Our lives are made up of different arcs—love, family, politics, geography, time and dislocation among them. One of the arcs that has exercised me most is my wondering about post-colonising Australia and its myths and mythmaking propensities, also about my family’s.
Although my childhood was spent mostly in Melbourne, it was punctuated by our frequent pilgrimages to the promised land (aka South Australia) and inflected by the awareness that Melbourne was exile to my South Australian mother—feelings I do not share. She often reminded us of our ‘free settler’ heritage, and of our roots in the colonial era, no more than a blink of time ago in the face of 50,000 or more years of Aboriginal occupation; my horror has only grown with the intervening years.
We loved South Australia for our own reasons: for heat, our peerless great-grandmother, wild freedom and the beach. But an awareness of myth, of the stories we tell and the ways we frame present and past, was kindled. If there is an arc in this selection, it is that the postcolonial Australia that I first began to think about as a child—if only at the edges of my mind—is a myth. It always has been.
Randolph Stow, Midnite (1967)
Randolph Stow’s Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy is the most effortlessly charming book I know, though its insipid blurb is enough to put anyone off: ‘A brilliantly good-humoured and amusing history of the exploits of Captain Midnite and his five good animal friends.’ The cover alone was enough to induce paroxysms of longing for the secret valley, caves and beach of our holiday world. In the world of Midnite, which had its own hidden valley and caves, I recognised a fictional form of that enchanted place.
Set in 1860s Western Australia, Midnite tells the story of a not very handsome or clever 17-year-old youth who after being orphaned is taken in hand mostly by his Siamese cat, Khat, part life coach, part PR manager, who understands the importance of shaping image. Mythmaking is key to managing a brand; effortlessly, Stow shows us how it’s done:
‘If I were you,’ said Khat, ‘I should be a bushranger.’
‘Would you really?’ said Midnite.
‘I should call myself Captain Midnight,’ said Khat, ‘which is a fine name for a bushranger, but I should spell it M-I-D-N-I-T-E.’
‘Why?’ asked Midnite.
‘Because that is more fierce and romantic,’ said Khat. ‘There is nothing romantic about good spelling.’
‘Will they write about me in the newspapers?’ Midnite wondered.
‘I should think they would,’ said Khat. ‘I should think they would make up songs about you, too. People are always making songs about bushrangers.’
‘Perhaps they will put me into a book,’ said Midnite, growing excited.
‘I should not be surprised,’ said Khat … ‘I think I see somebody, a hundred years from today, sitting at a typewriter, making up a book called Midnite.’
(This winking complicity between narrator and reader delighted me; I considered it the height of sophistication.)
Midnite’s career flourishes and his fame spreads, and though his frequent captor and friend, Trooper O’Grady, repeatedly betrays him, he escapes in a series of exuberant slapstick episodes. His court appearances draw crowds:
All the ladies stood on tiptoe and stretched their necks to see him, and cried: ‘Isn’t he handsome! Oh, Doesn’t he look fierce!’ Although to tell the truth Midnite was neither fierce nor handsome … They wanted him to be handsome, and so that is the way they saw him.
The cast of characters, varied and hilarious, includes Queen Victoria, who calls for Midnite ‘to be abolished on receipt of Our letter’; one of literature’s finest comic creations, Mrs Chiffle; and the German philosopher, Johann Ludwig Ulrich von Leichardt zu Voss (aka Mr Smith) and his camels, Sturm and Drang, whom Midnite encounters in the Never Never Desert, ‘where come poets and explorers to die … Because they themselves exploring finished have.’ In a wonderful bit of compression, Stow draws together the tropes of colonial Australia, German Romanticism and the contemporary Australian literary scene.
Midnite is as much about the mythology of mateship as it is about love, and it is a bittersweet moment when Midnite marries the colony’s it-girl, Miss Laura Wellborn. The Trooper O’Grady–Midnite arc always seems the more compelling.
Midnite is not without problems. There is some racial and gender stereotyping in Midnite’s ‘inscrutable oriental confederate’, Khat, and in the ‘feminine wiles’ of Miss Wellborn. And Stow only edges up to acknowledging the existence of pre-colonial Australia, describing Aboriginal art in Midnite’s hidden valley as ‘rather clever pictures’.
Reading Midnite as Stow’s mostly affectionate farewell to Australia before his return to England is not to deny its truths about Australia’s mythmaking propensities, which he skewers with glee, or to acknowledge that it can’t help extending the myths of colonial Australia that it mocks. It’s a more complicated read for me these days, but it still makes me laugh.
Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
My family lived in Phnom Penh in the 2000s, more than 20 years after the end of the Pol Pot regime. The country was still in ruins, the ravaged streets filled mostly with bicycles and motos which the few cars and four-wheel drives moved through as stately as whales. The two bookshops in town stocked mouldering second-hand paperbacks—airport fiction of the ages and a few classics. I came across Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda one day, began reading in the shop, and when I couldn’t stop I wandered up to a riverfront café and kept on, riveted, pining for the light and sounds of Australia.
Oscar and Lucinda is the story of two young people—a minister and an heiress—who meet while sailing to Australia in the 1860s, bond over their mutual obsession with gambling, make a bet about transporting a church made of glass up a river, and fall in love along the way. Glass and a thirst for gambling are the two motifs that bind Oscar and Lucinda as well as the novel together. Inspired by the impending removal of an old weatherboard church near Carey’s home in Bellingen, it’s an intricate work filled with rich detail and characters of Dickensian dimension.
Oscar and Lucinda speaks to many things, including pre-European Australia. ‘I was imagining the moment that box of Christian stories came floating or cutting through the landscape filled with Aboriginal stories,’ says Carey. It’s this exploration of Aboriginal stories and lives driven out by Christian ones, and the devastation to land, culture and livelihoods, that started my wondering about my family stories. There are parallels in Cambodia too, where Christian missionaries had opened the way for logging and deforestation in remote provinces by persuading people that their Buddhist animist beliefs were false. After all, if a tree does not have a spirit, what could be the harm in felling it?
The reader can feel the motif of glass, light and clear, all through the book, in the church, images of containment, and even in the structure of the novel: 111 short chapters, like the panes in the church of glass, all holding together to build this intricate thing. It’s there, too, in the extraordinary final scenes in which the ‘fragile bird-cage church’ of glass glides along the river, ‘as fine and elegant as civilisation itself’, with Oscar sitting on a chair inside. Unspoken is the superficiality and fragility of Western ‘civilisation’ as well as its apparent transparency. It’s dreamy stuff and beautifully sustained.
The conjectured Aboriginal perspective towards the novel’s conclusion seems surprising and somewhat strained now. The wondering perspective of the novel’s narrator as he recounts meeting his father’s friend Kumbaingiri Billy, one of the last of his tribe, and as he speculates about fragmentary events from the arrival of white men in the 1860s is more eloquent of loss and destruction and unknowability.
Kumbaingiri Billy told the story of ‘How Jesus came to Bellingen long time-ago’ … [he] must have first heard it when he was very young, and now I think about it it seems probable that its source is not amongst the Kumbaingiri but the Narcoo blacks… but perhaps it is not one story anyway.
While Oscar and Lucinda is wholly itself, it has echoes in other texts. I think of the Trojan horse, of William Blake’s ‘invisible worm that flies in the night in the howling storm’, of Jospeh Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I’m still following the reading trail it started for me.
Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel (2012)
When I first read Questions of Travel, it was its exquisite evocation of place that pulled me in: ‘The shadow of a great tree lying on the grass contained pieces of light, coins in a dark hand.’ It’s a wickedly funny novel too, brimming with satire and sharp observation.
Questions of Travel is constructed of a series of episodes spanning 40 years, concluding in 2004. Through the shifting points of view of Australian Laura and Sri Lankan refugee Ravi, de Kretser explores the many things that travel can mean, what motivates it, observing with wit, understanding and judgement its geographical, cultural and temporal dimensions.
There was the memory of all those times when [Laura] had rushed to question travellers returned from the magic land called overseas. They would assure her that it was great for a while but … Australia was the best place to bring up kids, no question. It was simply wonderful how time away confirmed that home was best. Photographs were produced as evidence that travel had occurred, for the travellers themselves were unchanged … Souvenirs, strategically deployed around the house, proclaimed the sophistication and broadness of outlook that familiarity with foreign cultures conferred. And that was all of overseas that anyone needed.
In Sri Lanka, Ravi fears ‘exclusion’ from the ‘global’ community more than extinction, for ‘dailiness normalises everything, even slaughter’. At first, then, travel means connection to the world for him. But it’s as a refugee that he leaves after the murders of his wife and son. For Laura, though, travel is an entertainment, ‘the old dream of renewal’, or a half-hearted search for meaning: ‘tourists read travel guides like missals. If they chose the correct street, dined on a particular terrace, went through a crucial door, everything would be different.’
Laura flitters across Europe on a whim. Her reactions to climbing an ‘icing-white tower’, to eating a custard tart, and to reports of the Berlin Wall coming down or troubles in Sarajevo vary little. She feels things only temporarily, though her observation of the Atlantic approaching ‘slow as a slattern, to smear its grey rags along the shore’ suggests a kind of existential disgust. She cannot leave herself behind.
A comic passage observes tourists from the Eastern bloc who ‘brought to mind long, hard winters enlivened only by a really tremendous new variety of turnip and the latest steel production figures’. Their ‘reverence’ earns a rare moment of approval: ‘They were serious, appreciative and archaic: travellers for whom the link between travel and holiness still held.’
If there weren’t so much understanding of the causes of Laura’s drift and Ravi’s ambivalence, and the writing were not so extraordinary, it might be difficult to persevere. Bravely the reader continues, as if travelling rough on a tour that’s designed to show us our true selves for once, and is hoping they’re not one of ‘those’ travellers they’re gazing at in the text. It’s bracing stuff, disconcerting as well as exhilarating.
Australians have a reputation for being warm, friendly and easygoing—at least we are told that that is so, and people seem fond of the thought. We are among the most travelled people on earth; for some, this is a signifier of culture and civilisation as well as wealth. But myths are not the truth—not the whole truth, anyway. After all, Australians repeatedly vote to incarcerate refugees offshore and continue environmental destruction; violence against women is common, people drink too much and housing is unaffordable.
People—Australians among them—might be ridiculous and superficial, but there is sadness in this too, in recognising what it means to be human. In this regard, and in light of the ongoing crisis of treatment of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, the relevance of Questions of Travel remains undiminished. In the end, the novel seems to say, as the 2004 tsunami sweeps through Laura’s and Ravi’s lives, so much about where you are born, where and how and why you travel, and how your life concludes is a matter of circumstance rather than choice.
Perhaps we all mythologise, as countries do, as I do here. I didn’t mention my discomfort at handing money to landmine victims while I sat reading Oscar and Lucinda in a Phnom Penh riverfront café. Or that when I read it here, now, in Australia, I’m reminded of Cambodia, and I wonder whether I was any more than an emblem of a Western culture that could destroy. I didn’t mention my childhood night terrors at our beach house, my feeling that there was something unknowable in the landscape. But this is how we create our worlds: we frame them, we give them shape, and in this way we make them bearable.
‘I am, you are, we are Australian,’ the song goes. These books have each made me confront some of the things that can mean. •
Lucy Treloar is the author of Wolfe Island and Salt Creek, which won the Dobbie Award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. Her short stories and nonfiction have been widely published.