hopeless, but threatening, future.
The powerful natural forces all have a human representative or two in the current reality of the book. Probably the most dominant is Normal Phantom of the Westside of the Pricklebush. Formerly the area’s best fisherman, he now is an amazing taxidermist who restores fish to life:
When nobody believed the story spread by Norm Phantom about not being the maker of his work, he kept his beliefs to himself. These were the fascinating secrets of the fishroom. Secretly, Norm remained convinced that others helped in such exquisite creations, something much more powerful than himself. A supernatural master artist who created miracles, a dalliance of God consuming the room as an experimental studio, a type of expose for life in the decaying world, where the air smelt like a beach.
Norm avoids Desperance and always has. Some time back, that led to a split in the Aboriginal community and a number of his neighbors headed across town to create the Eastside. Their leader is Joseph Midnight and they make periodic attempts to get along with Uptown (the white community); some even work in the mine.
Elias Smith is the human who emerges from the sea, dragging his fishing skiff across the mudflats. He becomes a feature of Desperance for a while but is obviously out of his element — eventually he drags his boat and self back to sea.
Mozzie Fishman (the last name is ironic — he hates the sea) is the human of the desert. A religious zealot, he leads a convoy of ancient vehicles and followers around the desert, periodically showing up in Desperance as yet another disruptive force.
There is also a queen (at least in her own mind) that “rules” over these four: Angel Day, the mother of Norm’s seven children, she left some time ago to take up with Joseph on the Eastside and has had a number of offspring by him.
Desperance itself, the empty centre, has equally empty characters — a hapless mayor, Stan Bruiser, and an equally hapless policeman, Truthful. In the book (as in Wright’s vision of the life she is describing), they serve mainly as punishing foils to the indigenous people.
As the opening sentences indicate, there is a similar cast of spiritual characters — not just the river serpent, but giant gropers in the sea and the winds, trees and blowing sand of the desert. They are joined by the spirits of the dead, departed or missing. Just as Robert Alexie in Porcupines and China Dolls (see my previous post) periodically makes his spirits concrete characters who drive the book, Wright has no hesitation in frequently making these forces real.
The result is an exceptional book, an exploration of a culture that values the land and its spirits every bit as much as its day to day reality — another feature it shares with Porcupines and China Dolls. As a Caucasian, raised as a Christian, I won’t pretend to understand it. I do appreciate the opportunity, provided by both books, to at least begin to appreciate it.
That is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to overlap these two reviews. While the nations of Alexis Wright and Robert Alexie may be geographically, quite literally, a world apart, they have much in common. And sometimes it is very helpful for those of us who are trying to comprehend the world we live in to look at the Antipodes to help achieve that understanding. I think Carpentaria does that for Canadians; equally, I think Porcupines and China Dolls (if you can figure out how to get it) would be valuable reading for Australians.
(I understand that Alexis Wright is coming to Canada this fall for the author festivals in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto — perhaps some others as well. Canadian readers might want to prepare by reading the book in advance. I don’t know if there are any plans for Robert Alexie, whose book was just released — it would be fascinating to see the two authors on the same platform.)
As promised in my previous post, this is the second of three related posts. Novels about indigenous people are not the only ones that show similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction. I have been fascinated for some years about that similarity — in a few days, I’ll complete this mini-series with some thoughts about why it exists and some examples that I hope visitors to this blog will find useful.