The modernist Outback
After I made some possibly injudicious claims about the historical hostility of Aussies to modernism in literature, architecture, and painting, I received an irate e mail from a bloke who seems to have taken Murnane's strange novel as his manifesto:
Don't confuse us with Sydney and Melbourne. We have our own culture and our own traditions. The galleries in the big cities don't represent us. We are like another country out here, thank you very much. I hope you will get to see the real Australia and do not judge us from the coast.
As someone who bangs on about the multi-regional nature of New Zealand society and culture on an almost weekly basis, boring even his friends into silent assent, I can hardly complain when an Aussie criticises my use of Melbourne and its art galleries as a random sample of Australian culture. And, having taken the advice of my anonymous critic and ventured over the Dividing Ranges into secessionist territory, I must admit to being both surprised and delighted by the variety and strength of culture in Outback Australia.
I remember how, a few years ago, the New Zealand literary community fought a doomed battle with the city fathers of Hamilton, over the latter's refusal to allow a statue of their native son Frank Sargeson to be grace their main street. Instead of honouring the father of modern New Zealand literature, the Hamiltonians erected a grotesque tribute to a foreign bloke who lived in their city for a few months and later co-wrote the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Several prominent Hamiltonians explained their refusal to honour Sargeson by saying that that they didn't want a memorial to a writer they couldn't understand. Seven decades after they debuted in our literary journals, the laconic sentences and elliptical plots of Sargeson's stories were still, it seems, too avant-garde.
I thought about the brouhaha over the Sargeson statue when I stumbled upon a portrait of Patrick White in the middle of the Outback mining town of Broken Hill. The grumpy bugger is depicted in late middle age, beside the name of his great novel about Australian exploration. With their slow pace, their lapidarian periodic sentences, their surreal imagery, and their brutal exposure of the ugly aspects of Aussie life, White's novels make Sargeson's stories look accessible and optimistic. But the difficulty of White's prose and the darkness of his vision hasn't stopped Broken Hill celebrating him.
The mural is particularly appropriate in an Outback town, because Voss tells the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, the egomaniacal German who attempted to lead a tiny, poorly provisioned party of white men from the east coast of Australia to Perth, across the unmapped landscapes of the continent's centre. In White's hands, the doomed expedition becomes a lesson in the grand folly of European colonialism. Unable to reconcile his dream of conquering Australia with reality, Leichhardt propels his comrades to their violent deaths. The pigheaded German is only redeemed by his own suffering and death, and by the love he feels for a woman he has left behind in Sydney.
The history of Broken Hill can be read as a struggle to subdue the same sort of brutal environment that took Leichhardt's life. The town was built in a frenzy in the 1880s, after a handful of adventurers discovered a lode of silver seven kilometres long in the arid far west of New South Wales. The profits of Sydney investors were disrupted by the weather, which brought constant storms of sand and dust, and by the militancy of the miners who flocked to the new town. It was not until the 1920s that a measure of stability was brought to Broken Hill, as the mine owners buckled and gave the miners a contract which became a model for workers elsewhere in Australia. In the same decade a green belt of gardens was established around the town, in a successful attempt to end the incursions sand and dust. In 1932a pipeline brought a regular supply of water for the first time, and today Broken Hill feels like an oasis. Sited on the summit of the enormous slag heap which divides Broken Hill in two, the town's Miners' Memorial is a triumph of modernism and of historical memory: between huge sheets of rusty iron the name of every man to have died in the town's mines is recorded. The memorial deliberately echoes the monuments to dead soldiers which are scattered all over Australia, but the red flag rather than the national flag flies beside it. The memorial's iron reminds us of the humble iron cottages which still stand all over Broken Hill, and its rust is the colour of the earth that has swallowed so many lives. The memorial's formal austerity and industrial building materials mark it as a work of high modernism, but this has not made it unpopular: in fact, the structure has become Broken Hill's leading tourist attraction. Who said that Aussies were resistant to modernism?