Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
Carpentaria is an Aboriginal Australian epic that shimmers with the rainbow serpent and sings with the oral tradition. The story is set in the fictional coastal town of Desperance by the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northwestern Queensland. For those grounded in the modern Western literary canon, the novel can be challenging. There are few familiar anchors for readers with the ethnocentric education that literary quality presupposes a strong coherent linear narrative; dialogue; character development; moral resolutions and a beginning, middle, and end.
Alexis Wright’s representation of life in Desperance focuses on the battles, oppression, and suffering among different groups: the dazzling Normal Phantom and his family of the Pricklebush on the Westend, Joseph Midnight’s Eastend mob, the international mining company Gurfurrit, and the white folks of Uptown led by the repulsive Stan Bruiser: “If you can't use it, eat it, or fuck it, it’s no use to you… everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times until he ran them into the ground and raped them.” The human violence in combination with the violence of nature creates a painful and raging portrait.
Wright collapses time and space to honor Aboriginal ancestry, history, worldview, and the sense of collectively experienced time. We learn that “The inside knowledge about this river and coastal region is the Aboriginal Law handed down through the ages since time began” and “You listen to an old man’s story if you want to know how.” The Aboriginals distrust the whitefella technology and yet they make so much beauty out of the whitefella’s rejected scraps. There is a non-hierarchical flatness and equality to events in the novel, things just seem to exist and occur with little foreshadowing and authorial judgment or intervention except for some ironic humor. There is no sentimentality. Horrible truths are plainly spoken: “An eye for an eye. A black for a white.”
Beneath the heroic tragedies and complexity of Aboriginal history there is the universal frustration and love of a father for his constantly disappointing and mercurial family. Carpenteria’s patriarch is Normal Phantom who recalls Nestor and Poseidon; he contains a prickly wisdom, kinship and devotion to the sea, and the transformative art to paint dead fish into bright and beautiful jewels. Norm’s son Will names these unknowable qualities of the father: “He felt that his father went to live under the sea in his sleep, in a world of colors that normal people would never know existed. This image he sustained, of Norm living under the sea in his dreams, was the only explanation he had of why his father was able to paint fish so delicately and true, as though it was his second nature.”
Normal beats the heart of his ancestry and community, yet he believes, “there was only one fundamental principle for longevity and this was never to depend on others.” His wife Angel Day, “a hornet’s nest waiting to be disturbed” and “queen of the rubbish dump” builds their home from materials she collects at the dump and leaves her family for Big Mozzie Fishman. Norm blames her for the family’s troubles. And his children include Kevin, disabled from a mine accident, the anti-mining activist Will, and his mostly frivolous daughters (women unfortunately are not deeply rendered in the novel).
Wright veers away from the narrative into phantasmagoric poetry: “The familiar sounds of his past were falling from a magician’s wand, waving around specks of memory in a trail of glitter, until the specks became millions of flooding, crashing helter-skelter visions in the stars, flooding through his mind.” The narrative is sometimes obscured in the magical chanting oral tale, but it reemerges gloriously in Norm and Will’s parallel epic quests to the sea. The sea is mystic and powerful, it delivers and plunders. The sea is birth and homecoming for Will, Norm, and Elias Smith (a whitefella newcomer to Desperance). There is a sweet strength in Will Phantom’s care for Elias’s body: “‘I will keep you out of the rain,’ he had promised the poor deceased Elias, carrying the body so light it hardly weighed a feather, hanging over his strong slender shoulder.” And there is a loveliness in Norm’s return to land to retrieve the six silver fish and four coral trout for Elias’s burial.
What is nature, art, real, symbol, genius, civilization, power? Alexis Wright complicates the struggle for these answers. Carpentaria can not be read on a bus or over a plate of dinner. It demands solitude and silence for long stretches in sacred space where it can transport you and take you out.
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright