Michelle Cahill reviews The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
The Swan Book
by Alexis Wright
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
The hallmark of a great writer is the capacity to renew and reinvent their creative vision which Alexis Wright achieves with startling virtuosity, sureness, wit and political astuteness in The Swan Book. This is an eclectic fiction, mythopoetic, a meta-narrative epic that takes Wright’s invigorated representations of Indigenous and wilderness mythologies to new levels. Her third novel, it follows on from the internationally-acclaimed Miles Franklin, award-winning Carpentaria, turning its focus to the future, to environmental crises as much as Indigenous crusades. But The Swan Book goes further. It places Wright’s work in a rich, transcultural literary tradition, its verbal pyrotechnics reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s fiction and James Joyce’s Ulysses; its unflinching forecast written with the potency of Cormac McCarthy or George Orwell, it weaves outback realism with remixed Dreaming, classical references with political allegory, post-colonial and postmodern tropes.
The Swan Book tells the story Oblivia Ethyl(ene), a girl who never speaks after being raped by a gang of petrol-sniffing youths. She is dug out and rescued from the bowels of an ancient story-telling river gum by Bella Donna of the Champions, a European gypsy refugee from climate change wars who arrives on the coast of Australia and makes her way to Swan Lake. The lake has become silted into a swamp, a sand mountain littered with rusted craft, overseen by a white Army. It’s a dystopian future where the policies of intervention remain widespread; where the current wave of conservative thinking is used ‘to control the will, mind and soul of the Aboriginal people.’ The themes of belief, sovereignty of the mind and ancestral voice which were heroically rendered in Carpentaria, find a pessimistic and cleansing register in The Swan Book. Nothing is spared; Wright turns her acerbic lens to illuminate an encompassing scope of Australian political and cultural life, while the land, topography, birds and mutant wildlife flow sinuously in spates and epidemics through the braiding of the narrative. Some passages are written with penetrating zeal:
This was the place where the mind of the nation practised warfare and fought nightly for supremacy, by exercising its power over another people’s land ─the night-world of the multi-nationals, the money-makers and players of big business, the asserters of sovereignty, who governed the strip called Desperado; men with hands glued to the wheel charging through the dust in howling road trains packed with brown cattle with terrified eyes, mobile warehouses, fuel tankers, heavy haulage steel and chrome arsenals named Bulk Haul, Outback, Down Under, Century, The Isa, The Curry, Tanami Lassie, metal workhorses for carrying a mountain of mining equipment and the country’s ore… (165)
There is a sense of the journey of storytelling running through the book, tracing Oblivia’s passage from scribe, whose fingers trace the ghost language of dead trees into Swan maiden, from First Lady wedded to Aboriginal PM, Warren Finch and living in urban sanction to a widow returning to the swamp as guardian of a myth-making swan. Along this winding odyssey through dust storms, floods and cyclones that exist outside of linear time, Oblivia witnesses and internally records the plight of refugees, illegal crossings, the homeless hordes, the aberrant reptiles and displaced birds. One senses that Wright herself gives over to the textual process, surrendering to its detours, its meteorology, absorbing and weaving whatever arises along the way. Her dialectical suppleness and impressive knowledge makes for an innovative, politically-engaged Australian and translocal vision.
The centrality of language is signalled in the remarkable opening prelude, Ignus Fatuus, (meaning ‘illusion’, or ‘phosphorescent light over the swampy ground’) in which the narrator embodies the creative voice as a cut snake virus replicating ideas and firing serological missiles at intruders. It’s a perfect metaphor for the sceptical, chaotically mistrusting tone and establishes voice as an internal harbinger of environmental destruction. Ventriloquisms and shavings of literary allusions combine with popular cultural references ranging from Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song to hybrid motifs such as an ‘Aboriginal tinkerbell fairy.’
Reading the opening chapters I almost felt assaulted by the insistent catalogue of swans: swans of all languages and lyrics are interpolated. The black swan in a Central Australian swamp is an unsettling symbol of Indigenity in its figurative miscegenation with the white swan of Bella Donna’s European folklore. But the brilliance of this excess is to intentionally fetishize the naming and discursive power of language so that the reader experiences language as invasion, as appropriation, as indoctrination, just as Bella Donna herself invades the swamp country of the Northern Territory like ‘an old raggedy Viking’ bringing stories of floating disasters, of refugees from zero geography. After she dies, the swamp people who had once rejected her stories begin to speak Latin in their conversation, becoming ‘Latino Aboriginals’. Wright subversively takes irony and parody to extremes as a way of destabilising not merely language but concepts of nation, deconstructing the colonial currency:
It appeared that the old ghost had colonised the minds of the swamp people so completely with the laws of Latin, it terminated their ability to speak good English anymore, and to teach their children to speak English properly so that the gap could finally be closed between Aboriginal people and Australia. (80)
In making this claim, the hyperbole exceeds stylistic effect and becomes predictive, a potent rehabilitation of colonial assumptions of control. Allusions to the European and White Australian lyric tradition of swans create ambivalence as they parody and place under pressure the authority and superiority of prevailing narratives. Instead, the omnipresent variety of storytelling is eclectic, transcultural and global, invoking inter-racial beliefs of future, past and present. Not only are all kinds of swans admitted into the way that stories are told, the characters are genetically diverse, or like Warren Finch’s minders, ‘inter-racially bred’. Half Life, the mild-mannered camel man who guides Oblivia during her Ghost walk tells her:
We are Aboriginal herds-people with bloodlines in us from all over the world, he added, and dreamily listed all the world’s continents that he could remember being related to these days, Arabian, African, Asian, Indian, European all sorts, pure Pacific Islander ─ anywhere else I didn’t mention? Well! That as well! Wherever! Even if I haven’t heard of it! No matter ─ we got em right here inside my blood. I am thick with the spirits from all over the world that I know nothing about. (315)
Wright’s work is reconstructive, seeking to operate outside of colonial paradigms and boundaries, refusing to be contained. She is able to seamlessly shift gears from third person narrator to interior monologue, from Warren to Oblivia’s point of view. Sections of the novel that contain more conventional dramatic prose such as those that describe Warren Finch meeting with the Aboriginal caucus are skilfully juxtaposed to provide relief from denser periphrastic prose. A descendent of the Waanyi people, Wright’s vast experience of activism, of policy-making bureaucrats and small-town, outback corruption is evidenced. One could argue that the meta-fictional structure of the novel feels somewhat contrived with a prologue and an epilogue used to frame a less self-conscious tension between the polyphonic narrator and the narration however the unevenness is intentional; Wright asserts herself as a highly skilful, erudite yet relaxed storyteller, warping the conventions to compromise aesthetic purity for the benefit of interrogation. The humour is eclectic, switching wavelengths and vernaculars arbitrarily so that languages and styles are remixed and mashed up.
Aside from its sheer literary brilliance, I find the strengths of this novel to be its refusal to seek order or resolution and the way it replicates so much diversity: indeed, as the narrator suggests, ‘How bold to mix the Dreamings.’ In her essay “On Writing Carpentaria” Wright speaks of memory and trauma, asserting that
When faced with too much bad reality, the mind will try to survive by creating alternative narra-tives and places to visit from time to time, or live in, or believe in, if given the space. Carpentaria imagines the cultural mind as sovereign and in control, while freely navigating through the known country of colonialism to explore the possibilities of other worlds. (1)
In The Swan Book she writes a mythopoesis of swan ghosting, of environmental havoc and (un) heroic Indigenity where the sovereign mind and colonial repression are in schism. If there is a swan song it is madness, but the many registers of Oblivia’s silence reinscribe themselves as a timeless Dreaming. This is a self-reflexive book, refusing paternalistic narrative conventions endemic to our literature. Wright compels us to read actively; to reconsider the violence that brutalises Aboriginal Australia and to deconstruct the assumptions and complacencies which fabricate our ideals of nature and nation.
1. Wright, Alexis “On Writing Carpentaria” HEAT, 2007
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry and fiction. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Southerly, Westerly, Jacket, Poetry International Web and forthcoming in Wasafiri. She was the CAL/UOW Fellow at Kingston University. With Boey Kim Cheng and Adam Aitken she co-edited Contemporary Asian Australian Poets.