The Fishman lives the lore

Elizabeth Lowry

  • Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
    Constable, 439 pp, £16.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 1 84529 721 3

Nine hours’ drive east of Darwin, where the Northern Territory of Australia and Queensland meet, you will find the Gulf of Carpentaria, the sea that separates the top lip of the continent from New Guinea. The surrounding area features in tourist brochures as part of a rugged ‘real Australia’, home to cattle farming, barramundi fishing, a thriving mining industry, a national park and a nature reserve. It is an orthodox, homogeneous picture of bucolic peace and productivity in which you would be hard-pressed to discover any references to the Aboriginal land wars that have been part of life in the area for the last four hundred years, or, indeed, to the tensions between the indigenous population and the Queensland government over Aboriginal land rights that are the stuff of day-to-day contemporary politics.

Open Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, however, and the topic becomes live at once. The book – the first novel by an Aboriginal writer to win Australia’s Miles Franklin Award outright – is dedicated to two of Wright’s ‘countrymen’, Clarence Walden, the former mayor of the Aboriginal settlement of Doomadgee in north-west Queensland, and the Aboriginal land-rights activist Murrandoo Yanner. In 2006, Walden unsuccessfully opposed ministerial proposals to reform the permit system that restricts public access to Aboriginal lands. Yanner waged an energetic but ultimately just as fruitless campaign in the late 1990s against plans by the Queensland and federal governments to circumvent the Native Title Act and establish the Century Zinc Mine in the Gulf territory. Wright, who is descended from the Waanji people of the highlands of Carpentaria and has herself worked widely to raise awareness of land rights, has described Yanner as ‘our hero in the Gulf of Carpentaria’.

Carpentaria is a political novel, but like all good political novels, it is also deeply personal. In Grog War (1997), her scrupulously observed account of the impact of alcohol on the indigenous population of Tennant Creek, Wright says that ‘Aboriginal people are still being forced to hold much of their contact history with white people locked away inside of themselves.’ Carpentaria is a conscious attempt to redress the balance, to unlock this private history. But it is much more than that. By avoiding mere reportage in favour of a narrative that is a blend of fact, folklore and the surreal, Wright’s prose, with its shifting syntax and telescoping perspectives, its forays into dreams and the supernatural, imitates the cultural and inner processes it describes. It’s a method that owes something to the magic realism of such writers as García Márquez or Alejo Carpentier. The effect is of a heightened reality in which elements of the marvellous appear without seeming unnatural or forced; as here, in the book’s first few sentences:

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.

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