The Beautiful, Unknowable North

First published in The Adelaide Review January 2010

Nicolas Rothwell’s writings exploring northern Australia – Wings of the Kite-Hawk, Another Country and The Red Highway – place him, thematically and stylistically, in a unique position amongst Australian writers. Now publishing a volume of essays, Journeys to the Interior, he talks with Luke Stegemann from his home in Darwin about finding a language to write this still largely unknown world.

Rothwell’s work exemplifies an alternative tradition he sees coming more into its own in Australian writing – that of “mazy, reduplicative” works that, far from being bound by the conventional strictures of the novel, fan out like desert creeks along multiple paths of drama, enquiry and observation, imbued with a consciousness of place, not afraid to repeat, to double back, to leap across barriers of logic. So dense are the imaginative and physical worlds that Rothwell has travelled through – worlds of pink, red rock, desert grass and awesome cloudstream, of places bearing lines of human creativity traced millennia deep; worlds of sinuous dreams and febrile visions – that it becomes difficult at times to know the line separating fact and fiction. The line is, in any case, either always shifting or simply illusory in Rothwell’s work, and nowhere more so than in the beautiful, unknowable north.

His subject in all these works is, at the most fundamental level, the natural and human cultures that inhabit that rarified extension of our continent from the Kimberleys to Cape York. It is country largely unknown, indeed mythical to the great majority of Australians; it is country where Rothwell has journeyed a thousand times, losing himself each time in the folds of geology and aboriginal art, the myths and missionaries, the heroic anonymous individuals – many of them eccentric and/or visionary central Europeans – the doomed and exalted explorers, the indigenous inhabitants, the activists and artists, all of whom have made the north their home, or their grave. Journeys to the Interior both documents and reveals them all. Rothwell is one of Australia’s finest and best-travelled journalists, deeply knowledgeable on the politico-cultural fault lines that criss-cross Europe and the Middle East, but in these works he faces another challenge. How to find a way of seeing and a language graceful and supple enough to rise up to meet the infinite subtlety, vast power and complexity of these northern subjects? He succeeds wonderfully: their stories, and by extension that of the country that looms around and embraces them, unfold in a prose as flowing as the beautiful and mysterious north itself.

In Journeys to the Interior, Rothwell comments, he detects a shift in the tone of the attention he brings to the landscape. “The sense of happiness in sadness, which is very strong for me when I look back at Wings of the Kite-Hawk (2003) has been replaced in The Red Highway by something rather different and the knowability of the landscape and familiarity with it – in every sense of that word – is very much an index of where I’m at. It’s not just me – I think the relationship of mainstream Australians to the landscape has been shifting, it’s been becoming both much closer and more unconditional, and much less hemmed in by imported concepts or derived western concepts and at the same time as it’s been becoming easier and deeper, the deep problems which exist in claiming the country become more evident, and you have this paradoxical sense that we are much more of and in the bush and the Australian space, and we’re more punctilious about accepting how much to claim for a space that was inhabited for such a long time by a completely different world of ideas and symbols.”

Given this mutually deepening relationship that is occurring as mainstream Australia becomes more understanding of the natural environment of this continent, and at the same time as the environment comes to terms with its contemporary inhabitants, entering our psyche at levels other than simply as an alienating threat, does northern Australia become less a place “beyond the realms of writing”, as he has described it, or not?

“It’s such an unusual space. This is a western space, but topographically quite different from any other continent. Almost every word that we use and every term that we have in our heads as English-speaking people is derived from a different map. “River” means something very different in Europe or America, or anywhere in the temperate world, to what it means here. “Creeks” here are dry. The bush is also something which has a kind of threatening element to it – half an hour outside in the desert at this time of the year and you could be dead. I’m certainly trying to write into the landscape but at the same time I feel it’s not just a mirror – it has a strong effect on us. If you read the work of the great explorers of the nineteenth century, who were often quite impressive thinkers and men, but who were pushed into extreme conditions and had to reflect on those conditions – you can see the landscape working in them. Brilliant things happen in writing when you are pushed out of your social limits and inevitably for temperate, urban people being thrust into the bush takes them beyond their limits, out of the frame.”

Rothwell is acutely aware of his role as observer. Rather than pursue that 20th century tradition of formal innovation and modernism, the breaking up and making anew of things, Rothwell has been more attracted to that tradition where work has a “quality of witness”, written in circumstances of oppression and difficulty – he is referring especially to the art produced in central and eastern Europe in the mid to latter half of the 20th century – which bears a “quality of ordeal and enduring.” This idea of enduring, with its Old Testament overtones, characterised earlier approaches to interpretations of the Australian environment and bush – hostile, alien, unforgiving, unbearable.

“This is part of the literature of the “old bush” – not so much today. Nowadays that stream has come to an end. So in a sense the unfamiliarity and the strangeness of the surrounds, the inclement desert and the oppressive tropics act to push one out of comfort, and that is part of the appeal that I feel in being here. You might have to go without style and contact with like-minded people, but you are pushed into a space where you have to look very hard and sometimes strange things come into being. There is also an aboriginal component to our appreciation of the bush that is new, really just from the last 40 or 50 years, and the bush of course has changed from half a century ago, when it was often still seen as a howling wilderness. It’s completely different; it doesn’t have the connotations it had then. It certainly doesn’t seem to attract the same kind of people anymore.”

But the north very much reflects and makes the people who come into it. “The attraction for me is twofold: firstly being unchartered territory, at least in literary terms, and then there not being that terrible overhang of grief and chaos one has in Europe, or that sense of late capitalist, stuttering consumerist decline one has in western cities in general. There is something else (in the northern reaches of Australia), one lives in a cleaner and emptier space, into which one brings one’s own pattern.”

Absorbing all that northern Australia has to offer – physically, culturally and spiritually – is easier said than done. “As an artist, you have a sense of the landscape being, as that part of the world is, incredibly subtle and hard to reach and yet luring the artist in, for me there’s always been a strong sense of there being an endless number of mazes and labyrinths to go down, and yet them being extremely hard of access and resistant, and not just because of the Aboriginal component which we are essentially denied, but just because of the shortcomings of the weapons that we have to break it down. The words aren’t quite right, our eyes aren’t quite right or fine enough and it’s a very difficult path. Many of the people who I’m interested in writing about or hanging about with are people who have been, in one way or another, devoting their lives to that kind of knowledge travel, and have been very active seeking that knowledge.”

But there is a caveat: “I feel there are things that shouldn’t be written about, things that are beyond the reach of words, there are mysteries and things that have a charge of the sacred. One of the bizarre situations that we’ve got ourselves into in contemporary times is that we’re constantly striving for something transcendental, yet the chair of religion has been kicked away and so we’re just dangling, trying to get out of the noose we’ve put our necks in.”

Unconventional always in his approach, Rothwell sees lasting value in the work of missionaries, so often derided as an outdated offshoot of European
imperialism: “The church looms quite large up here in Darwin and in the centre, and in a number of peculiar ways. In essence, although it’s rather unpopular in historiography, it’s pretty clear to me that if there hadn’t been any missions in the Top End and in the centre there wouldn’t be any aboriginal people today.”
Rothwell suggests Australian fiction needs to be less bound to its traditions if it is to have any hope of being part of an ongoing dialogue with our timeless environment. Other, newer forms of art and creativity have so many weapons and so much flexibility at their disposal nowadays; the novel, that tired old nineteenth century form that reached its peak in the early to mid-twentieth century, has outlived its use in Australian contexts.

The writings of Nicolas Rothwell are in this respect a revelation: they take us deep into the northern Australian experience in ways fiction rarely if ever has; at the same time, he sweeps the reader along with a language and a vision as poetic and profound as one could hope from any artist, in any medium.