“Wings of the Kite-Hawk” review by Noel Purdon. First published in The Weekend Australian March 22nd 2003

Nicolas Rothwell takes a journey into the metaphors and realities of the Australian landscape

AS he demonstrated in his novel Heaven & Earth, Nicolas Rothwell is a conceptualist. In order to construct a novel he needs an architecture that will also serve as a weight-bearing metaphor to support his massively collected material. In Heaven & Earth that metaphor was the brain of communist Europe cracking into fragments. Because he writes both with the skills of an on-the-spot journalist and the curious, dazed distance of the metaphysician, he failed to convince some critics of his literary power. And yet it was there, as surely as it is in Robinson Crusoe, the allegory overseeing the observation.

Wings of the Kite-Hawk runs the even greater risks of non-fiction. How should an author make use of an artistic method without merely repeating it, and where should he situate himself between his material and his reader? Is there a need for maps and references? (I know what a drag this puts on travel writing, but he is doing more than that, and the answer is a critical Yes!)

Does he escape by his imaginative device of following the journals and documents of four great investigators of Australia’s interior: Ludwig Leichhardt, Charles Sturt, Ted Strehlow and Ernest Giles? His placing of himself is precarious, led into an abyss of almost suicidal complicity with these solitary and troubled men. A practical guide rope is provided in each chapter by songs of hope and continuity as he meets the interior’s living representatives, human and animal. They offer evidence of continuity and warnings of death. These are translated into the wish to leave the lonely landscape and soar above it on the wings of the kite-hawk of the title.

In fact, it is at the junction of these themes that we join the party. Rothwell juggles the journals around for dramatic effect. On May 21, 1845 just before Gilbert’s murder, Leichhardt is in Cape York, about to name a northwest flowing river after his friend Robert Lynd. For days, Rothwell tells us, the group has been “patrolled by kite-hawks, those strangely human-seeming birds”. Within this episode opens a series of parallel concerns that define the journeys.

Leichhardt never once uses the term “kite-hawks” and certainly didn’t see them as “human”. He refers to them simply as kites, the same black migrators he had seen throughout Europe. Rothwell chooses the words because it immediately invests him with his central metaphor. It lifts the scene and gives it the duality which will run through the book like a chasm bridged by both creeks and boulders. He knows perfectly well the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, and introduces all the subspecies of kite as required. Hawks are noble; kites scavengers. Leichhardt compared them to Harpies. Sturt found them beautiful enough to draw. It was he who used the double term, and as such it is current.

It provides Rothwell with a series of yoked opposites. The glorious and the abject, the European and the Australian, the redneck and the Aborigine, the permanent battle that life wages against death might, after all, be part of the same process. Even the elegiac dedication to his mother “Tu fui, ego eris’
(“I was once you. You will become me”) curiously mirrors Freud’s formulation of the Self.

Already an American exile, the author is a deeply divided European one. As if by destiny, Germany, Czechs, Poles and Hungarians recite their Ring Cycles from Balgo to Ravenshoe. The Middle European names insist on their presence: Strzelecki, Hermannsburg. President Havel visits Kakadu. Rothwell begins to wonder if he carries some sort of Transylvanian bacillus which is going to create pits among the rock-art.

Immediately after the Leichhardt episode, he recalls a pilgrimage to Titian’s Flaying of Marysas to check for signs of disintegration, and it is on the Lynd that he comes to his own moments of crisis in which the kite-hawks serve as augurs. He emerges from it to “the desert’s interlocking social realms”, the jukebox at Glen Helen, the Imparja man who asks: “Now how did they know what it would look like from the air?”

For everyone from lovers of dot painting to followers of the explorers who are themselves writing the landscape, Rothwell’s interweaving is irresistible. He is at his most commendable in his refusal to broadcast the exact location of newfound petroglyphs, or to repeat the mistakes of anthropologists and “healers” who have blabbed indigenous business. Touching and compassionate also are his meetings with the men and women who have been maimed in their journeys, like the Ford Man who greets him as “little brother”. This is no rollicking ramble but a richly textured and layered work flashing with insight. If his contemplations of landscape and meaning sound highfalutin they do no more than mirror their sources. His explorers and wanderers are driven, classically educated people. Leichhardt’s epigraph is from Goethe. Bikies cite Shelley, but also see dog-men. The Mayor of Chillagoe quotes Homer; the Centre resounds to Bach cello suites and Schubert impromptus.

Nor is this apparently incongruous culture pitched at one level. Rothwell writes in all tones, from sarcasm at the infamous Adelaide auction of Arrernte artefacts to the rhapsody on rainbow-coloured birds whose movement finishes his sentence with a feather grazing his cheek. To gather the mysterious imagery of birds into the complexity of his themes, there is a sequence of encounters with a doppelganger.

But to understand what he achieves psychologically with the figure of the kite-hawk, and how the Interior cathedrals and galleries of Australia are finally pictured are pleasures best left to your own reading.