‘Quests are fulfilled by the act of questing, not the goal.’
This remark, made by one of the many characters who inhabit the pages of Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor, may well be the central premise of the book, which is essentially a series of meditations, through the voices of a multitude of real and imaginary characters, on the ways in which people construct meanings for themselves in order to survive the demons that pursue and torment them.
Belomor is constructed like a puzzle or a maze. It consists of four sections, each with its own narrative arc. These are linked through structural and thematic patterns. Stories coil and intertwine. One encounters recurring motifs and themes: the restoration of ruins; the mentor or wise man; the moment of illumination or initiation; the snake as a symbol of transformation; the replication of the wise man’s journey in order to experience what he experienced; the notions that the past can be reconstructed and that universal patterns underlie the trajectories of individual lives; that the rituals of ‘primitive’ cultures are a means of self-transformation; that the art object is a source of truth and power; that it is dangerous to find what you seek.
The protagonists pursue their various quests through fact and fiction, past and present, often to the point where meaning dissolves. A seeker, who is sometimes the narrator, meets a mentor who is or has been a seeker, who recounts his own encounter with a wise man whom he believes holds the key. But when the seeker comes too close the wise man withdraws or disappears.
The Rothwellian narrator throws us hints and clues as we make our way through the maze. ‘It’s almost as if the beauty of the structure is what holds the key,’ he says, responding to the serpentine prose of the Mexican rattlesnake expert Jose Diaz Bolio, in a chapter dedicated to serpents and their afficionados. To which Jose Diaz Bolio, who is also a historian and poet, replies, ‘You mean the meaning is there is no meaning? It’s only the convolutions? How much I fear those ideas.’
It is through the words of the morose philosopher Stephan Haffner, who says ‘the true task of the writer is to destroy himself, to remove himself’, that we are given a clue to the role of the elusive but ubiquitous narrator, who may or may not be Nicolas Rothwell, but is distinctly Rothwellian. While he is not invisible, neither is he a character, in the sense that we know who he is. He moves through the text, listening to the stories of others, participating in the events that allow the various characters to reveal their preoccupations and obsessions. Much of the book consists of conversations in which the protagonists speak in measured and perfectly constructed sentences which, if the Radio National interview I heard between Rothwell and Phillip Adams is any indication, reflect the way in which Rothwell himself speaks.
There is an irony here. In the attempt to render the writer omnipresent yet invisible every character becomes a version of the writer. But then Belomor is not a piece of naturalistic prose. It is a highly crafted artifice that signals its structural underpinnings and its philosophical preoccupations from the beginning. While the Text Publishing website identifies Belomor as fiction, the cover blurb alerts the reader that it is not a conventional work of fiction: ‘Elegiac and seductive, Belomor is the frontier where truth and invention meet.’ This generic identification may be in order to circumvent the sort of controversy sparked by Peter Cochrane’s review of Rothwell’s previous book: The Red Highway (2009) was marketed as non-fiction and Cochrane challenged the authenticity of certain events, and of the stylised conversations on which much of the book is based. I would have the same issue with Belomor if I believed it was claiming to record verbatim accounts of real conversations. But I can’t imagine that Rothwell means us to read these conversations as realistic – they are clearly devices to convey the preoccupations of the narrator and his companions.
On the other hand, much of the book reads like non-fiction, and the third section is dedicated to the story of Tony Oliver, mastermind of the Jirrawun Art Centre, manager and marketer of, among others, Paddy Bedford and Rusty Peters – those grand old Gija artists whose work extended the conceptual terrain of Aboriginal art in ways that have not yet been properly articulated. And while Oliver could probably be described as a self-invented work of fiction, as far as I know he still exists in the real world.
I went to my favourite polemicist on these matters, the American writer David Shields. In Reality Hunger, Shields says:
In a larger sense, all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it. The real question is: this massive autobiographical writing enterprise that fills a life, this enterprise of self-construction – does it yield only fictions? Or rather, among the fictions of the self, the versions of the self, that it yields, are there any that are truer than others?
This line of thinking yields a number of possibilities on how to interpret the writing enterprise of Nicolas Rothwell. If, as Shields suggests, Rothwell is constructing a fictional self through the voices and personas of real and imaginary characters, how much authority should we invest in that fiction? Writing across the threshold between fiction and non-fiction has a distinguished pedigree that includes writers such as Alice Munro, Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipaul and W. G. Sebald. It offers a stereoscopic approach to its subject, bringing it into multi-dimensional focus.
On the basis of another of David Shields’ arguments in Reality Hunger, however, a case could be made for drawing a distinction between the Novel as an amalgam of fiction and non-fiction and Fiction as something that is essentially made up:
The novel has always been a mixed form; that’s why it was called novel in the first place. A great deal of realistic documentary, some history, some topographical writing, some barely disguised autobiography have always been part of the novel, from Defoe through Flaubert and Dickens.
Shields credits Henry James with the ‘modernist purifying of the novel’s mongrel tradition’, and asserts that writers like Naipaul and Sebald, to whom Rothwell is sometimes compared, are returning the novel to its original Creole form, restoring ‘the novelty of the novel, with its ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts … the sense of readerly danger’. If Rothwell’s ouevre is essentially a fictional self-portrait – and I am inclined to think it is – then it is important to recognise that it is an idiosyncratic and particular fiction. It is wide-ranging, romantic, contemplative, scholarly – Rothwellian, in a word. The question is how we should read it.
There was a point in my reading of Belomor when White Man Dreaming drifted into my mind as an alternative title. I banished the thought, knowing that it would be misinterpreted, but it’s worth interrogating where it came from.
Among the novel’s many voices – the mentors and seekers; the historical, the fictional and the real – there is only one female voice, an East German film-maker who remains nameless. She experiences a sense of freedom in the South Australian desert that makes her understand that we consent to most of our limitations, and that we can choose not to. Rothwell is too self-aware a writer to insert a single female voice into an otherwise all male cast without deliberate intention. Although intense and apparently humourless, this character seems able to appreciate the significance of the moment without having to mourn its passing.
This is in contrast to the male characters. For them, the passing of time requires an astonishing amount of complicated searching for and constructing of meaning, accompanied by the fear that there is no meaning to be found. The dissident philosopher Haffner, who becomes an enigmatic mentor-figure in the narrator’s life, tells of his epiphany of ‘staring into the void at the core of things’ at the prison island where his mentor was imprisoned as a young man. The story lodges in the narrator’s mind, along with the assertion that the past can be recreated. Through these male narratives, played out across Europe, America and Australia, Rothwell seems to be implying the existence of a secular, scholarly and distinctly masculine form of existential anxiety.
The brilliant and troubled art historian Aby Warburg exemplifies the cultivated European intellectual who turns against the formal complacency of the established art world and seeks alternative truths in the cultures of ‘primitive’ people. In his search for something to reinvigorate his life with visceral meaning, he travels to America and finds his way to the Pueblo Indians of the American desert. Frail of body and fragile of psyche, he becomes convinced that self-transcendence is possible through a ritualistic entry into the animal world, exemplified by the rattlesnake dance of the Pueblo snake cult. Eventually his teeming but delicately balanced mind refuses to tolerate the contradictions and premonitions it harbours, and he has a breakdown that sees him incarcerated for years in a sanatorium. He later proves his sanity and secures his release from the sanatorium by giving a public lecture based on his early theories.
Rothwell is extraordinarily good in his depiction of Warburg, and later of the eighteenth century scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He distils their characters in his descriptions of the events that shape them, the times and places they occupy, the demons that drive them, and the manner in which they build the edifices of scholarship that hold their lives together. It is also in the Warburg chapter, which is dedicated to the snake as a creature of numinous power, that we meet Deion Palomor, (the name appears to be a gesture towards the title of the book), a wildlife photographer with a special affinity with animals, who has a close encounter with an Oenpelli python. Palomor is driven to more and more intense challenges, as each experience fails to fulfill his expectations.
Part three is the account of Tony Oliver’s obsessive quest among the group of senior Gija painters, whose work he promoted through Jirrawun Arts. Oliver has the same preoccupations as the doomed Palomor and shares the inevitable disappointment that comes with getting what you want. He also fears the danger of going too deep and learning too much about a culture to which he does not belong, articulating what has so far only been implied – that answers are not to be found in the opaque and dangerous realms of Aboriginal high culture.
In the fourth and final section of the book, we meet Winckelmann, who sublimates his unrequited attraction to young men by creating an intellectual edifice based on the premise that truth and beauty can be found only in the perfection of classical sculpture. His contemporary counterpart is an Australian carpetbagger and art dealer who carries with him a traditional Aboriginal figurine that he believes has special power. However, where Winckelmann believes that the highest good comes from being denied what you desire, the art dealer hunts down the object of his desire like a predator, pursuing it into the desert to the point of its emblematic disappearance.
All of these men are haunted, enmeshed in their obsessive, sometimes life-threatening searches for meaning. They remind me of Margaret Atwood’s interpretation of this phenomenon. In Good Bones, she writes:
The male brain, now, that’s a different matter. Only a thin connection. Space over here, time over there, music and arithmetic in their own sealed compartments. The right brain doesn’t know what the left brain is doing … That’s why men are so sad, why they feel so cut off, why they think of themselves as orphans cast adrift, footloose and stringless in the deep void. What void? she says. What are you talking about? The void of the universe, he says, and she says Oh and looks out the window and tries to get a handle on it, but it’s no use, there’s too much going on.
It’s a simplification, of course, but that bit about the void really nails it.
Belomor should be read as a fable, a meditation on meaning and its absence, but most of all as a self-portrait of its author, for whom European cities and Australian deserts are extensions of each other. They are both rich and complex landscapes of the mind where people speak only of significant things and the past is luminous with disappearing knowledge, out of which one must constantly fashion beautiful possibilities. Belomor should not be read as an authoritative portrait of north Australia and its people – and although I am not familiar with Dresden or Stendal I suspect the same is true of them. To read these cross-genre fictions as true accounts is not only to misinterpret them but to misrepresent the things they describe.
Rothwell’s is a unique and seductive voice. It engages the romantic sensibility that still seems to be at the heart of the white Australian desire for the desert to be a source of enlightenment. In this, it risks perpetuating the contemporary equivalent of the ‘smooth the dying pillow’ attitude toward Indigenous Australia, in which it is no longer the race that is dying out, but its cultural integrity and authenticity. The tough, messy, mutating, resilient culture that is going on out there is rendered invisible by focusing on what is gone.
As I write this, a project is underway to record the mythical journey of the Seven Sisters across the western desert, a project that was attacked by one of the old law men (and given major coverage in the Australian, the newspaper for which Rothwell acts as Northern Correspondent) for its alleged trivialisation of Indigenous culture. While the story of the Seven Sisters has its restricted male version, it is predominantly a women’s story in which the sisters, in the form of the star cluster of the Pleiades, are pursued by an old man whom they tease, outwit, humiliate and elude. That it is being recorded by women for women signifies change – and we all know that when women’s voices start being heard it means that the end of something is beginning.
Reading Belomor reminded me of learning to play mahjong while living in a remote Kimberley community, back when I still smoked Champion Ruby hand-rolled cigarettes. If you played cautiously you were bound to lose, but if you paid attention to the texture and design of the tiles and relaxed into the impenetrable structure of the game something happened. Patterns and affinities whispered out of the desert night, and you either pulled off the impossible hand of the Wriggling Snake or Catching the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea, or else you failed so spectacularly that it was a kind of victory. You risked everything and played intuitively, because the game was so outlandishly complex you couldn’t hope to understand it or remember the rules.
I recognise what Rothwell is doing and I salute him for it. He gives our own layered cultural landscape the same value as the congested histories of Europe and America. He sets the table for a conversation we need to have, about the unique opportunity we have to participate in the making of culture, here and now, in the moment between what is about to disappear and what is just beginning.
Margaret Atwood, Good Bones (Virago 1993).
Peter Cochrane, ‘Roadhouse poets too good to be true,’ Australian Literary Review (6 May 2009).
David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Penguin 2010).