14 October, 2008

'Landscape of Farewell' - Alex Miller

When researching Alex Miller, one often finds information about his life overshadowed by a longer list of his achievements, nominations and awards. He is not secretive about his past; rather, Miller is a writer who has long been recognised by his peers, but who has not reached the levels of commerical success enjoyed by other Australian novelists such as Tim Winton.

He has won the Miles Franklin Award twice and been shortlisted three times, including for Landscape of Farewell in 2008. The Ancestor Game, winner of the Miles Franklin in 1993, was awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the same year.

This latest work picks up on themes explored in his earlier novels, looking at aspects of indigenous Australian history. In this case, however, the story begins in Hamburg, where an elderly history professor, Max Otto, delivers his final paper, on the 'persistence of the phenomenon of massacre'. He feels it is a weak one, written without conviction; massacre has obsessed him as a topic throughout his life, but the history of his country inhibited him from embracing it as his specialty. The paper receives a vitriolic response from Vita, an Australian academic with an indigenous background. Vita is later moved by an apology from Max, a man struggling to cope with the recent death of his wife, and convinces him to travel to Australia and stay with her uncle, Dougald Gnapun.

Dougald lives on an isolated property in northern Queensland. He and Max build a strong friendship that makes up for a lack of verbosity with their mutual respect for the other's age and experience. Dougald entrusts Max with the story of his great-grandfather and hero, Gnapun, and, fearful of it being lost when he dies, asks Max to write the story down.

Storytelling is a key theme in the novel. Early on the reader is alerted that the story is being presented from the perspective of Max's written journal. Very occasional asides tell us that he is talking from some time hence; given his mindset at the start of the novel it is important to know that he lives for some time to come. Miller also draws a distinction between storyteller and writer. Dougald is the former, but he is prevented by his isolation from ensuring the story he has to tell will live. Hence he entrusts it to Max, who worries that the story cannot exist separately from its teller: "I was conscious that the spirit of his story had been contained as much in the shapely vessel of his telling as it had in the sequence of its narrative."

Dougald's story is that of a massacre orchestrated by his great-grandfather, the warrior Gnapun. Miller based Max's re-telling on the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, when the Kairi people of central Queensland killed nineteen white settlers.

Is history a story? Are all stories history? As a historian, Max finds it extremely difficult to recount the story, encumbered by his respect for Dougald and his retention of his family's lore, and perhaps also by the formality of academia that has previously informed his writing. Significantly, he has struggled to write about similar events in Germany, and as an adult, was never able to approach his father and ask about his role in the war.

The novel was inevitably reminiscent of Rodney Hall's The Day We Had Hitler Home, as both connect German characters with Australia, and examine historical and cultural responsibility. It also shadows Bernard Schlink's The Reader, which similarly evokes storytelling as a mask for concealing, and eventually a method for revealing, the truth of the past.


  1. I caught the end of a documentary on Channel 4 this week, in which they were talking about the genocide of the Aborigines. They were using the word 'genocide' as if it were an uncontroversial notion in relation to what happened, which I found quite interesting. I only saw the very end, so I'm not sure of the tone of the programme as a whole, but I think it was something about the British Empire in general.

  2. Hey - that is interesting. It's curious watching international persectives, which can be blunter, as in this case, or which sometimes do the opposite and skate over an issue that's a big deal for the country of origin.

    There's a series on SBS at the moment called 'The First Australians', which I haven't been watching, but I wonder what tone they've taken in that regard.