A review by Pico Iyer of “The Red Highway” published in The Monthly, August 2009

The Red Highway (Black Inc., 288pp; $32.95) begins with a spare, haunting account of the Czech artist Karel Kupka clambering out of a plane and (as the book’s first sentence has it) stepping “for the first time into the elusive world of Arnhem Land.” Born in the last year of World War I, and growing up in a cultured family at the centre of Prague’s intelligentsia, Kupka had made his way to Paris in the last year of the next war, got to know tribal art in the studio of Andre Breton and then, somewhat mysteriously, come out to Aboriginal Australia, as if to find his way back to a deeper, purer history that could restore him after civilisation as he knew it in Europe was destroyed in two terrible wars.

Yet the first effect of any open space is to concentrate the eye; when few things are around, you start to pay close attention to every one, and begin to find in each seemingly casual detail a universe of resonance. So it is with Rothwell’s characteristically deep, private and often terrifying work. Kupka was moving under a kind of “compulsion,” we read, and “had pictured himself as an outsider, carrying out profound investigations” in the bush. He was at once fascinated and disquieted by the spirits, the witch doctors, the writhing creatures from the world of sorcery he discovered as he deepened his “advance into the shadows” of Australia’s hidden north. In Darwin he was asked to paint an Aboriginal Madonna for a new cathedral, its predecessor damaged beyond repair by Japanese attacks in war. He did so, but his work was stolen and then returned, a little bruised, and hung so that it could hardly be inspected.

Anyone who has seen the tall, thin, somewhat displaced Nicolas Rothwell may grow a little startled to read that Kupka was “tall, and thin, and somewhat out of place.” Anyone who has read Rothwell’s earlier books – Wings of the Kite-Hawk, Heaven and Earth and Another Country – may feel a penetrating chill when she reads that Kupka, in Sydney, seemed “a pale, transfigured creature, striking through with his words to some uncharted higher realm.” Those who may happen to know that Rothwell is half-Czech and half-Australian will see that there is something more going on here than just the excavation of rich and fascinating history, and the telling of a mysterious fable about an European artist, pushed almost against his will into the secret and oblique silences of Australia’s heart. While recounting a formal, factual, meticulously precise story about a figure trying to salvage something from the magnetic north before it dies – or he does – Rothwell is clearly laying out something much closer to the bone as, again and again, he takes himself off into the vast, silent, unpeopled spaces of the red highway, looking for something he can’t even acknowledge to himself. While flying towards Arnhem Land for the first time, he tells us, Kupka’s plane (the Star of Australia) crashed, which meant that the traveller was stripped of almost everything, and felt that he was now released for a journey into a “new and deeper life,” on the far side of death.

*

The Red Highway is a masterful and unforgettable book in its own right, spooked and riveting and full of echoes; but it is also just one more part of a huge scroll that Rothwell seems to be assembling, piece by piece, as he fills in the secret history of his continent (and, by potent implication, himself). Much like the late German writer WG Sebald, whom he strikingly resembles in his sombre, attic eloquence, Rothwell seems drawn by his hauntedness deeper and deeper into precisely those places most guaranteed to unsettle him. Over and over he is attracted to figures of melancholy, to intimations of death. Sebald was born in Germany in 1944, son of a Nazi soldier, so everywhere he went in Europe – tramping around England or visiting the cities of Italy – he always seemed to end up either in a churchyard, shaken, or excavating some odd solitary as exiled as himself. Rothwell grew up mostly in Europe, with Australia in his blood, and surrounded by the ghosts and suicides of that used-up world. As he pushes farther into the emptiness at the centre of the oldest continent, everyone he meets seems to have a European past, and nearly everywhere he goes betrays deep scars from World War II. So even as he is pressing into the future, away from the vengeful cycles of history, he is met at every turn by relics from the past, as if everything is conspiring to create a huge tapestry of pain and restoration.

This teaches you to read the book in a very special way, attending with one eye to the vivid, funny, atmospheric accounts of the writer’s often ill-begotten trips into the desert or conversations with old acquaintances who refuse to take him too seriously; and with the other to the secret pattern invisibly developing behind the scenes. Everything has at once an immediate life and a kind of shadow in Rothwell’s work, which means that we devour, say, the details of the story of Henk Guth, a Dutch painter who moved to Alice Springs and began to bring the palette of “the old Dutch masters – deep, rich sepia earths, dark greens and wheat-sheaf yellows” to a scene more often associated with blinding sunlight, dazzled red and cloudless blue. Yet even as we succumb to the spell of the narrative, we realise that this description of importing a shadowed Rembrandt eye to the light-filled surfaces of Australia is, in fact, a perfect distillation of the book we’re reading.

In the same way, the reader starts to notice that each of the book’s four sections – ‘Exile’, ‘Belief’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Return’ – has a Biblical sound to it, and that each one, 60 pages long, is patterned as carefully as a musical movement. Investigations into the history of the exploration of Australia’s heart, and the exiled artists who sought it out, merge with stories of Rothwell’s own questing journeys into the interior, and the people he meets along the way: a music journalist, an expert on molluscs, a kangaroo hunter. As he pushes deeper and deeper into the Red Centre, he can find neither the ease of an indigenous being nor that of a casual sceptic. Instead, he’s propelled into a mystery that he seems ready to be humbled and silenced by, without trying to solve. “Resistant” is the word that comes up again and again, and while it could apply to the landscape, it clearly has application also to our narrator.

On the surface, the book juxtaposes Rothwell’s journeys around the Middle East, covering wars for the Australian, with his account of returning to his adopted home of Darwin in 2005, after a year away, as if summoned by the images he’s kept in his head. As the movements go on, however, you realise how close the charged spaces of Australia and of the Holy Land really are. Rothwell’s Aboriginal friends cannot stop asking about the deserts of Judaea and Samaria, he tells us; those unpeopled expanses that are said to be the site of serpents, Satan’s temptations, the 40 days in the wilderness. Meanwhile, wandering around Jerusalem, Rothwell bumps into a North American monk who wants to talk about his own time in Kalumburu, in the Kimberley. He runs into a shining-faced, young Russian Orthodox nun from Boston, who has in her possession an Aboriginal painting of what she calls “The Promised Land”. Photos of the Outback start tumbling in on him, from Australian friends, as he sits in the Internet cafes of Baghdad or Syria. If his day job, so to speak, is about covering these wars, his night thoughts are about what lies far behind the events of the day, that expanse of time and space he associates with the Kimberley and the Northern Territory.

So as his explorations intensify, we begin to notice how the same few references – Kupka, the war, burning ships – keep turning up. Everywhere he goes seems to bring him to the same place. It’s almost as if he has decided to turn a telescope the wrong way round, so that a land routinely seen in terms of bright surfaces, blond lifestyles and perpetual, unhistoried newness is here shown to be old and dark. Certainly I’ve never come across a depiction of Australia so weighted with a classical, sepulchral sense of prophecy before. Asked what he saw and learned in the Middle East, our hooded narrator answers, with typical reticence, “Some things are best untold.”

Just as the story is threatening to grow too heavy, though, or become edged with gravitas, Rothwell brings us back to earth with all the tough-minded bristle and straightforwardness of the bush. If the philosopher in him is always drawn to what lies behind and beyond things, the journalist, happily, is trained to fill every sentence with specifics. Here is all the tinselly poetry and irreverence of the Outback, in a 94-year-old monk who invented “an anti-snoring device, made out of tyre rubber”, and a nun whose attempts to cook set off widespread outbreaks of food poisoning. Here are vast raintrees in which “white cockatoos were shrieking, and cavorting, and hurtling through the air” and an “antiquated Thrifty troop-carrier” with “heraldic bullbars” whose “spurs and supports curved round the wings of the vehicle, much like the reliefs that clasp medieval altars in a sheltering, protecting frame.” Long sentences give way to short, trifling details mix with premonitions, high diction is brought to low comedy and the result is a mix of strangeness and charm that leaves us fruitfully unsettled: “Another Kingswood, midnight blue, dilapidated, its trunk held closed with elasticised ties and knotted snatch-straps, drove up at this point, spewing dark clouds of particulate from its exhaust pipe. Its back seats were full of children. They waved at us enthusiastically.”

Most books of wandering devolve into mere collections of observations; the ones that really hold us, and endure, draw these observations into something like a vision, a grasping at what is larger than the events we see. In Sebald, in Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski, in VS Naipaul, every tremor and oak tree and twitch is described – but at the same time we always feel that they are, in the end, just an entrance to something much more inward and treacherous. These writers are reporting on the world, but in the process they penetrate into some private and haunted space they can’t escape.

The Red Highway stands very much in that tradition; a journey into the interior that, like all Rothwell’s books, suggests, precisely by seeming impersonal and conjuring up familiars and alter egos at every turn, that underneath its surfaces it is telling an intensely personal story, with the highest stakes. The memories that come back to the narrator of his childhood above the Rhine are shocking and largely unsought. The monks and nuns he meets keep reminding him that the world we see and take to be ‘real’ is in fact just a passing show and that the real world is something within, inescapable. When, at one characteristic moment, Rothwell drives a 12-year-old Aboriginal girl across the annihilating emptiness – playing Haydn string quartets to her and reminiscing, spellbound, about his pilgrimage to the composer’s home in Vienna – you can feel one part of yourself touched and warmed by what might be a sweetly incongruous scene from a road movie. With another part of yourself, you realise that the narrator, to our profit, is never travelling light.

*

The first thing that probably hits you, reading Rothwell, is the style. The paragraphs are long, sonorous, at a contemplative distance from the world, and the sentences are intricate and full of turns, shadowed, labyrinthine, like many-chambered passageways in the mind of the opium-eater De Quincey. Around everything hangs an air at once elegiac and droll, as if the narrator is always over-brooded by a certain mournfulness and yet can see the absurdity of such a stance. Words like ‘totemic’, ‘hieratic’, ‘alarming’ recur. There is an almost tangible pressure underneath the words and a pushing against the surfaces of the world. ‘Loss’ tolls like a bell across the open spaces of the prose.

All round us was red sand and bleached spinifex. On a promontory above the salt flats were old, gnarled desert oaks, trailing their windswept leaves. Bushfire smoke was rising and unfurling on the horizon; the sun came beating down. Ahead, the lake’s white, dazzling surface glittered:it was too brilliant to look at; it caught and magnified the glare. On the far shore, where the red line of dunes merged with the distance, mirages – vast, troubling likenesses of ships, or breached, decaying castles – boiled away. In the view, there was that mingling of quiet and anguish that the far deserts hold. The compulsion, too; the urge to look. Come, the landscape seemed to say: come – come closer; dissolve; let the whole world slip and go. I dragged my gaze away. I shielded my eyes.

At the same time, as that passage discloses, images keep recurring: fires purging the landscape, recalling the firestorms of World War II. The repetition of those images gives the book its special air of secrecy, as if to suggest that all of us, however little we may be aware of it, are caught in some web of hidden patterning that legislates the trajectory of our lives (combined with the high language, this contrives to give Rothwell’s works the solemn nineteenth-century air of a Melville or a Poe). At one moment, for example, a woman the narrator encounters suddenly recalls looking down when she landed in Darwin and seeing, astonishingly, “a parade of medieval knights in armour” reflected in the water. Two hundred and thirty-two pages later, at the very end of the narrative, a man who has come close to death in the jungles of Laos sees a “procession of mounted, armoured knights” as he hallucinates. A ghost ship is spotted again and again just out to sea. “There are rhymes and echoes everywhere,” as one of Rothwell’s friends says, and a priest in Jerusalem notes that he is talking of his time in the Outback only because it is “a set of symbols and resonances; a parable about finding a true path ahead.”

As the book goes on, this occult patterning makes us realise that every one of the characters that Rothwell meets, highly particular though each one is in his idiosyncratic habits and lifestyle and life story, is to some degree a reflection of the narrator. His friend Gina has a note of “inward grief or pensiveness” about her eyes, and something “otherworldly” about her, despite her involvement in real-world negotiations for the UN. The photographer Mike Gillam lives behind a latticework of eccentric defences, and, giving Rothwell a tour around his impromptu temple of found objects, notes that “everything that’s lost and cast aside in Central Australia” receives a second chance here. The spinifex expert Peter Lutz sees “life’s surface as fugitive, governed by hidden forces.”

The narrative therefore seems itself to be guided by such forces, and one registers that it is as strictly shaped and selected as a poem. In many stories of wandering, the protagonist takes us through a seemingly casual record of his days: encounters that peter out, random observations, plans that go wrong, moments that occasionally go right. In Rothwell’s work, all the excess and the banality is pared away, so that we move through a sequence of epiphanies, all of which suggest a hidden logic at the core of things. The ultimate effect is of a book that is spiritual, without much dipping into religion at all. Here – in the text and in the deep deserts – is a realm of sign and wonder, though we meet almost nothing in the way of explicit religious thinking or doctrine. A spiritual book, it tells us, is simply one that has to do with the most private, hidden things, such as loss and fear and the longing to be redeemed.

This could all seem much too portentous or freighted with meaning were it not for Rothwell’s persistent drollness and his wry mockery of his own temperament. Over and over he flies into high-pitched talk of a “wounded healer”. His guide, who knows the terrain more intimately than he, says mordantly, “I don’t know I’d be applying some spiritual grid to Finlayson.” Most of the people he meets are down-to-earth, full of the laconic ways of desert friendship, even as they go about their own unlikely pastimes and tell him not to mourn any vanished golden age (no age is golden in the moment) or not to grow too romantic about a slain kangaroo (nature feasts on renewals). Indeed, The Red Highway contrives at once to be a bravely sincere, harrowed journey into the hope for salvation among the great spaces of the bush, and a gently comical reminder that most schemes such as this are doomed at heart to fail.

This grounding mechanism has a particular power when it comes to the depiction of the narrator himself. Rothwell keeps his presence scrupulously out of the centre of the frame, and all we tend to see is a shadow leaning forward to transcribe the stories and observations of people wiser than himself. In the process, though, we come to know him, like a self-deceiving character in Ishiguro, almost entirely through the eyes of others. “You look awful,” says an old friend when encountering him suddenly. “You look half dead,” says another. In a wonderful corrective to the self-aggrandisement and mock-heroism of most such journeys (I think first and foremost of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines), this narrator is seen only in outline, being put in place by people who affectionately reproach him for his illusions, his overripe interpretations, his bedraggled look. At one archetypal point, a friend suggests a venomous snake for Rothwell. It is, he notes pointedly, “very self-contained, and full of grace.”

What this indirect procedure makes possible, as in no such book that I can remember, is a sense of powerful, sometimes overwhelming emotion, the more affecting for being pushed down. On the face of it, the narrator is a conscientious journalist, simply recording details and transcribing the talk of the people he interviews. But constantly, almost in spite of himself, something deeper and more vulnerable breaks through. Looking at a glass case full of “flat, white stones,” he confesses that he’s so close in his scrutiny that his breath fogs the glass. Going over some letters from Kupka in a library, he is quietly upbraided by an attendant because he’s smearing the pages (with his tears). Rothwell is a figure of rare and bracing learning, restraint, control and attention. But at one moment, he suddenly lets out that all his days in the Middle East were “ones of grief and emptiness,” and “I could see no pattern or path ahead in life.”

As the book rises and pushes on towards its climax, even the poison used in a local wild-dog control experiment takes us back to the German “military chemists” who came up with it, and we notice again that almost every story we hear is of a meeting with death. Tales of the old European explorers in the Outback ultimately come back to one simple, inescapable question: “how to perish, how to face death – marooned, in silence, alone.” Rothwell is clearly following in their footsteps in leaving the death zones of Iraq and Kurdistan for the “unwritten country” of the red highway, where people come “because they’re lost, or searching, or on the edge of life, and silence, and they’re chasing after some kind of pattern, some redemption they think might be lurking, on the line of the horizon, out in the faint, receding perspectives of the bush.” Like Kupka, hoping for a second life. Or the Special Ops veteran of Vietnam, at the end, who carries us into acid trips and meetings with destruction in the jungles of Indochina (soldiers, he notes en passant, routinely passed through Darwin on their way to war).

The innocent browser may, picking up The Red Highway, think it is a ‘travel book’. She couldn’t be more wrong. It is in fact a book about being shriven and broken down and brought so close to oblivion that you are released to something else. Though full of long drives into the bush, it has nothing to do with locomotion, and everything to do with being stirred and moved, carried out of the self. Nicolas Rothwell gives us huge amounts of information in his pages about warfare and nudibranchs and perenties, history from the nineteenth century and the details of Aboriginal art. He carries us higher and higher with his antique elegance and a rapt, attentive interest in everything human, vegetable and celestial that tempts one to use the almost outdated word ‘sublime’.

But the deeper he goes, the more he leaves all words behind. He leaves behind his ideas, too, his books, his romances, like the dry skin that a snake sheds in the process of remaking itself. In its final pages, going back and forth between the silences of the Red Centre and the haunted mind’s images of ghost ships coming in across the water, the narrative mounts to such a pitch of sustained epiphany that Rothwell’s questions become our own, and we recognise that mind cannot grasp – nor mouth form – them. That is another characteristic of Kupka’s that he’d introduced at the very beginning: the exile’s feeling that “Self-effacement is a form of transcendence.” When you put The Red Highway down, it may be with that rarest and most heart-shaking of sensations: you’ve travelled somewhere essential and now, not a moment too soon, you’re coming back, at last, from the dead.