Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor: A New Genre

This examination of the novel form, the tradition of the tale and the structure of “Belomor”‘ is by a close follower of trends in Australian writing, Silke Hesse.

The literary review is a genre all of its own. It is of the first hour and the urgency with which comments on a new publication are required by a media serving the market will seem to excuse rashness and inaccuracies. The review will, moreover, be the characteristic reaction of an individual who must profile himself so as to be a recognizable, even unmistakable voice in the democratic chorus of opinion; that profile may well contain idiosyncratic tastes and personal feuds. But at the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, the review is to be in all essentials the representative voice of society with its notions of good taste, wholesome values, proud national image and skilled craftsmanship.

If we are in Australia, good taste, wholesome values and national image are often merged in the egalitarian concept of “unpretentiousness”, which in practice can simply mean strict authorial censorship of anything not immediately accessible or congenial to the targeted reading public. Craftsmanship, for its part, is most commonly judged by adherence to established genres. For a large-scale narrative form, the genre will inevitably be the novel and the review will most likely tick off in turn: interesting material, well rounded characters, realistic dialogue, a modest and helpful narrator, flawless causality, a neat eventual collection of narrative strands, and a credible but unexpected and thrilling climax. If the reviewer is imaginative and generous, some innovation will be acceptable or even welcome.

When we think of the novel today we rarely remember that it was once a hybrid form, experimentally composed of the immediacy of drama with its heroes, its dialogue exchanges and its climactic ending, of the epic with its love of captivating an audience by pursuing a story through all its endless detail, of the letter with its personal narrator in conversation with her reader, of the sensational news story and, among many other influences, of the landscape and portrait paintings of art and poetry. It is precisely the tensions between these forms and a writer’s freedom to combine them ever differently in the interests of his own vision of life that have given the novel its strength and longevity. But in spite of this inbuilt flexibility, the genre has come to have a world view of its own. This is based on the importance of causality in human lives, the finality of endings, be they happy or tragic, and the defined uniqueness of active individual characters who are accepted as having their deserved hierarchy in our affections. Such a literary form does not do justice to everyone’s experience. Worse, where it dominates, it can impose its tyrannical schema on the everyday life of a society. We should therefore welcome any attempt at a new genre that can help us to see life in a different way.

I believe that Nicolas Rothwell’s book Belomor, which has just been released, is such an attempt at a new genre. Reviewers have commented on its unconventional hybrid composition, its proximity to the dread pretentiousness, and its uncertain location between fact and fiction. But it is also seen, as the book’s cover quoting Delia Falconer tells us, to be a work of great fascination: “Melancholy, singular, exhilerating, Belomor reads like a haunted history of the world.” And there are other critics of note whose admiring comments readers are encouraged to notice even before they have reached the title page: Pico Iyer, Robert Dessaix, Peter Craven. On the back cover, however, it becomes obvious that the publisher, Text, felt the need to reassure readers that what they would be buying was just a further variation of the familiar novel and its multi-stranded plot: “Four chapters: four journeys through life, separate, yet interwoven as the narrative unfolds”.

It is my intention here to question the assumption that Belomor is nothing more than an eccentric novel, a novel gone awry, and to have a close look at what Rothwell has actually done in this book. I believe that his conscious or unconscious design was to create a new large-scale (novel length), theme-based rather than plot-based narrative genre that assembled itself around the insights of sensitive, intuitive, articulate and emotional people, rather than following the activities or destinies of characters, or protagonists, or heroes. In Rothwell’s book, causality is replaced by affinity and time has lost its structural integrity and become just one of several interrelated recurring themes.

Rothwell’s novel-length narrative essay, to give it a name is, like the novel, a realistic genre. All the same, no visible distinction is made between invented persons with their imagined reality and real-life persons whose biographical details can be checked and verified but whose minds and emotions need perhaps just as much imaginative internalization on the part of the author. And mingling with these live people are characters from history, like Aby Warburg and Winckelmann, whose writings along with learned biographies and commentaries by their admirers give access to their mental worlds. People, we will discover in Rothwell’s book, thrive on the life experiences of others. Therefore nothing of value that men have spoken about, recorded or created deserves to disappear; we must hope that a least fragments of it will remain in the treasure-house of humanity, in spite of the terrible cycles of destruction constantly sweeping over the historical world. People and their lives are at the very heart of Rothwell’s book; the narrator will add those he has encountered to the human heritage. There is here no difference between the dead and the living, the invented and the remembered. And while each of the live persons in Rothwell’s stories has his own distinctive voice and his own turn of phrase, there is also a vocabulary and rhythm common to them all, to a degree that they sometimes seem to blend as though they were one, as though the human family ultimately had just a single being.

The four-part structure of Rothwell’s narrative essay is musical, not dramatic. Each of these “movements” is quite distinct and has its own function within the work; but the themes and motifs that bind them together resonate through all four. And as in music, what matters in this book is emotion with its rhythm and timbre and pitch. Moreover, Rothwell’s language has the precision and sonorous beauty of classical music.

The book has a narrator but he is a shadowy presence; for those that know something of Nicolas Rothwell the journalist, the narrator’s assignments and travels echo those of the author. But this story-telling needs no biographical authentification; the narrator remains in the background. He is, in this book, neither an inventor nor a producer nor a commentator nor a judge but a collector and re-arranger of the scattered fragments of life he happens to have stumbled across. The fragments are always of people’s lived experiences and they seem to become richer and more evocative as they are singled out and picked up after each shattering.

The first of the four sections or movements, entitled “Belomorkanal”, functions like an introductory poetics, setting out the parameters for the whole. It is prefaced by a description of the journey of the Venetian artist Bernardo Bellotto to Dresden on the Elbe in 1747. He has been summoned to paint the city with its spectacular churches and palaces for the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, the son of August the Strong who had commissioned them. Bellotto works meticulously, only too aware of the destructive cycles of history and the potential fragility of all works of architectural beauty. And it is then not long before he can paint the first ruin, the Kreuzkirche, a casualty of war with Prussia. After the total destruction of Dresden at the end of WWII, and after forty years of the GDR during which Dresden’s ruins came to embody and memorialize the worst horrors of war, it was Bellotto’s paintings that allowed an accurate reconstruction of the city, now as a monument to peace. What is noteworthy is that in spite of its stone by stone authenticity, a somewhat too facile attempt to turn back time, the newly reassembled old city is now both more and less than it was when it represented the glory of a proud tyrant.

Like Bellotto’s cityscapes, art again and again preserves the memory of what is of value to mankind, allowing this to be recycled and enter the living world once again as something new in a new context. And what applies to European art applies to Aboriginal art too. The paintings of the elders record fading memories both of tribal lore and frontier massacre but in a manner so cryptic that most of their white viewers will become aware of little more than the beauty that touches and enriches their own lives. Here the gap between creation and reception is perhaps greatest.

There are celebrated and famous works of art like Dresden’s Sistine Madonna by Raphael which epitomizes the moment when “ideas and thoughts vanish and feelings stay”. People from the far reaches of Russia swarm to see this painting because “she speaks to us […] she fills up our thoughts”. But there are also almost unknown works like the notebook of a one-time convict in a Russian Gulag who described the people he encountered there and then his own moment of insightful love of all living things. And privileged to read this text years later, his student, who had himself experienced the terrible bombing of Dresden as a child, is inspired to make a pilgrimage to that other place of horror, the former prison camp on the island of Solovki in the Arctic Sea. On his last day in the north he has a vision of “the whiteness behind the world […] the void at the core of things”. This image of whiteness will recur throughout the book in different forms. The former student, now Professor Stefan Haffner, then passes his memories on to the young narrator of our book, who will work with them in his own way.

Meaning and permanence, it seems, exist only in this exchange, this passing down and reconceiving of human experiences through the ages. If there is an ethic embedded in Rothwell’s book, it is never to let the emotional experiences and insights gained by the individual people we happen to come across fall into oblivion, but to take them up and pass them on. And perhaps also: if we know of someone like Armin, whose life was cut short, to do our best to understand and perhaps fulfill his unfinished quest.

The saddest story in Rothwell’s book is no doubt that of the Dresden professor. His experiences and insights, generously shared, would become crucial for the narrator who could not guess that this dissident’s contact with a western journalist had brought the Stasi upon him. And it would seem that they forced him to compromises that destroyed his faith in himself and his own insights as well as all generosity towards his fellow humans. Had he not earlier passed his and his teacher’s insights on, they would have been lost for ever.

It seems obvious that the novel-genre is not a medium that can do justice to a philosophy of life in which individuals with their uniqueness and their achievements matter little, in which death is not an unexpected tragedy or triumph but a ubiquitous disaster, in which intuitions matter more than will power, stories of feelings and insights more than actions, in which causality is irrelevant, and in which the narrator is above all a collector and recycler of subtle, undramatic stories that have no real endings. The rambling, musical, discursive, theme-based genre Rothwell has created allows such a Weltanschauung to come into its own and if we do not notice and acknowledge this, we are as likely as not to be irritably frustrated with supposed shortcomings and consequently to close our minds to what this book is actually saying.

Section two of Rothwell’s narrative introduces us in the main to two people, the art historian Aby Warburg and the young wildlife photographer Deion Palomor, with Warburg’s strange and disturbing story, often eloquently told in his own words, bracketing the meanderings and quiet dying of the luminously lovely Palomor, whose name is both suggestive of the title of Rothwell’s book “Belomor” and of the word “paramour”. In the central part of the composition, we are then introduced in quick succession to similar people – they initially happen to be gathered at an exhibition opening – often bushmen living in the Northern Territory, most working with Aboriginal people and interested, each in his own way, in ethnology, art and nature. Aesthetically and intellectually they function as variations on a theme and serve to highlight the concerns of this section as embodied in the main actors. Both Warburg and Palomor are in search of nature as the source of truth, Warburg among the Pueblo Indians and the fertility rituals of their snake cult, Palomor with the snakes of Northern Australia, wild creatures with whom he has a special affinity, savoring, almost worshipping, their “very gentle presence”. Unlike the narrator, whose voice is here heard momentarily, they both seek a merging with the natural world “man’s will to leave his own awareness, to change himself into the form of animals” that by-passes symbol, and language, and representation, and art and ultimately leads either to madness through the unprotected exposure to messages and intuitions, or to inadvertent death. The Aboriginal people, for their part, know that the creatures of nature are totemic symbols, messengers, complex representations and embodiments of a meaning that is too awesome and secret to be spoken of publicly. For the narrator, in turn, nature “was a place where what lay beneath the surface was ever present, and all the tension of the landscape was hidden from the eye. A place of secrets and reticence: where one would seek, rather than knowing, and be fearful of what was there to be found.”

Section three tells us the story of Tony Oliver, an artist with “a belief in art’s redemptive force and a longing to make visible the masked structure of the world.” Oliver starts off in the art world of Melbourne but a meeting with the Aboriginal painter Freddie Timms sends him on a journey, first to Wollongong where he attempts to gain a grasp of the uniqueness of the Australian landscape, then to the Kimberley where elders introduce him to their understanding of the world and their attempts to preserve memories and mysteries, secreted under the aesthetic surface of paintings. There Oliver first builds up the Jirrawun art centre at Kununurra, which is “at the shining summit” when the narrator pays his first visit there. Surprisingly, the flamboyant Oliver seems quite distraught on that day, claiming to be contemplating suicide, not because “something bad has happened” but because he sees the “success that implies disaster”. “People die, dreams fail, plans break, grief descends, the white man leaves, things fall to pieces; until there’s nothing left. What we’ve built is like a fragile castle, waiting for the whirlwind to sweep past.” And the musical pattern of this section follows this manic-depressive rhythm throughout, the emotional roller-coaster between enormous enthusiasm and achievement and the let-down that follows when “what seems revolutionary always turns out to be conformist” and “the dream that beauty can save the world” proves to be vacuous. Oliver goes on to build the ideal art centre at Wyndham but this too is not immune to death and change. He ends up in Vietnam, married and with a fine house of his own, employed as cultural advisor to the government, and painting nothing more than the differing light over the sea each hour of the day. “That’s what I’ve come to believe in. This life, here; not life after death, not salvation far ahead, but life itself: what we live now.” The third section or movement of Belomor thus has the sonorous resolution of a Beethoven composition. But it is a resolution conceived far away, in an Eastern country.

In movement four, the last section of Rothwell’s narrative essay, which serves also as its summing up, the narrator, with his personal quest and intuitions, finally, at least momentarily, gains a force of his own and the two poles of Rothwell’s dual heritage, the central European and the northern Australian come into direct contact. Structurally, it is the most complex of the sections. It begins with a night encounter and conversation the narrator has with a German film-maker from the former GDR. She and her friends had been literature students in that oppressive, unreal party state. “We relied on art, then, for lessons, and clues: how to exist, how to be true to oneself.” Then the wall fell: “Suddenly, there was wild, rich, technicolour life around us, and all its frictions and its forces to bear.” Unlike many of her friends, she finds a path for herself. She travels. In the Australian desert she has a decisive experience of “freedom – total freedom”. When the narrator meets her she is just telling others of her visit to Seagull Island where the swell from the Indian Ocean and the currents from eastern waters meet and “you could walk between those drifting curtains […] your shadow seemed to be beside you, on your left and on your right at once” so that you “felt as if some revelation was very close by”. In the wake of such experiences she has come to understand that there is no limit to man’s potential and she will “make films that explore, not fix; hide from rigid plot, and fact and form: they’re death to me. Death – like everything set and still.” In this she resembles the narrator. She is saddened by the fact that many of her fellow students were maimed by their past, in particular her friend Armin, perhaps the most gifted of them, whose quest for a hybrid art form ended in suicide. The narrator reminds her of him, she says, and she challenges him to search for the strands of Armin’s unfinished life.

The narrator has an opportunity to do this when an assignment takes him back to eastern Germany and the little town of Stendal where Armin had last worked. There a rainstorm drives him to seek shelter with enthusiasts from the Winckelmann Association, commemorating “the founder of classical archeology”. Winckelmann had dealt with his homoerotic frustrations through the worship of ancient classical sculpture always in search of the perfect body, art of which sadly only fragments, or copies and castes, had survived.

Later, in Halberstadt, the narrator stumbles into people assembled to witness a change of note in the Millennium Composition by John Cage with its drastic slowing down of time, a short piece that will take 639 years to perform, “so that you can truly grasp how sweet and precious each second in its passing is”. And there he also encounters the now broken and fugitive Professor Haffner, the man who had once had a determining influence on his life. Asked by the Professor what it was that so impressed him those many years ago, the narrator says: “The way you saw the world lying in fragments – everything lost, and wrecked, and scattered; and the task of life was in collecting up those fragments, looking, seeking for the resonances and echoes – the shards – you said what was left to us has been exploded, pulverized, reduced to rubble; no more order, nothing, no more structure and harmony, no sequence – and the hardest thing’s to find words that fit together, that hold any truth at all.” But Haffner has changed. He now retorts: “‘The game never ends: it doesn’t balance up. Lives don’t have shapes. There aren’t grand encounters when everything comes into focus – or do you think this might be one?’” “Of course,” the narrator says sadly. But Haffner can not be won over. He turns away: “You took my knowledge. You took my stories. Now leave me: leave me be.”

Section four of Rothwell’s narrative essay then ends in Australia where the narrator meets up with an acquaintance, a somewhat shady dealer in Aboriginal art, whose purchase of a carved statuette has destroyed the Elder and Law Man who had been his teacher and friend, along with the world of magic he represented, leaving nothing more than a beautiful carved object. Nevertheless, the generosity of this betrayed friend allows one last strange encounter and that has a consoling message: “The time has come: it has to be. I must leave you. But you won’t be alone, I’ll still be with you – don’t you remember how I used to tell you: those who go are always still with us, if we have the eyes to see them.” Our saving grace, and that is at the heart of Rothwell’s message, is that we do have access to fragments of the past and also guidance in assembling them anew.

Where does Rothwell’s book leave us? It is hard to contest that world history, not only that of the twentieth century, has been characterized by massacre and willful destruction on a monstrous scale. In the twenty-first century, the mechanisms promoting such disasters may no longer be religions and ideologies, both now widely discredited and discarded, but man-made climate change: nature unhinged to let loose its fury on man and his world. There will, most likely, be extreme weather events (the taxing weather plays a considerable role in Rothwell’s book too) that bring about large-scale loss of life; there will be increasing numbers of environmental refugees seeking safer land that its owners will not be willing to share; and there will be frantic competition for diminishing resources of all kinds. It is hard to imagine a century of peace lying ahead of us. As the motto from Propertius, “Vidi ego odorati…”, a hidden message that introduces Rothwell’s book, tells us: “I have seen with my own eyes the newly opened roses of fragrant Paestum, dried up by the South Wind at the end of the morning.” Things wither before their time. All man’s life seems enveloped in the heat and smoke of destruction; we create it ourselves, breathe it in and breath it out, and more, we even use it as a stimulant and drug. To symbolize the smoke of the world – a smoke signal for us if we want to see it that way – each of the four sections of the book is named after a variety of cigarettes or tobacco: Belomorkanal, Muratti Ambassador, Winfield Blue and Mingkurlpa, the native tobacco.

We will need to cope with our lives in the midst of all this destruction, as people have always needed to cope. Rothwell’s narrative essay suggests that there will again be believers and non-believers. The believers will be spurred by love of the world and their fellow human beings, those wonderfully varied and yet transient creatures, and by their own guiding intuitions. Their lives will continue to be meaningful and beautiful, no matter what mayhem surrounds them. Faith is a grace that has always been available to humans. And in this new age of a faith without churches and dogmas, art in all its forms – literature, painting, film, architecture, music – will provide the inspiration and the foundation, an art made of shards, perhaps, but nevertheless an art that can shine a light on our path. The genre of the narrative essay, which Rothwell has chosen, does not promote dramatic action as does the novel, action that so often leads to disaster, but rather a quiet, imaginative, appreciative attentiveness to the people we encounter in real life or in literature, their insights and artistic endeavors, and their relationship to the natural and human worlds that surround them.

Belomor is dedicated to the memory of an Aboriginal Elder, Tjinawima Napaltjarri, who has passed on but from whose guidance we may still hope to benefit, as the author himself presumably did.