Friday, 13 January 2017

Book Review - Quicksilver by Nicolas Rothwell

Quicksilver by Nicolas Rothwell

Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016        ISBN  9781925355574

Nicolas Rothwell has been an intriguing and delicate force in the literary world of Australia for quite some time now - as a journalist he has provided us with long-form articles and essays that lead us to re-think our relationship with the country and its indigenous inhabitants, and to perhaps question things we think we know. Quicksilver continues that project.

Rothwell spent his childhood in Europe and could certainly be categorized as a sophisticate in his knowledge of European literature and art. He has also spent many years living and and travelling through the remote North and West of Australia, and spending time with the indigenous inhabitants of the land.

Quicksilver is a grouping of six essays that investigate the colliding of Europe and Australia: how Europe affected Australia, but also how Australia affected Europe. The book is also an extended study of the meaning of art and literature, whether civilization imbues such activities with added lustre, and in fact whether it is not the countryside and nature itself that is transcendent for humankind, rather than the man-made arts.

Rothwell, through his erudition and travel, has discovered some interesting links that show us man's humanity and quest for answers are similar the world over: the similarities, for example, between the Jewish millenarist group the Frankists and the Kurangara cult that flourished in the Kimberley. Both arose in response to dislocation of community, and both came to the conclusion that to discover the true meaning of life the current way of life had to be destroyed through sin. Rothwell then links this idea to the beginnings of the Desert Art movement at Papunya, where the portrayal of secret stories and rites became another way of radicially shifting Aboriginal beliefs and lifestyle.

Several of the essays are meditations on language, and how we use that to describe the country, and how the experiences of those travelling colour what they see or experience. Rothwell particularly looks at the writing of the early explorers, and how they wrestled with language and thinking from Europe to try and describe such a new and alien place. They brought with them their own prejudices and experiences: "the drama-courting Edward Eyre; the vision-haunted Charles Sturt, that schoolfellow of Lord Byron; the Camoes-translating, Sophocles-quoting Thomas Mitchell;". In the end the interior reduces all to silence.

And here we come upon one of the subjects Rothwell approaches in these writings - the constant attempt to control the Australian interior by man, and the indifference of the country to man's impingement.

As with all the points that Rothwell makes in this book, he does not directly state what he thinks. He brings together evidence, from Tolstoy to Art Brut, from Sakharov to Eric Rolls to illustrate connexions and actualities: as he writes "Rather than seeking to provide some sweeping, all-defining set of answers to these questions, my aim is to edge towards them, to move into their foothills, and look up towards their heights". That ineffable truth, the one that Rothwell has been seeking in the Centre, is, like the quicksilver of the title, always slipping away when just within reach, so he is approaching these big questions "slant-wise, stealthily,".

This is a book to get you thinking about Australia, particularly the interior, in new and strange ways. Thankfully Rothwell has signposted his journey throughout the book as to how he has got to where he is, so while there is no bibliography, there are plenty of tomes that he mentions that have now become required reading for me.

Yet another little gem of a book about Australia. Worth Reading

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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