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Monday, 13 August 2007

A Great Australian Novel?

Sitting outside the campervan in the tropical evenings during perambulations around the Northern Territory I found myself totally absorbed by the Miles Franklin Literary Qward winning novel Cartentaria by Alexis Wright.

It is a big novel - big in all the senses that Tim Winton's novel Cloudstreet is big - length wise, in its tackling of large subjects and in its portrayal of the physical landscape and sea as vivid characters in their own right.

I am still trying to put my finger on why I kept thinking of Winton's writing, particularly in Cloudstreet as I got totally aborbed in Wright's book. Probably the connection is that in their different ways Wright and Winton refuse to allow the material world to be disconnected from the world of spirit.

The story revolves around the coastal town of Desperance, located in the Gulf country of north western Queensland.

This is a novel with an unashamed and unapologetic indigenous voice and viewpoint. The cover notes are absolutely accurate - the storytelling is operatic and surreal, a blend of myth and scripture, politics, farce and the living out of a deeply engrained indigenous spirit with a rollicking and at times tragic who dunnit tale interwoven.

The names of the key characters might suggest a leaning toward farce, Normal Phantom, angel Day, Mozzie Fishman this is not how the book largely plays out. The characters are large, powerful and tragic.

I am not a literary critic by any means but my guess is that the author has brought large elements of an indignous worldview slap bang into the mainstream of Australian literary culture. I'm guessing that it is going to get some mixed reactions. many of those viscerally opposed to the Federal Government's militarised assimilation project will cheer the satire on white small town racism and the struggle against the Gufurrit mine but are going to have a real struggle with the spiritually rooted connection with the land and the sea. It certainly does not sit easily with the worldview of modernity.

The author does not attempt to present a single 'indigenous" reponse to the challenges facing the 'pricklebush' people who live on the margin of Desperance. She presents a diversity of responses and judgements as to the strategy for dealing with the people who came in and occupied their land.

While it provides moments that resonate with the political issues in the headlines it is not a political tract. It is an engaging read that goes to the depths of an indigenous vision of what it is to be human in a particular time and place.

It is an engaging, spirit expanding, challenging and absorbing read.

While it might not be the "great australian novel" it is a read that touched my heart and expanded my vision of what it is to be human and why any simple response by governments to solve "the indigenous problem" is likely to be misguided and ineffective.

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