Nicolas Rothwell - Suddenly I had a picture of life, what it really is; just the images that we receive: a cavalcade of images, blurs of light, patterns rushing by—from the future, from our past, from the people round us, from the landscape—and we’re trapped by the world’s glare, and struggling constantly to make sense of what comes in


Belomor : Longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award - Nicolas Rothwell


Nicolas Rothwell, Belomor, Text Publishing, 2013.




nicolasrothwell.com/





In the early 1930s the Soviet Union built, with convict labour, a canal between the White Sea and the Baltic. Given the convenient proximity of the Solovetsky Islands Gulag settlement, workers were in plentiful supply, and their work was performed for free.
The project took 20 months: 12,000 prisoners lost their lives. The scheme became known simply as the White Sea Canal: “Belomorkanal”. To mark its completion, the state tobacco company launched a new brand of cigarette: it took the project’s name.
And it gives its name in turn to “Belomor” – a novel, a book of narratives and remembrances released this year by Text Publishing.

“Belomor” is the last in a sequence of three novelistic tales set against the backdrop of the desert Inland and the North. It looks back, also, to the era of dictatorships in Europe. It was years in the making: its passage now from project to publication is swiftly done: as swiftly as a breath exhaled, or a smoke plume dissolving in the air.
A striking photographic image by the artist Alexander Rodchenko shows the first lock of the White Sea Canal during the last stages of its construction in deep winter. It is the frontespiece of “Belomor.” — It repays prolonged attention. I wish you bon appétit in your reading of this work.




"Masterful and unforgettable."—Pico Iyer





"Melancholy, singular, exhilarating, Belomor reads like a haunted history of the world."—Delia Falconer





"Belomor resists easy categorisation. Its many characters are elusive, some more types than characters, more mouthpieces than fully rounded individuals. But this does not detract from this beautiful and mesmerising book, which engages the intellect as well as the emotions."—Weekend Australian



Elegiac and seductive, Belomor is the frontier where truth and invention meet—where fragments from distant lives intermingle, and cohere.
A man seeks out the father figure who shaped his picture of the past. A painter seeks redemption after the disasters of his years in northern Australia. A student of history travels into the depths of religion, the better to escape the demons in his mind. A filmmaker seeks out freedom and open space, and looks into the murk and sediment of herself.
Four chapters: four journeys through life, separate, yet interwoven as the narrative unfolds.
In this entrancing new book from one of Australia's most original writers, we meet European dissidents from the age of postwar communism, artists in the outback, snake hunters, opal miners, and desert magic healers. Belomor is a meditation on time and loss: on how the most bitter recollections bring happiness, and the meaning of a secret rests in the thoughts surrounding it.




What are we looking for when we look at art, and what possible objectivity can we bring to it with our subjective gaze? And before the artist had even begun, what radical substitutions, what accommodations had he made? In the opening pages of Nicolas Rothwell's hugely impressive mixture of art history, travel journalism and fiction, we encounter Bernardo Bellotto, nephew of Canaletto, who in 1747 journeys to Dresden "to record the dream of an autocrat". His chilly cityscapes, Rothwell writes, "seemed almost to pass judgment on the worlds he delineated with such exactitude". Except that the exactitude already described something that existed at one remove, for the Dresden created by Augustus the Strong was modelled on "elusive, potent Venice". A work of art is not a document, or at least not an uncomplicated one; it may also record desires and dreams unknown to its audience.
Rothwell, a foreign correspondent cum-art critic-cum-chronicler of the indigenous communities of northern Australia, is of Czech and Australian parentage; he moved countries and continents as a child and was educated in France, Switzerland and Britain. Consequently, his conerns are at the same time particular and universal, his focus historical and modern, his frame of reference a mingling of the fragmentation of elderly Mitteleuropa and the violent, seismic resettling of Australia. It is as though one place will not suffice, nor will one genre.
Rothwell swiftly leaves Bellotto behind to travel forward in history, via Viktor Klemperer's diary of the Dresden firestorm, to 1987, when he arrives at the home of Haffner, an East German dissident-philosopher with a hint of Dostoevsky about him. Haffner unwittingly gives this book its title when he offers the author a cigarette, a Russian brand called Belomorkanal, named after the canal that connects the White Sea and the Baltic Sea and that was built by convicts. He claims that the cigarettes are the strongest in the world, and they certainly have head-spinning associations, involving a pilgrimage that Haffner had made as a young man to a former prison archipelago in the Arctic north in the footsteps of a Leningrad scholar who had been exiled there. Remembering the water's edge, Haffner describes an epiphany: "As I was looking, what was before me had vanished. It melted away. It became whiteness – not waves, and beams of light, and sky. It was the whiteness behind the world. I understood that I was staring into the void at the core of things; that what we see is not the final verdict on what exists. Since that day it has been clear to me there are moments in our lives when the world becomes unstable, when our visual field gives way: things break before us; they burst into fragments, disappear."
Haffner too disappears and although he makes a brief reappearance later, the reader wonders whether he was real in the first place; at the very least, he is not what he seems. Belomor is captivatingly studded with such dramatic and portentous encounters, and with characters whose pronouncements and memories lodge in Rothwell's mind, often lying dormant for years at a time only to resurface in some unexpected context. "You think we can destroy and make the past at will – just like that?" he asks Haffner, in 1987. "Of course," comes the reply. "Haven't you noticed that we love annihilation so much? History has a pulse of its own, it has its rhythm: it's like a piece of music. If you want to read its shape and plot you have to find the key, to tune your mind, to follow closely – follow as if your life hung on it. Only then does the theme give itself away."
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This sort of global psychogeography encourages a certain grandiose mysticism; filled with coincidences and convergences, symbols and auguries, its attempts to reach what is out of sight or already disappeared make it by definition unsuccessful, unable to achieve anything beyond a kind of yearning provisionality. To some extent, susceptibility to this way of seeing the world is a matter of personal taste. But the attempts to forge connections also make for a magpie brilliance: over the course of four loosely connected and magnificently unsettling essays, we hear of, among others, the art historian Aby Warburg, whose determination to unearth our pagan past in the Pueblo region of the south-western United States is counterpointed by his later incarceration in a sanatorium following a psychotic collapse precipitated by Germany's defeat in the first world war; alternating between sanity and psychosis, he recounts the history of his suffering to the moths and butterflies that come in to his room at night.
Warburg was fascinated by serpent cults, and we meet several latter-day snake obsessives; they in turn lead us into the world of the indigenous artists of Australia's Northern Territory, where Rothwell has lived for many years. He has written about this branch of the art world extensively, recently describing in the Australian its metamorphosis from a "faintly ramshackle, improvised and eccentric scene" to "something much more well-structured and concerted, and postcolonial in its accents: a state-supported Aboriginal culture system in tune with Western tastes". "No point in mourning it," he wrote, but you sense that he must when he describes the instinctual journeys that he undertook in its pursuit, the unanticipated kinships formed. In West Arnhem Land, he meets a man who speaks in awed tones of an artist: "He's at the centre of things we don't even know – or we're not supposed to know." In the Kimberley, he comes across the gallerist Tony Oliver, the co-founder of the celebrated Jirrawun Art Studio, who now tells him that he fears the destruction that success will bring. What will happen, Rothwell asks. "People die, dreams fail, plans break, grief descends, the white man leaves, things fall to pieces; until there's nothing left. What we've built is like a fragile castle, waiting for the whirlwind to sweep past."
But these are the conditions on which both art and life are made. Later, Rothwell encounters Oliver again, after the success has come. "'I'd made a gallery, and filled it full of art, and that art was like a doorway: into what?' I turned to him. 'Don't,' he said: 'Don't speak. The words aren't there. They aren't in the universe, even to begin to say. If they were, if there were words to begin to express that, why would you paint? Why would anyone?'" - Alex Clark

‘Quests are fulfilled by the act of questing, not the goal.’
This remark, made by one of the many characters who inhabit the pages of Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor, may well be the central premise of the book, which is essentially a series of meditations, through the voices of a multitude of real and imaginary characters, on the ways in which people construct meanings for themselves in order to survive the demons that pursue and torment them.
Belomor is constructed like a puzzle or a maze. It consists of four sections, each with its own narrative arc. These are linked through structural and thematic patterns. Stories coil and intertwine. One encounters recurring motifs and themes: the restoration of ruins; the mentor or wise man; the moment of illumination or initiation; the snake as a symbol of transformation; the replication of the wise man’s journey in order to experience what he experienced; the notions that the past can be reconstructed and that universal patterns underlie the trajectories of individual lives; that the rituals of ‘primitive’ cultures are a means of self-transformation; that the art object is a source of truth and power; that it is dangerous to find what you seek.
The protagonists pursue their various quests through fact and fiction, past and present, often to the point where meaning dissolves. A seeker, who is sometimes the narrator, meets a mentor who is or has been a seeker, who recounts his own encounter with a wise man whom he believes holds the key. But when the seeker comes too close the wise man withdraws or disappears.
The Rothwellian narrator throws us hints and clues as we make our way through the maze. ‘It’s almost as if the beauty of the structure is what holds the key,’ he says, responding to the serpentine prose of the Mexican rattlesnake expert Jose Diaz Bolio, in a chapter dedicated to serpents and their afficionados. To which Jose Diaz Bolio, who is also a historian and poet, replies, ‘You mean the meaning is there is no meaning? It’s only the convolutions? How much I fear those ideas.’
It is through the words of the morose philosopher Stephan Haffner, who says ‘the true task of the writer is to destroy himself, to remove himself’, that we are given a clue to the role of the elusive but ubiquitous narrator, who may or may not be Nicolas Rothwell, but is distinctly Rothwellian. While he is not invisible, neither is he a character, in the sense that we know who he is. He moves through the text, listening to the stories of others, participating in the events that allow the various characters to reveal their preoccupations and obsessions. Much of the book consists of conversations in which the protagonists speak in measured and perfectly constructed sentences which, if the Radio National interview I heard between Rothwell and Phillip Adams is any indication, reflect the way in which Rothwell himself speaks.
There is an irony here. In the attempt to render the writer omnipresent yet invisible every character becomes a version of the writer. But then Belomor is not a piece of naturalistic prose. It is a highly crafted artifice that signals its structural underpinnings and its philosophical preoccupations from the beginning. While the Text Publishing website identifies Belomor as fiction, the cover blurb alerts the reader that it is not a conventional work of fiction: ‘Elegiac and seductive, Belomor is the frontier where truth and invention meet.’ This generic identification may be in order to circumvent the sort of controversy sparked by Peter Cochrane’s review of Rothwell’s previous book: The Red Highway (2009) was marketed as non-fiction and Cochrane challenged the authenticity of certain events, and of the stylised conversations on which much of the book is based. I would have the same issue with Belomor if I believed it was claiming to record verbatim accounts of real conversations. But I can’t imagine that Rothwell means us to read these conversations as realistic – they are clearly devices to convey the preoccupations of the narrator and his companions.
On the other hand, much of the book reads like non-fiction, and the third section is dedicated to the story of Tony Oliver, mastermind of the Jirrawun Art Centre, manager and marketer of, among others, Paddy Bedford and Rusty Peters – those grand old Gija artists whose work extended the conceptual terrain of Aboriginal art in ways that have not yet been properly articulated. And while Oliver could probably be described as a self-invented work of fiction, as far as I know he still exists in the real world.
I went to my favourite polemicist on these matters, the American writer David Shields. In Reality Hunger, Shields says:
In a larger sense, all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it. The real question is: this massive autobiographical writing enterprise that fills a life, this enterprise of self-construction – does it yield only fictions? Or rather, among the fictions of the self, the versions of the self, that it yields, are there any that are truer than others?
This line of thinking yields a number of possibilities on how to interpret the writing enterprise of Nicolas Rothwell. If, as Shields suggests, Rothwell is constructing a fictional self through the voices and personas of real and imaginary characters, how much authority should we invest in that fiction? Writing across the threshold between fiction and non-fiction has a distinguished pedigree that includes writers such as Alice Munro, Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipaul and W. G. Sebald. It offers a stereoscopic approach to its subject, bringing it into multi-dimensional focus.
On the basis of another of David Shields’ arguments in Reality Hunger, however, a case could be made for drawing a distinction between the Novel as an amalgam of fiction and non-fiction and Fiction as something that is essentially made up:
The novel has always been a mixed form; that’s why it was called novel in the first place. A great deal of realistic documentary, some history, some topographical writing, some barely disguised autobiography have always been part of the novel, from Defoe through Flaubert and Dickens.
Shields credits Henry James with the ‘modernist purifying of the novel’s mongrel tradition’, and asserts that writers like Naipaul and Sebald, to whom Rothwell is sometimes compared, are returning the novel to its original Creole form, restoring ‘the novelty of the novel, with its ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts … the sense of readerly danger’. If Rothwell’s ouevre is essentially a fictional self-portrait – and I am inclined to think it is – then it is important to recognise that it is an idiosyncratic and particular fiction. It is wide-ranging, romantic, contemplative, scholarly  –  Rothwellian, in a word.  The question is how we should read it.
*
There was a point in my reading of Belomor when White Man Dreaming drifted into my mind as an alternative title. I banished the thought, knowing that it would be misinterpreted, but it’s worth interrogating where it came from.
Among the novel’s many voices – the mentors and seekers; the historical, the fictional and the real – there is only one female voice, an East German film-maker who remains nameless. She experiences a sense of freedom in the South Australian desert that makes her understand that we consent to most of our limitations, and that we can choose not to. Rothwell is too self-aware a writer to insert a single female voice into an otherwise all male cast without deliberate intention. Although intense and apparently humourless, this character seems able to appreciate the significance of the moment without having to mourn its passing.
This is in contrast to the male characters. For them, the passing of time requires an astonishing amount of complicated searching for and constructing of meaning, accompanied by the fear that there is no meaning to be found. The dissident philosopher Haffner, who becomes an enigmatic mentor-figure in the narrator’s life, tells of his epiphany of ‘staring into the void at the core of things’ at the prison island where his mentor was imprisoned as a young man. The story lodges in the narrator’s mind, along with the assertion that the past can be recreated. Through these male narratives, played out across Europe, America and Australia, Rothwell seems to be implying the existence of a secular, scholarly and distinctly masculine form of existential anxiety.
The brilliant and troubled art historian Aby Warburg exemplifies the cultivated European intellectual who turns against the formal complacency of the established art world and seeks alternative truths in the cultures of ‘primitive’ people. In his search for something to reinvigorate his life with visceral meaning, he travels to America and finds his way to the Pueblo Indians of the American desert. Frail of body and fragile of psyche, he becomes convinced that self-transcendence is possible through a ritualistic entry into the animal world, exemplified by the rattlesnake dance of the Pueblo snake cult. Eventually his teeming but delicately balanced mind refuses to tolerate the contradictions and premonitions it harbours, and he has a breakdown that sees him incarcerated for years in a sanatorium. He later  proves his sanity and secures his release from the sanatorium by giving a public lecture based on his early theories.
Rothwell is extraordinarily good in his depiction of Warburg, and later of the eighteenth century scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He distils their characters in his descriptions of the events that shape them, the times and places they occupy, the demons that drive them, and the manner in which they build the edifices of scholarship that hold their lives together. It is also in the Warburg chapter, which is dedicated to the snake as a creature of numinous power, that we meet Deion Palomor, (the name appears to be a gesture towards the title of the book), a wildlife photographer with a special affinity with animals, who has a close encounter with an Oenpelli python. Palomor is driven to more and more intense challenges, as each experience fails to fulfill his expectations.
Part three is the account of Tony Oliver’s obsessive quest among the group of senior Gija painters, whose work he promoted through Jirrawun Arts. Oliver has the same preoccupations as the doomed Palomor and shares the inevitable disappointment that comes with getting what you want. He also fears the danger of going too deep and learning too much about a culture to which he does not belong, articulating what has so far only been implied – that answers are not to be found in the opaque and dangerous realms of Aboriginal high culture.
In the fourth and final section of the book, we meet Winckelmann, who sublimates his unrequited attraction to young men by creating an intellectual edifice based on the premise that truth and beauty can be found only in the perfection of classical sculpture. His contemporary counterpart is an Australian carpetbagger and art dealer who carries with him a traditional Aboriginal figurine that he believes has special power. However, where Winckelmann believes that the highest good comes from being denied what you desire, the art dealer hunts down the object of his desire like a predator, pursuing it into the desert to the point of its emblematic disappearance.
All of these men are haunted, enmeshed in their obsessive, sometimes life-threatening searches for meaning. They remind me of Margaret Atwood’s interpretation of this phenomenon. In Good Bones, she writes:
The male brain, now, that’s a different matter. Only a thin connection. Space over here, time over there, music and arithmetic in their own sealed compartments. The right brain doesn’t know what the left brain is doing … That’s why men are so sad, why they feel so cut off, why they think of themselves as orphans cast adrift, footloose and stringless in the deep void. What void? she says. What are you talking about? The void of the universe, he says, and she says Oh and looks out the window and tries to get a handle on it, but it’s no use, there’s too much going on.
It’s a simplification, of course, but that bit about the void really nails it.
Belomor should be read as a fable, a meditation on meaning and its absence, but most of all as a self-portrait of its author, for whom European cities and Australian deserts are extensions of each other. They are both rich and complex landscapes of the mind where people speak only of significant things and the past is luminous with disappearing knowledge, out of which one must constantly fashion beautiful possibilities. Belomor should not be read as an authoritative portrait of north Australia and its people – and although I am not familiar with Dresden or Stendal I suspect the same is true of them. To read these cross-genre fictions as true accounts is not only to misinterpret them but to misrepresent the things they describe.
Rothwell’s is a unique and seductive voice. It engages the romantic sensibility that still seems to be at the heart of the white Australian desire for the desert to be a source of enlightenment. In this, it risks perpetuating the contemporary equivalent of the ‘smooth the dying pillow’ attitude toward Indigenous Australia, in which it is no longer the race that is dying out, but its cultural integrity and authenticity. The tough, messy, mutating, resilient culture that is going on out there is rendered invisible by focusing on what is gone.
As I write this, a project is underway to record the mythical journey of the Seven Sisters across the western desert, a project that was attacked by one of the old law men (and given major coverage in the Australian, the newspaper for which Rothwell acts as Northern Correspondent) for its alleged trivialisation of Indigenous culture. While the story of the Seven Sisters has its restricted male version, it is predominantly a women’s story in which the sisters, in the form of the star cluster of the Pleiades, are pursued by an old man whom they tease, outwit, humiliate and elude. That it is being recorded by women for women signifies change – and we all know that when women’s voices start being heard it means that the end of something is beginning.
Reading Belomor reminded me of learning to play mahjong while living in a remote Kimberley community, back when I still smoked Champion Ruby hand-rolled cigarettes. If you played cautiously you were bound to lose, but if you paid attention to the texture and design of the tiles and  relaxed into the impenetrable structure of the game something happened. Patterns and affinities whispered out of the desert night, and you either pulled off the impossible hand of the Wriggling Snake or Catching the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea, or else you failed so spectacularly that it was a kind of victory. You risked everything and played intuitively, because the game was so outlandishly complex you couldn’t hope to understand it or remember the rules.
I recognise what Rothwell is doing and I salute him for it. He gives our own layered cultural landscape the same value as the congested histories of Europe and America. He sets the table for a conversation we need to have, about the unique opportunity we have to participate in the making of culture, here and now, in the moment between what is about to disappear and what is just beginning.
- Kim Mahood




I had a picture of life, what it really is; just the images that we receive: a cavalcade of images, blurs of light, patterns rushing by—from the future, from our past, from the people round us, from the landscape… The way you saw the world lying in fragments—everything lost, and wrecked, and scattered; and the task of life was in collecting up those fragments, looking, seeking for the resonances and the echoes—the shards…   — Belomor
Australian writer and journalist Nicolas Rothwell’s most recent book, Belomor, is utterly beyond classification. On the surface, it seems to follow his previous books — such as Another Country (2007) and Journeys to the Interior (2010) — in that the terrain Rothwell covers is based in journalistic and travelogue traditions. In Belomor, though, a nameless narrator relates the stories of those he encounters on his travels to more universal themes such as the alienation and dislocation one faces, particularly when crossing at or living in border territories: “All the stories were detailed, and all were drenched in blood.” Rothwell’s narrator — about whom we learn very little, and who may or may not be Rothwell himself — positions himself within the historical, aesthetic, and philosophical strains of thought with which his reportage engages, creating a dissonant sense of history as personal, as ever-changing. All of his books exist, like this, in the precarious space between fiction and history.
Although Rothwell’s style and voice are all his own, his work is often reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s in its crossing of temporal and historical boundaries. His compatriot Gerald Murnane’s haunting reflections on the landscape “dream countries” of Australia also serve as ambient contexts with which Rothwell engages, in “a meditative cycle[,] … a conversation with the landscape.” Indeed, one of the most profound passages in Belomor places Rothwell’s concerns neatly within these shared interests: 
Why is it we can’t stay in ourselves, and in the motion of our lives: why are we nothing but hope, and fear? Is that being human? What does it help us, then, to know who we are? [S]uddenly I had a picture of life, what it really is; just the images that we receive: a cavalcade of images, blurs of light, patterns rushing by—from the future, from our past, from the people round us, from the landscape—and we’re trapped by the world’s glare, and struggling constantly to make sense of what comes in.
Central to Belomor’s philosophical considerations is the following set of questions: “Do we know, in our lives, what we go through? Do lives really form themselves into stories?” In Rothwell’s hands, the myriad ways in which storytelling serves as an impetus for self-discovery form the axis around which Belomor’s unnamed narrator navigates — in the external and in the internal worlds.
Offered in four sections that might well be read on their own, Belomor requires the aesthetic, social, cultural, and political grounding of the first section, “Belomorkanal”— referring to “the canal the convicts built” in 1933 and known chiefly as the White Sea-Baltic Canal — in order for the reader to fully comprehend Rothwell’s overlapping themes. Indeed, Belomor is a book without a plot, per se, as the reader follows the narrator on his journey through Eastern Europe, both before and after the fall of Communism, and the many people he encounters along the way, most of whose narratives make up the bulk of the text. It’s a cast of people as disparate as snake hunters in Kimberly, the northern part of Western Australia; painters and filmmakers; political dissidents and exiles; and a host of writers, artists, and composers from Albrecht Dürer to Johann Joachim Winckelmann, from John Cage to Aby Warburg. “Belomorkanal” sets up a framework of aesthetic influence in a pattern that the reader encounters again in Belomor’s subsequent sections as Rothwell traces his narrator’s movement — as well as our own — across space and time, anchored by specific paintings as points of commonality, of timeless beauty. In addition, the logic of Belomor is a highly internal one on which it is nearly impossible to write without somehow trying — and failing — to duplicate its inimitable rhythms, nuances, and numerous intertextual allusions. So a close look at the “Belomorkanal” section prepares the curious reader for what Rothwell achieves in the remaining sections of this fine, intelligent work.
“Belomorkanal” opens with an analysis of the history of Bernardo Bellotto’s 1765 painting The Ruins of the old Kreuzkirche, Dresden. The title is curious: “ruins” usually indicates a site of ancient battle and historical plunder, but Bellotto is painting his own city just after a recent Prussian invasion. His painting thus situates a contemporary site of battle within the context of a larger history of invasions and demolitions. Rothwell’s narrator, recalling this painting, concludes: “whether it is a story of rebuilding or clearing remains, at first glance, quite uncertain: either task amounts, in the fullness of time, to the same thing.”
ruin
His insight is reminiscent of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s formulation of what he calls “the metonymic ruins of the repressed” in his 1956 “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter.’” In his reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic detective story, Lacan finds that ruins or sites of absence are ripe with meaning as they constitute an endless chain of signifiers: names yielding other names, cities yielding other cities, each effacing the previous set of ruins with every future act of substitution. As one of his many interlocutors says succinctly to Belomor’s narrator: “Isn’t life always chains of causes, binding us…?” Art’s meaning changes with time, as an individual’s life narrative does with each iteration. Yet even as the original meaning is subsumed beneath that supplied by the present-day, an artwork’s universal themes speak to all experiences — resonating across, and despite, social, cultural, or political barriers.
The ruins of Bellotto’s Dresden, then, are the metonymic ruins the narrator encounters in 1987 on his own visit to the city: “that ridiculous ruin, that church of nothing” comes to signify not just the demolitions of Dresden past and present, but also the impermanence of the world we inhabit today. “Dresden had become a victim city,” the narrator remarks, recalling the city after the fall of Communism — victim being the locus of Lacan’s “metonymic ruins,” causing Bellotto’s image to take on a highly specific meaning in a new time and place. Such, however, is the power of art in Rothwell’s text: 
Some days after this encounter, its after-echoes still at the forefront of my mind, I was driving south on the autobahn from Berlin, headed for Ostrava, when a turn-off sign for Dresden loomed ahead: Dresden, which I had not set eyes on since the Wall came down; Dresden, which had been rebuilt and refashioned in its old image during the intervening years. … Should I turn the wheel, and change my route? Would that be free will; or just another sign that all my actions were conditioned by past events; or would any attempt at free choice prove more deeply the extent of my subjection to circumstance — and what was free thoughts; what could it ever be, in the mind’s crystalline, interconnected realm? … [A]t the last second, I veered right…
Rothwell’s narrator ponders: “You can’t enter Dresden without being thrown back constantly into the past, as though time was a trap with no escape. When a city has lived through such things do they linger? Does their memory stay, somehow, in the air, imprinted?” While taking in the view of Dresden and seeing “Bellotto’s view,” the narrator remarks, “inside myself I felt time’s different levels clash.” These meditations on temporality, history, and loss (both personal and historical) are critical to Belomor’s obsession with the haunting reach of the past into the present. They demonstrate that — for the narrator as well as for Rothwell, if the two can be separated — Dresden might be replaced with any city, Bellotto’s painting with any painting, and the overall themes would remain the same: art imitates life just as loudly as life imitates art.
Each section of Belomor takes a painting as its starting point, allowing Rothwell to trace aesthetic influences at personal and increasingly more complex political levels as the reader encounters a variety of marginal figures on the narrator’s traipses around the world. In “Belomorkanal,” the narrator’s meditations on Bellotto lead him to reimagine an encounter with one Stefan Haffner, professor and dissident, “an eccentric man” whose life narrative is offered in this first section. With Haffner, the narrator begins to enact an almost oedipal drive to follow the professor’s footsteps in the larger world, to rally against it, and yet, inevitably, to become the father figure, a journey Belomor’s narrator is himself destined to take — and whose moments of enlightenment are confusingly taken as “truth” by the then-young narrator, keen on getting at the essence of things. And yet, since “[w]e are vain interpreters” of others’ “truths” that we have appropriated into our own storylines, so “[t]he thing remains” as a constant struggle, not fated to be part of our life’s narrative and therefore never wholly absorbed: “You have to be what you must be, not what you want to be.”
When the narrator first meets Haffner, the following exchange occurs: 
“Cigarette?”
With this Haffner reached towards me: he held out a pack, blue, with a bright curve of gold Cyrillic letters on the front. I looked at it.
“Belomor. Belomorkanal.”
“The strongest in the world,” said Haffner, rather proudly. … “You’re not a smoker? Want to try? The taste of servitude?”…
“And why do you smoke them?” I asked: “It surely can’t be the aroma.”
“There is a reason,” he said. “A deep reason. Would you like to hear the story? It has its detours—but maybe you’ll think it worth the ride.”
“Let’s see,” I answered.
Haffner’s reminiscence, recalled by the narrator, provides the reader with an account of his youth in Leningrad, the aesthetic allure of Dostoevsky and Raphael, and his own obsessive detour into the narrative of “his master” — scholar Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachev — who once handed the young Haffner “a torn, shabby notebook” with the words: “I would like you to take this, and read it, overnight. This is a story few know. There is little I can teach you beyond what lies here. By giving it to you, I am, in more than one sense, placing my life in your hands.”
Haffner ends his tale with “an epiphany” he had in Belomorkanal, a moment when “I could picture myself with complete clarity: what I was, the accents of my being, what would become of me. Of all our kind.” He continues: 
As I was looking, what was before me had vanished. It melted away. It became whiteness—not waves, and beams of light, and sky. It was the whiteness behind the world. I understood that I was staring into the void at the core of things; that what we see is not the final verdict on what exists. Since that day it has been clear to me there are moments in our lives when the world becomes unstable, when our visual field gives way: things break before us; they burst into fragments, disappear.
Here, then, is Belomor’s structural mise-en-abyme: our narrator is recalling Haffner’s account, who is in turn recalling Likhachev’s account, ending with this epiphany after which the narrator begins to lust. But is the truth less striking, less resonant, less harrowing at such a remove? Rothwell’s narrator continues on his journey — and the reader along with him — as he remembers moments from his past and his present, fusing the two sets of temporalities as memory often does: “I can hardly breathe when I give in to memory for any length of time.”
Rothwell situates his narrator’s always ongoing process of self-discovery within the realms of art, of history, of borders, of stories, of truths, and the blurred lines between all of these phenomena. In doing so, he makes it clear that our lives exist at the crossroads, not just of our own experiences, but of the experiences of others whose worlds are the total inverse of ours: our common struggles and sufferings uniting us across all margins. Learning from others’ life stories and the countless ways in which they map on to our own, we can begin to arrive at the truth of our existence, yet one must be cautious not to adopt another’s story as one’s own. “And you’ve been looking for that light?” demands Haffner of the narrator: “Seeing it? Borrowing someone else’s emotions. What a path in life!” Belomor itself skirts this danger haphazardly, just as we live our our own lives irrevocably at the juncture between our memories and those we have chosen to appropriate — either knowingly or unknowingly — as our own: a series of Lacanian ruins on a map whose topography is forever changing.
But how do we know whether our journey is authentically our own, or one modeled on the journeys of those who came before, those whose footsteps we longed — for whatever reason — to follow? As Haffner remarks: “There’s a whisper of unreality about all our lives.” And yet, despite this “whisper of unreality,” the concrete realities of life abound: in art, in geographical locales, in books, even in the silences between words spoken across the chasm of years. Framing all this is the Belomor cigarette, “the cigarette of ideology — and of mourning,” the cigarette the narrator always encounters and yet refuses, thus driving home Rothwell’s extended consideration of narratives not being solely owned by those who have lived them. “Our lives are shaped,” as the narrator observes, “by influences we barely sense” but whose meanings we will travel to the ends of the earth to find, to learn from, and then to leave behind for others to take from our ruins and our discards what they will — in their own futuristic act of displacement and appropriation: “It was the past, and it was the future, and the way the two time phases fit together in the present.”
Rothwell’s Belomor always returns to its central image of ruins: “the task of life was in collecting up those fragments, looking, seeking for the resonances and the echoes — the shards.” And it is with these resonances, echoes, and shards — “like hidden, fragmentary texts of revelation” — that Rothwell presents his melancholy vision of our shared struggle to process the truths of what we see and what we learn throughout the journey of life—and it is with such fragmented but palpably beautiful fragments that his reader is somehow revealed: human, conscious, ruined. - K. Thomas Kahn




That are we looking for when we look at art, and what possible objectivity can we bring to it with our subjective gaze? And before the artist had even begun, what radical substitutions, what accommodations had he made? In the opening pages of Nicolas Rothwell's hugely impressive mixture of art history, travel journalism and fiction, we encounter Bernardo Bellotto, nephew of Canaletto, who in 1747 journeys to Dresden "to record the dream of an autocrat". His chilly cityscapes, Rothwell writes, "seemed almost to pass judgment on the worlds he delineated with such exactitude". Except that the exactitude already described something that existed at one remove, for the Dresden created by Augustus the Strong was modelled on "elusive, potent Venice". A work of art is not a document, or at least not an uncomplicated one; it may also record desires and dreams unknown to its audience.
Rothwell, a foreign correspondent cum-art critic-cum-chronicler of the indigenous communities of northern Australia, is of Czech and Australian parentage; he moved countries and continents as a child and was educated in France, Switzerland and Britain. Consequently, his conerns are at the same time particular and universal, his focus historical and modern, his frame of reference a mingling of the fragmentation of elderly Mitteleuropa and the violent, seismic resettling of Australia. It is as though one place will not suffice, nor will one genre.
Rothwell swiftly leaves Bellotto behind to travel forward in history, via Viktor Klemperer's diary of the Dresden firestorm, to 1987, when he arrives at the home of Haffner, an East German dissident-philosopher with a hint of Dostoevsky about him. Haffner unwittingly gives this book its title when he offers the author a cigarette, a Russian brand called Belomorkanal, named after the canal that connects the White Sea and the Baltic Sea and that was built by convicts. He claims that the cigarettes are the strongest in the world, and they certainly have head-spinning associations, involving a pilgrimage that Haffner had made as a young man to a former prison archipelago in the Arctic north in the footsteps of a Leningrad scholar who had been exiled there. Remembering the water's edge, Haffner describes an epiphany: "As I was looking, what was before me had vanished. It melted away. It became whiteness – not waves, and beams of light, and sky. It was the whiteness behind the world. I understood that I was staring into the void at the core of things; that what we see is not the final verdict on what exists. Since that day it has been clear to me there are moments in our lives when the world becomes unstable, when our visual field gives way: things break before us; they burst into fragments, disappear."
Haffner too disappears and although he makes a brief reappearance later, the reader wonders whether he was real in the first place; at the very least, he is not what he seems. Belomor is captivatingly studded with such dramatic and portentous encounters, and with characters whose pronouncements and memories lodge in Rothwell's mind, often lying dormant for years at a time only to resurface in some unexpected context. "You think we can destroy and make the past at will – just like that?" he asks Haffner, in 1987. "Of course," comes the reply. "Haven't you noticed that we love annihilation so much? History has a pulse of its own, it has its rhythm: it's like a piece of music. If you want to read its shape and plot you have to find the key, to tune your mind, to follow closely – follow as if your life hung on it. Only then does the theme give itself away."
This sort of global psychogeography encourages a certain grandiose mysticism; filled with coincidences and convergences, symbols and auguries, its attempts to reach what is out of sight or already disappeared make it by definition unsuccessful, unable to achieve anything beyond a kind of yearning provisionality. To some extent, susceptibility to this way of seeing the world is a matter of personal taste. But the attempts to forge connections also make for a magpie brilliance: over the course of four loosely connected and magnificently unsettling essays, we hear of, among others, the art historian Aby Warburg, whose determination to unearth our pagan past in the Pueblo region of the south-western United States is counterpointed by his later incarceration in a sanatorium following a psychotic collapse precipitated by Germany's defeat in the first world war; alternating between sanity and psychosis, he recounts the history of his suffering to the moths and butterflies that come in to his room at night.
Warburg was fascinated by serpent cults, and we meet several latter-day snake obsessives; they in turn lead us into the world of the indigenous artists of Australia's Northern Territory, where Rothwell has lived for many years. He has written about this branch of the art world extensively, recently describing in the Australian its metamorphosis from a "faintly ramshackle, improvised and eccentric scene" to "something much more well-structured and concerted, and postcolonial in its accents: a state-supported Aboriginal culture system in tune with Western tastes". "No point in mourning it," he wrote, but you sense that he must when he describes the instinctual journeys that he undertook in its pursuit, the unanticipated kinships formed. In West Arnhem Land, he meets a man who speaks in awed tones of an artist: "He's at the centre of things we don't even know – or we're not supposed to know." In the Kimberley, he comes across the gallerist Tony Oliver, the co-founder of the celebrated Jirrawun Art Studio, who now tells him that he fears the destruction that success will bring. What will happen, Rothwell asks. "People die, dreams fail, plans break, grief descends, the white man leaves, things fall to pieces; until there's nothing left. What we've built is like a fragile castle, waiting for the whirlwind to sweep past."
But these are the conditions on which both art and life are made. Later, Rothwell encounters Oliver again, after the success has come. "'I'd made a gallery, and filled it full of art, and that art was like a doorway: into what?' I turned to him. 'Don't,' he said: 'Don't speak. The words aren't there. They aren't in the universe, even to begin to say. If they were, if there were words to begin to express that, why would you paint? Why would anyone?'" - Alex Clark


Silke Hesse: Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor: A New Genre
This examination of the novel form, the tradition of the tale and the structure of “Belomor”‘ is by a close follower of trends in Australian writing, Silke Hesse.
The literary review is a genre all of its own. It is of the first hour and the urgency with which comments on a new publication are required by a media serving the market will seem to excuse rashness and inaccuracies. The review will, moreover, be the characteristic reaction of an individual who must profile himself so as to be a recognizable, even unmistakable voice in the democratic chorus of opinion; that profile may well contain idiosyncratic tastes and personal feuds. But at the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, the review is to be in all essentials the representative voice of society with its notions of good taste, wholesome values, proud national image and skilled craftsmanship. Read more »


Wings of the Kite-Hawk - Nicolas Rothwell





Nicolas Rothwell, Wings of the Kite-Hawk, Black Inc, 2009.
read it at Google Books










An Australian travel classic. Reminiscent of Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, Wings of the Kite-Hawk will seduce and enthrall; it will force you out of the comfortable chair and into the wilds of the bush.
Wings of the Kite-Hawk is a set of linked journeys into the Australian landscape: its past and its present, its people and its half-remembered secrets. In each chapter, Nicolas Rothwell takes a precursor and follows him. His guides include famous explorers from the past - Leichhardt, Sturt, Strehlow and Giles - as well as artists, anthropologists, rodeo riders and even Hell's Angels. Vivid characters weave in and out of the story, inspiring journeys through different states of heart and mind: love, loss, friendship, fear.
This book, re-issued with a new introduction by renowned travel writer Pico Iyer and a new foreword by the author, is unlike any other written about inland Australia. As much fable as memoir, it resonates with strangeness and bitter-sweetness, with all the hidden patterns and suddenly revealed depths of life.




"If the traveller's aim is to find wonders and treasures not before our eyes, that others have overlooked, then this is truly a hidden classic." —Pico Iyer, Introduction




AS he demonstrated in his novel Heaven & Earth, Nicolas Rothwell is a conceptualist. In order to construct a novel he needs an architecture that will also serve as a weight-bearing metaphor to support his massively collected material. In Heaven & Earth that metaphor was the brain of communist Europe cracking into fragments. Because he writes both with the skills of an on-the-spot journalist and the curious, dazed distance of the metaphysician, he failed to convince some critics of his literary power. And yet it was there, as surely as it is in Robinson Crusoe, the allegory overseeing the observation.

Wings of the Kite-Hawk runs the even greater risks of non-fiction. How should an author make use of an artistic method without merely repeating it, and where should he situate himself between his material and his reader? Is there a need for maps and references? (I know what a drag this puts on travel writing, but he is doing more than that, and the answer is a critical Yes!)
Does he escape by his imaginative device of following the journals and documents of four great investigators of Australia’s interior: Ludwig Leichhardt, Charles Sturt, Ted Strehlow and Ernest Giles? His placing of himself is precarious, led into an abyss of almost suicidal complicity with these solitary and troubled men. A practical guide rope is provided in each chapter by songs of hope and continuity as he meets the interior’s living representatives, human and animal. They offer evidence of continuity and warnings of death. These are translated into the wish to leave the lonely landscape and soar above it on the wings of the kite-hawk of the title.
In fact, it is at the junction of these themes that we join the party. Rothwell juggles the journals around for dramatic effect. On May 21, 1845 just before Gilbert’s murder, Leichhardt is in Cape York, about to name a northwest flowing river after his friend Robert Lynd. For days, Rothwell tells us, the group has been “patrolled by kite-hawks, those strangely human-seeming birds”. Within this episode opens a series of parallel concerns that define the journeys.
Leichhardt never once uses the term “kite-hawks” and certainly didn’t see them as “human”. He refers to them simply as kites, the same black migrators he had seen throughout Europe. Rothwell chooses the words because it immediately invests him with his central metaphor. It lifts the scene and gives it the duality which will run through the book like a chasm bridged by both creeks and boulders. He knows perfectly well the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, and introduces all the subspecies of kite as required. Hawks are noble; kites scavengers. Leichhardt compared them to Harpies. Sturt found them beautiful enough to draw. It was he who used the double term, and as such it is current.
It provides Rothwell with a series of yoked opposites. The glorious and the abject, the European and the Australian, the redneck and the Aborigine, the permanent battle that life wages against death might, after all, be part of the same process. Even the elegiac dedication to his mother “Tu fui, ego eris’
(“I was once you. You will become me”) curiously mirrors Freud’s formulation of the Self.
Already an American exile, the author is a deeply divided European one. As if by destiny, Germany, Czechs, Poles and Hungarians recite their Ring Cycles from Balgo to Ravenshoe. The Middle European names insist on their presence: Strzelecki, Hermannsburg. President Havel visits Kakadu. Rothwell begins to wonder if he carries some sort of Transylvanian bacillus which is going to create pits among the rock-art.
Immediately after the Leichhardt episode, he recalls a pilgrimage to Titian’s Flaying of Marysas to check for signs of disintegration, and it is on the Lynd that he comes to his own moments of crisis in which the kite-hawks serve as augurs. He emerges from it to “the desert’s interlocking social realms”, the jukebox at Glen Helen, the Imparja man who asks: “Now how did they know what it would look like from the air?”
For everyone from lovers of dot painting to followers of the explorers who are themselves writing the landscape, Rothwell’s interweaving is irresistible. He is at his most commendable in his refusal to broadcast the exact location of newfound petroglyphs, or to repeat the mistakes of anthropologists and “healers” who have blabbed indigenous business. Touching and compassionate also are his meetings with the men and women who have been maimed in their journeys, like the Ford Man who greets him as “little brother”. This is no rollicking ramble but a richly textured and layered work flashing with insight. If his contemplations of landscape and meaning sound highfalutin they do no more than mirror their sources. His explorers and wanderers are driven, classically educated people. Leichhardt’s epigraph is from Goethe. Bikies cite Shelley, but also see dog-men. The Mayor of Chillagoe quotes Homer; the Centre resounds to Bach cello suites and Schubert impromptus.
Nor is this apparently incongruous culture pitched at one level. Rothwell writes in all tones, from sarcasm at the infamous Adelaide auction of Arrernte artefacts to the rhapsody on rainbow-coloured birds whose movement finishes his sentence with a feather grazing his cheek. To gather the mysterious imagery of birds into the complexity of his themes, there is a sequence of encounters with a doppelganger.
But to understand what he achieves psychologically with the figure of the kite-hawk, and how the Interior cathedrals and galleries of Australia are finally pictured are pleasures best left to your own reading. - Noel Purdon



The Red Highway - Nicolas Rothwell
Nicolas Rothwell, The Red Highway, Black Inc., 2010.


read it at Google Books




This is the story of a quest – a journey down the red highway.
On returning from a war zone, Nicolas Rothwell begins to explore the deserts and towns, sleepy coastline and hidden worlds of Australia’s north. As he travels, his journey gathers momentum and finds a shape. He has unforgettable, even mystical encounters: with a priest, an explorer, a collector and a hunter. It becomes a quest – for knowledge and a sense of home – that builds to a stunning culmination.
Nicolas Rothwell is among Australia’s most gifted writers, and The Red Highway is a one-of-a-kind book. It explores death, friendship, travel and art, and evokes a unique and mesmerising part of the country.


Can you imagine the dislocation you might feel upon returning home from a war zone? It’s precisely this moment that award-winning writer and northern correspondent for The Australian, Nicolas Rothwell, begins his journey along Australia’s red highways.
Spurred on by a series of serendipitous encounters both here and in the Middle East, he hits the road to unlock the meaning of memories, conversations and images that have affected him deeply. What follows is a kaleidoscopic outback sleuthing expedition with a dream-like quality to it.
Rothwell’s treks around the Kimberly, Darwin and Alice Springs are guided and inspired by some fascinating characters, both living and dead. My favourite is straight talking roo shooter, Charlie, who says: we’re all philosophers out here – it’s not about the landscape, it’s what’s behind it. And The Red Highway is brimming with ideas ‘behind the landscape’, about life, art, travel, history, exploration, ‘desert logic’ and death. Readers best ignore the author’s own advice that some ‘things of beauty are best seen once and never looked at again’ and read this beautifully written book a second time. - Sally Keighery




The Red Highway begins with a spare, haunting account of the Czech artist Karel Kupka clambering out of a plane and (as the book’s first sentence has it) stepping “for the first time into the elusive world of Arnhem Land.” Born in the last year of World War I, and growing up in a cultured family at the centre of Prague’s intelligentsia, Kupka had made his way to Paris in the last year of the next war, got to know tribal art in the studio of Andre Breton and then, somewhat mysteriously, come out to Aboriginal Australia, as if to find his way back to a deeper, purer history that could restore him after civilisation as he knew it in Europe was destroyed in two terrible wars.
Yet the first effect of any open space is to concentrate the eye; when few things are around, you start to pay close attention to every one, and begin to find in each seemingly casual detail a universe of resonance. So it is with Rothwell’s characteristically deep, private and often terrifying work. Kupka was moving under a kind of “compulsion,” we read, and “had pictured himself as an outsider, carrying out profound investigations” in the bush. He was at once fascinated and disquieted by the spirits, the witch doctors, the writhing creatures from the world of sorcery he discovered as he deepened his “advance into the shadows” of Australia’s hidden north. In Darwin he was asked to paint an Aboriginal Madonna for a new cathedral, its predecessor damaged beyond repair by Japanese attacks in war. He did so, but his work was stolen and then returned, a little bruised, and hung so that it could hardly be inspected.
Anyone who has seen the tall, thin, somewhat displaced Nicolas Rothwell may grow a little startled to read that Kupka was “tall, and thin, and somewhat out of place.” Anyone who has read Rothwell’s earlier books – Wings of the Kite-Hawk, Heaven and Earth and Another Country – may feel a penetrating chill when she reads that Kupka, in Sydney, seemed “a pale, transfigured creature, striking through with his words to some uncharted higher realm.” Those who may happen to know that Rothwell is half-Czech and half-Australian will see that there is something more going on here than just the excavation of rich and fascinating history, and the telling of a mysterious fable about an European artist, pushed almost against his will into the secret and oblique silences of Australia’s heart. While recounting a formal, factual, meticulously precise story about a figure trying to salvage something from the magnetic north before it dies – or he does – Rothwell is clearly laying out something much closer to the bone as, again and again, he takes himself off into the vast, silent, unpeopled spaces of the red highway, looking for something he can’t even acknowledge to himself. While flying towards Arnhem Land for the first time, he tells us, Kupka’s plane (the Star of Australia) crashed, which meant that the traveller was stripped of almost everything, and felt that he was now released for a journey into a “new and deeper life,” on the far side of death.

The Red Highway is a masterful and unforgettable book in its own right, spooked and riveting and full of echoes; but it is also just one more part of a huge scroll that Rothwell seems to be assembling, piece by piece, as he fills in the secret history of his continent (and, by potent implication, himself). Much like the late German writer WG Sebald, whom he strikingly resembles in his sombre, attic eloquence, Rothwell seems drawn by his hauntedness deeper and deeper into precisely those places most guaranteed to unsettle him. Over and over he is attracted to figures of melancholy, to intimations of death. Sebald was born in Germany in 1944, son of a Nazi soldier, so everywhere he went in Europe – tramping around England or visiting the cities of Italy – he always seemed to end up either in a churchyard, shaken, or excavating some odd solitary as exiled as himself. Rothwell grew up mostly in Europe, with Australia in his blood, and surrounded by the ghosts and suicides of that used-up world. As he pushes farther into the emptiness at the centre of the oldest continent, everyone he meets seems to have a European past, and nearly everywhere he goes betrays deep scars from World War II. So even as he is pressing into the future, away from the vengeful cycles of history, he is met at every turn by relics from the past, as if everything is conspiring to create a huge tapestry of pain and restoration.
This teaches you to read the book in a very special way, attending with one eye to the vivid, funny, atmospheric accounts of the writer’s often ill-begotten trips into the desert or conversations with old acquaintances who refuse to take him too seriously; and with the other to the secret pattern invisibly developing behind the scenes. Everything has at once an immediate life and a kind of shadow in Rothwell’s work, which means that we devour, say, the details of the story of Henk Guth, a Dutch painter who moved to Alice Springs and began to bring the palette of “the old Dutch masters – deep, rich sepia earths, dark greens and wheat-sheaf yellows” to a scene more often associated with blinding sunlight, dazzled red and cloudless blue. Yet even as we succumb to the spell of the narrative, we realise that this description of importing a shadowed Rembrandt eye to the light-filled surfaces of Australia is, in fact, a perfect distillation of the book we’re reading.
In the same way, the reader starts to notice that each of the book’s four sections – ‘Exile’, ‘Belief’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Return’ – has a Biblical sound to it, and that each one, 60 pages long, is patterned as carefully as a musical movement. Investigations into the history of the exploration of Australia’s heart, and the exiled artists who sought it out, merge with stories of Rothwell’s own questing journeys into the interior, and the people he meets along the way: a music journalist, an expert on molluscs, a kangaroo hunter. As he pushes deeper and deeper into the Red Centre, he can find neither the ease of an indigenous being nor that of a casual sceptic. Instead, he’s propelled into a mystery that he seems ready to be humbled and silenced by, without trying to solve. “Resistant” is the word that comes up again and again, and while it could apply to the landscape, it clearly has application also to our narrator.
On the surface, the book juxtaposes Rothwell’s journeys around the Middle East, covering wars for the Australian, with his account of returning to his adopted home of Darwin in 2005, after a year away, as if summoned by the images he’s kept in his head. As the movements go on, however, you realise how close the charged spaces of Australia and of the Holy Land really are. Rothwell’s Aboriginal friends cannot stop asking about the deserts of Judaea and Samaria, he tells us; those unpeopled expanses that are said to be the site of serpents, Satan’s temptations, the 40 days in the wilderness. Meanwhile, wandering around Jerusalem, Rothwell bumps into a North American monk who wants to talk about his own time in Kalumburu, in the Kimberley. He runs into a shining-faced, young Russian Orthodox nun from Boston, who has in her possession an Aboriginal painting of what she calls “The Promised Land”. Photos of the Outback start tumbling in on him, from Australian friends, as he sits in the Internet cafes of Baghdad or Syria. If his day job, so to speak, is about covering these wars, his night thoughts are about what lies far behind the events of the day, that expanse of time and space he associates with the Kimberley and the Northern Territory.
So as his explorations intensify, we begin to notice how the same few references – Kupka, the war, burning ships – keep turning up. Everywhere he goes seems to bring him to the same place. It’s almost as if he has decided to turn a telescope the wrong way round, so that a land routinely seen in terms of bright surfaces, blond lifestyles and perpetual, unhistoried newness is here shown to be old and dark. Certainly I’ve never come across a depiction of Australia so weighted with a classical, sepulchral sense of prophecy before. Asked what he saw and learned in the Middle East, our hooded narrator answers, with typical reticence, “Some things are best untold.”
Just as the story is threatening to grow too heavy, though, or become edged with gravitas, Rothwell brings us back to earth with all the tough-minded bristle and straightforwardness of the bush. If the philosopher in him is always drawn to what lies behind and beyond things, the journalist, happily, is trained to fill every sentence with specifics. Here is all the tinselly poetry and irreverence of the Outback, in a 94-year-old monk who invented “an anti-snoring device, made out of tyre rubber”, and a nun whose attempts to cook set off widespread outbreaks of food poisoning. Here are vast raintrees in which “white cockatoos were shrieking, and cavorting, and hurtling through the air” and an “antiquated Thrifty troop-carrier” with “heraldic bullbars” whose “spurs and supports curved round the wings of the vehicle, much like the reliefs that clasp medieval altars in a sheltering, protecting frame.” Long sentences give way to short, trifling details mix with premonitions, high diction is brought to low comedy and the result is a mix of strangeness and charm that leaves us fruitfully unsettled: “Another Kingswood, midnight blue, dilapidated, its trunk held closed with elasticised ties and knotted snatch-straps, drove up at this point, spewing dark clouds of particulate from its exhaust pipe. Its back seats were full of children. They waved at us enthusiastically.”
Most books of wandering devolve into mere collections of observations; the ones that really hold us, and endure, draw these observations into something like a vision, a grasping at what is larger than the events we see. In Sebald, in Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski, in VS Naipaul, every tremor and oak tree and twitch is described – but at the same time we always feel that they are, in the end, just an entrance to something much more inward and treacherous. These writers are reporting on the world, but in the process they penetrate into some private and haunted space they can’t escape.
The Red Highway stands very much in that tradition; a journey into the interior that, like all Rothwell’s books, suggests, precisely by seeming impersonal and conjuring up familiars and alter egos at every turn, that underneath its surfaces it is telling an intensely personal story, with the highest stakes. The memories that come back to the narrator of his childhood above the Rhine are shocking and largely unsought. The monks and nuns he meets keep reminding him that the world we see and take to be ‘real’ is in fact just a passing show and that the real world is something within, inescapable. When, at one characteristic moment, Rothwell drives a 12-year-old Aboriginal girl across the annihilating emptiness – playing Haydn string quartets to her and reminiscing, spellbound, about his pilgrimage to the composer’s home in Vienna – you can feel one part of yourself touched and warmed by what might be a sweetly incongruous scene from a road movie. With another part of yourself, you realise that the narrator, to our profit, is never travelling light.

The first thing that probably hits you, reading Rothwell, is the style. The paragraphs are long, sonorous, at a contemplative distance from the world, and the sentences are intricate and full of turns, shadowed, labyrinthine, like many-chambered passageways in the mind of the opium-eater De Quincey. Around everything hangs an air at once elegiac and droll, as if the narrator is always over-brooded by a certain mournfulness and yet can see the absurdity of such a stance. Words like ‘totemic’, ‘hieratic’, ‘alarming’ recur. There is an almost tangible pressure underneath the words and a pushing against the surfaces of the world. ‘Loss’ tolls like a bell across the open spaces of the prose.
All round us was red sand and bleached spinifex. On a promontory above the salt flats were old, gnarled desert oaks, trailing their windswept leaves. Bushfire smoke was rising and unfurling on the horizon; the sun came beating down. Ahead, the lake’s white, dazzling surface glittered:it was too brilliant to look at; it caught and magnified the glare. On the far shore, where the red line of dunes merged with the distance, mirages – vast, troubling likenesses of ships, or breached, decaying castles – boiled away. In the view, there was that mingling of quiet and anguish that the far deserts hold. The compulsion, too; the urge to look. Come, the landscape seemed to say: come – come closer; dissolve; let the whole world slip and go. I dragged my gaze away. I shielded my eyes.
At the same time, as that passage discloses, images keep recurring: fires purging the landscape, recalling the firestorms of World War II. The repetition of those images gives the book its special air of secrecy, as if to suggest that all of us, however little we may be aware of it, are caught in some web of hidden patterning that legislates the trajectory of our lives (combined with the high language, this contrives to give Rothwell’s works the solemn nineteenth-century air of a Melville or a Poe). At one moment, for example, a woman the narrator encounters suddenly recalls looking down when she landed in Darwin and seeing, astonishingly, “a parade of medieval knights in armour” reflected in the water. Two hundred and thirty-two pages later, at the very end of the narrative, a man who has come close to death in the jungles of Laos sees a “procession of mounted, armoured knights” as he hallucinates. A ghost ship is spotted again and again just out to sea. “There are rhymes and echoes everywhere,” as one of Rothwell’s friends says, and a priest in Jerusalem notes that he is talking of his time in the Outback only because it is “a set of symbols and resonances; a parable about finding a true path ahead.”
As the book goes on, this occult patterning makes us realise that every one of the characters that Rothwell meets, highly particular though each one is in his idiosyncratic habits and lifestyle and life story, is to some degree a reflection of the narrator. His friend Gina has a note of “inward grief or pensiveness” about her eyes, and something “otherworldly” about her, despite her involvement in real-world negotiations for the UN. The photographer Mike Gillam lives behind a latticework of eccentric defences, and, giving Rothwell a tour around his impromptu temple of found objects, notes that “everything that’s lost and cast aside in Central Australia” receives a second chance here. The spinifex expert Peter Lutz sees “life’s surface as fugitive, governed by hidden forces.”
The narrative therefore seems itself to be guided by such forces, and one registers that it is as strictly shaped and selected as a poem. In many stories of wandering, the protagonist takes us through a seemingly casual record of his days: encounters that peter out, random observations, plans that go wrong, moments that occasionally go right. In Rothwell’s work, all the excess and the banality is pared away, so that we move through a sequence of epiphanies, all of which suggest a hidden logic at the core of things. The ultimate effect is of a book that is spiritual, without much dipping into religion at all. Here – in the text and in the deep deserts – is a realm of sign and wonder, though we meet almost nothing in the way of explicit religious thinking or doctrine. A spiritual book, it tells us, is simply one that has to do with the most private, hidden things, such as loss and fear and the longing to be redeemed.
This could all seem much too portentous or freighted with meaning were it not for Rothwell’s persistent drollness and his wry mockery of his own temperament. Over and over he flies into high-pitched talk of a “wounded healer”. His guide, who knows the terrain more intimately than he, says mordantly, “I don’t know I’d be applying some spiritual grid to Finlayson.” Most of the people he meets are down-to-earth, full of the laconic ways of desert friendship, even as they go about their own unlikely pastimes and tell him not to mourn any vanished golden age (no age is golden in the moment) or not to grow too romantic about a slain kangaroo (nature feasts on renewals). Indeed, The Red Highway contrives at once to be a bravely sincere, harrowed journey into the hope for salvation among the great spaces of the bush, and a gently comical reminder that most schemes such as this are doomed at heart to fail.
This grounding mechanism has a particular power when it comes to the depiction of the narrator himself. Rothwell keeps his presence scrupulously out of the centre of the frame, and all we tend to see is a shadow leaning forward to transcribe the stories and observations of people wiser than himself. In the process, though, we come to know him, like a self-deceiving character in Ishiguro, almost entirely through the eyes of others. “You look awful,” says an old friend when encountering him suddenly. “You look half dead,” says another. In a wonderful corrective to the self-aggrandisement and mock-heroism of most such journeys (I think first and foremost of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines), this narrator is seen only in outline, being put in place by people who affectionately reproach him for his illusions, his overripe interpretations, his bedraggled look. At one archetypal point, a friend suggests a venomous snake for Rothwell. It is, he notes pointedly, “very self-contained, and full of grace.”
What this indirect procedure makes possible, as in no such book that I can remember, is a sense of powerful, sometimes overwhelming emotion, the more affecting for being pushed down. On the face of it, the narrator is a conscientious journalist, simply recording details and transcribing the talk of the people he interviews. But constantly, almost in spite of himself, something deeper and more vulnerable breaks through. Looking at a glass case full of “flat, white stones,” he confesses that he’s so close in his scrutiny that his breath fogs the glass. Going over some letters from Kupka in a library, he is quietly upbraided by an attendant because he’s smearing the pages (with his tears). Rothwell is a figure of rare and bracing learning, restraint, control and attention. But at one moment, he suddenly lets out that all his days in the Middle East were “ones of grief and emptiness,” and “I could see no pattern or path ahead in life.”
As the book rises and pushes on towards its climax, even the poison used in a local wild-dog control experiment takes us back to the German “military chemists” who came up with it, and we notice again that almost every story we hear is of a meeting with death. Tales of the old European explorers in the Outback ultimately come back to one simple, inescapable question: “how to perish, how to face death – marooned, in silence, alone.” Rothwell is clearly following in their footsteps in leaving the death zones of Iraq and Kurdistan for the “unwritten country” of the red highway, where people come “because they’re lost, or searching, or on the edge of life, and silence, and they’re chasing after some kind of pattern, some redemption they think might be lurking, on the line of the horizon, out in the faint, receding perspectives of the bush.” Like Kupka, hoping for a second life. Or the Special Ops veteran of Vietnam, at the end, who carries us into acid trips and meetings with destruction in the jungles of Indochina (soldiers, he notes en passant, routinely passed through Darwin on their way to war).
The innocent browser may, picking up The Red Highway, think it is a ‘travel book’. She couldn’t be more wrong. It is in fact a book about being shriven and broken down and brought so close to oblivion that you are released to something else. Though full of long drives into the bush, it has nothing to do with locomotion, and everything to do with being stirred and moved, carried out of the self. Nicolas Rothwell gives us huge amounts of information in his pages about warfare and nudibranchs and perenties, history from the nineteenth century and the details of Aboriginal art. He carries us higher and higher with his antique elegance and a rapt, attentive interest in everything human, vegetable and celestial that tempts one to use the almost outdated word ‘sublime’.
But the deeper he goes, the more he leaves all words behind. He leaves behind his ideas, too, his books, his romances, like the dry skin that a snake sheds in the process of remaking itself. In its final pages, going back and forth between the silences of the Red Centre and the haunted mind’s images of ghost ships coming in across the water, the narrative mounts to such a pitch of sustained epiphany that Rothwell’s questions become our own, and we recognise that mind cannot grasp – nor mouth form – them. That is another characteristic of Kupka’s that he’d introduced at the very beginning: the exile’s feeling that “Self-effacement is a form of transcendence.” When you put The Red Highway down, it may be with that rarest and most heart-shaking of sensations: you’ve travelled somewhere essential and now, not a moment too soon, you’re coming back, at last, from the dead. - Pico Iyer


The Northern Myth couldn’t make it but understands that the hot topic of the evening was the righteous outrage of ex-NT Minister Marion Scrymgour and her attacks on her own party’s recent disastrous homelands policy – which as I wrote in Crikey earlier this week has recently been overseen by Nicolas’s partner, Territory Minister for Indigenous Affairs Alison Anderson.
Anderson, to whom The Red Highway is dedicated, was accompanied to the launch by her staunch ally and fellow Minister, Malandirri McCarthy.
In The Red Highway, Rothwell, according to his publisher’s blurb:
“…has unforgettable, even mystical encounters: with a priest, an explorer, a collector and a hunter. It becomes a quest – for knowledge and a sense of home – that builds to a stunning culmination.”
Robert Desaix says that:
“Rothwell’s calm wondering at what he sees and hears on his travels left me with a feeling of enchantment.”
Others, it seems, are less than enchanted by Rothwell’s view of the life lived on the highways and backroads of the NT.
In a review in the Australian Literary Review, to which Rothwell has been a reasonably frequent contributor, Peter Cochrane damns The Red Highway with the faintest of praise.
Cochrane’s review is an exemplar of its type – fair but unstintingly and cruelly accurate.
He says that Rothwell’s book may appeal to:
“Readers who respond to a romantic, secular spirituality, who like stories laced with dream or reverie or who thrill to the idea of ‘the strange, assertive harmony of chance’…”
Cochrane nails what he sees as a fundamental flaw in The Red Highway – that Rothwell, in his search for the “truth of things” only talks to himself, or to a cohort of people that seem very much like him:
“The conversation, at times, is enjoyable to read. But the cohort does give rise to a nagging irony: surely the search for the “truth of things” in the far north must go wider than this? If wisdom resides in sameness, what is the point of travel? Is plumbing the depths of one’s own cohort as revealing as transcending those depths? Why not cast a wide net, and reach into realms and ranks, black and white, high and low, where strangeness or otherness is the spark for self-knowledge?”
The nub of his concerns is that The Red Highway contains too much “implausible nonsense”:
“The end result for this reader was distraction. I found myself wondering about the protocols of memoir — a controversial issue in recent times — and questioning the authenticity of what I was reading. I looked for endnotes that explained how such masses of conversation might have been recorded or written up, but there aren’t any.” …
“Concocting events and conversation for dramatic purposes is not on. Rothwell is too good a writer to be doing this, no matter how marginally, and certainly not in a book aiming for some sort of deep truth through the medium of conversation on the road.”

“Are the literary tricks — the polishing, the inventions, the self-mythologising — all now acceptable if they happen to lead to some deeper “mystical” truth, a truth so delicate and deep it cannot be interrogated?”

“Now, I’ve stopped at a few roadhouses in the far north over the years and I do wish that just once I might have fallen in with a crowd as eloquent, and as good at reading faces, as this.“

I haven’t had the chance to read Nicolas’s latest book yet and confess that I’ve always had some difficulty with much of what he writes.
For mine a lot of his journalism is informed by a rather naive take on politics, an emotionless “flat-white right” version of the “latte left”. And to me his long-form work – his essays and books – often seem terribly overwritten and badly in need of an editor’s blue pencil.
That said, I admire much of what he has written about art and artists, particularly Australian Aboriginal art, and have found some of this work to be impeccably researched, written with a great interpretive eye and with an obvious love and appreciation for the artists and their works.
But – back to the long red roads of the north – if you want to see and hear another view of how life is lived in and around the great (and not-so-great) roadhouses of the NT you could do no worse than to go to the wonderful series of radio programs, called On The Roadhouse, prepared for the ABC by the NT’s own Chips Mackinolty and Andrew McMillan.
In 2002, Mackinolty and McMillan jumped in a hire car and drove the highways and backroads of the NT, on a mission to:
“…sample the steak sandwiches at every roadhouse with a 24 hour wayside inn licence in the Northern Territory. Oases of food, fuel, liquid refreshments, toilet facilities, varying standards of accommodation and ubiquitous oddities, the Territory’s roadhouses are well spread out.
Along the way, we explored aspects of life in these isolated outposts, interviewing staff and travelers and gathering the sounds of the road and the weird & wonderful creatures we encountered.”

And speaking of Andrew McMillan, Peter Cochrane is not alone in his concerns with Rothwell’s accounts of his interlocutor’s words and actions.
MacMillan was one of the lucky few to make it along to the launch of The Red Highway, where Country Liberal Party stalwarts Dave Tollner, John Elferink, Peter Murphy were in attendance, as was of course Terry “the man who may soon be King” Mills, who waxed lyrical about Rothwell’s observations of country and his ear for recording conversations.
Mills told Nicolas that “I’m sorry to say it’s not you saying it, it’s what other people have said. You have been listening generously.”
Listening to the angels perhaps?
And Andrew McMillan, who, among other things, is quoted in The Red Highway extolling the virtues of Darwin’s St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Cathedral as “a temple of art and beauty” reckons he’s never set foot in the joint. - Bob Gosford


Excerpt from an interview in the magazine Australian Aboriginal Art, June 2009.:
Darwin-based author and arts writer Nicolas Rothwell is particularly known for his interest in Australian Indigenous art and culture. His fourth book, The Red Highway, follows Rothwell’s mystical and sometimes fictional journey through northern Australia, a beautiful place strangely unfamiliar to most Australians. He travels from Darwin’s beaches to deep into the Kimberley, encountering along the way a variety of local people – from an aging priest and a cattle station “queen” to artists and art centre managers. While exploring deserted coastlines, hidden towns and the vast landscapes, Rothwell discovers how both ancient and modern Australia connect to the landscape – and to himself.
Where does the title ‘The Red Highway’ come from?
The idea is to encapsulate the spirit of a book in an attractive form and to give the reader – when they step back at the end of the book – the opportunity of saying “Yes: I understand what quarry the writer was hunting [for] and what the overall scope of the book might be”. And in this case I would encourage you to think of it not in terms of anything as literal as a dirt road that is reddish in colour. I would encourage you to think in terms of blood and mortality and life and death. There are many characters [in the book] who are interested in bringing a life to its term, or escaping from or preserving life. It would be appropriate to think of the highway of the title not purely as a road, but in terms of a vein or an artery. 
Would you classify it as a travel book or a novel?
Well, it is certainly not a travel book. My feeling is that the novel as a genre has reached its term. It’s a very fluid and beautiful genre, but it’s something that is from a particular time. The literary tradition which I am emerging from and in some sense seeking to continue is the Central European one: that of the “tale” – rather than the novel – the tale as a kind of series of events that shapes and lends structure to life. For me, this is the structuring pattern of a book: the persistence or re-occurrence over time and place, and in different domains and different hearts, of similar linked emotions, and their progression. So this is certainly not a work of fact and there are elements of it that are completely fictitious, just as there are elements in it that are documentary. They are confected together like this because that’s the way they conjugated in my thoughts. I hold up the Baroque architect Borromini: it was said of him – by one of his detractors – that he loved nothing more than to make the real unreal: to make a false thing true. There is something of that aesthetic and ethical position in the books that I have been writing recently.
How do you think the landscape of Australia relates to the idea of the novel?
Australia is very much the landscape of the “tale”. And I have been inclined to regard the beauty of the tale as more important than its veracity: indeed more veridical than veracity. Fiction and form have become great concerns of mine in recent years, ever since I have been able to occupy the novel from the inside, to begin to see as a practitioner how the form works and to see what is beautiful and extraordinary about it. This experience also gradually gave me a sense that [the novel] is outmoded. What I am really driving at is a sense that the Australian landscape… well, not the part that I live in anyway…is somehow not sufficiently socialised and humanised to take the novel form. You need other ways of getting at things: other forms of connection and other structures. I always find that novels set in remote Australia are very structurally underdone, with not enough skeleton or fabric from which to hang the story. They feel somehow wrong, even the best of them. That is why in the end I have fallen back on this kind of structure, which as I say is much more “tale-like”. My point is that this isn’t some sort of structure that I have selected casually, or because of some fondness for loose structure over the rigour of a conventional novel: it has been done for particular reasons.
What was the impetus for this book? Was it something you had in mind for a while, or did it emerge through your travels?
It’s not a very opaque story. This book has a predecessor, Wings of Kite-Hawk, which presents a happier sketch of some of the same themes one encounters in The Red Highway. After I had finished that book and written other books, it happened that I went on a journey to Iraq and the Middle East for a year and a half. When I returned it seemed to me to be very important to seek to reconnect with the country I had been living in; and to go on a set of explorations into the bush and see what people I knew there might have got up to in the intervening period. That was the gestation, the beginning period of the narrative. To some extent it is a true account of that process of seeking a degree of calm, and seeking to reconnect. I guess it was written primarily for my own salvation rather than for that of the reader.
The novel talks about some of the unforgettable people you’ve met in your travels. Can you tell us about some of the artists who are mentioned?
To cast my memory back, the second chapter is essentially a portrait of a painter named Daisy Andrews, a well-known artist to whom, and to whose work, I feel very close. Through the book there is certainly a running theme: the way in which the landscape and the forces in the landscape are seen by artists from the first cultures. The cover, for example, was not chosen lightly. The artist of the painting depicted on the cover, Angelina George, is, for me, the most important artist living in Australia today. It is a great joy to have her painting on the cover, and it seems to me to say a great deal about what is going on in the book. There are parts of the book which glide over certain aspects of the Aboriginal domain, and that domain – which has its own understanding of what matters and what is power and what is beautiful – has had a lot of influence on me in the way that I think about fiction and form.


Journeys to the Interior - Nicolas Rothwell
Nicolas Rothwell, Journeys to the Interior. Black Inc., 2010.


read it at Google Books


Australia’s centre and north are a world apart from its big coastal cities. Here one finds unique natural wonders, visionary art, original thinkers and, sometimes, distilled despair and death.
In Journeys to the Interior, Nicolas Rothwell travels deep into the northern realm, combining the storytelling flair and persistence of a journalist with the imagination of an artist.
Following on from the acclaimed Another Country, this book contains haunting and perceptive portraits, of, among others, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Ian Fairweather, Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu. There are explorations of the natural world – of pythons, desert oaks and magpie geese. And there are wonderful introductions to the art and artists that bring the northern landscape to life and transform it, whether through painting, dance or photography.


I’d read a few articles by Nicholas Rothwell and was somewhat ambivalent about what I’d read. I was unsure of his political perspective on life in the NT. He’d made some good points, but often his conclusions disturbed me; this was especially true of some of his pieces on the Intervention in the Australian.
There’s nothing better than having your opinion on a writer upended. This was the case by the time I’d finished reading Journeys to the Interior, his collection of essays and musings on his journeys through the remote desert and tropical country of NT.
It was fantastic. I was hooked by the first line in the prologue where he talked about the unfolding narrative of the land. This is someone who understands the country, I thought to myself.
The book is broken up into eight sections, comprising different aspects and subject matter of life in the NT, especially that of Indigenous Australians. There is a reverence and a deep understanding in his writing. This is not to say he comes from a modernist interpretation of ‘The Noble Savage’, an interpretation that still has currency, especially amongst young alternative travellers from down south. They appear offering advice to all and sundry on how to improve things, claiming anyone who is non-Indigenous and works with Indigenous people in a mainstream setting is complicit in their cultural demise.
No, Nicholas Rothwell has spent time, lots of time, listening, watching and thinking. He is also a well read and travelled man. He brings a prestigious amount of knowledge to bear on his writing, juxtaposing European philosophy and history with Australian, especially indigenous, history and spirituality. Not, as is commonly done, to measure anything Australian against the European enterprise and in doing so find Australia lacking, when, in fact, the opposite is often true.
Some of his pieces are really thought provoking, eliciting an in-drawing of breath and quiet contemplation upon conclusion of a chapter.
‘The Language of Nature and the Language of Man’ is such a chapter. As a writer (well aspiring, no-one’s given me a contract and I have a pile of manuscripts but I feel I’m in the game), this chapter really made me think about my writing.
Rothwell claims that fiction writing is primarily a European conceit, that the creation of fictional worlds to expose, or open up for discussion, the large questions of life comes from a way of seeing the world bound up in the development of European culture, a sort of rationality entwined with the notion of narrative. He goes onto say this is antithetical to Australia, to the way the land here works, the way life here is, especially in the NT. Consequently, Australia really can’t be captured in the written form.
Now, I’ve always had sneaking, although no doubt uncool, admiration for some of the precepts of the Jindyworobak Movement and their desire for Australian Literature to ‘…portray Australian nature and people as they are in Australia, not with the “European” gaze’. But the idea that the written word itself, in any attempt to capture some essence of Australia, is doomed to failure is startling. It didn’t make me stop writing but it made me think about my writing and writing in general.
I found his piece ‘Spider’, in the ‘Sightings’ section of the book, to be absolutely fascinating. I remembered reading about the case in the NT News. The story essentially said that an old Aboriginal man, of some repute in the art world, had gone for a walk into the desert and disappeared. There was a strong sense in the article that he was very old and possibly suffering from some form of Alzheimer’s.
Rothwell tells a story of a powerful spiritual man, a man who was in touch with the spiritual world, the ancestors, in a profound way. I’m the first to admit I am not at all spiritually inclined, and in fact vehemently despise anything smelling of religion. Yet, the way Rothwell tells this tale is so believable, so logical within the Aboriginal spiritual belief system – as he explains it – that it made me want to understand something I never will.
Journeys to the Interior is a must read for anyone who’s interested in life in the NT, especially ‘the outback’. It crosses history, politics and philosophy and is an easy read. Rothwell’s prose is beautiful, he moves you effortlessly through his world, offers profound insights all the while dropping in descriptions that capture aspects of the NT without being clichéd.
Sure there are some annoying aspects to some of what he says. He states that most Australians haven’t seen much of the outback and it feels like he’s condemning people for that. What he says is true enough, but then few Australians are given the opportunity to get paid to drive around the outback, as he was. I’d love to do that but my job isn’t such that I can wrangle that sort of a deal.
But jealous quibbles aside, this book opens up the NT in ways few previous books have done. That’s not to say it’s a definitive guide – it’s not, but coupled with a few others (An Intruders Guide to Arnhem Land by Andrew McMillan, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen and The Outsiders Within by Peta Stephenson come to mind), it contributes to an understanding of a place and people whose history has long been more myth than reality for most Australians. - Rohan Wightman


Another Country

Nicolas Rothwell, Another Country,  Black Inc., 2007.
read it at Google Books


For several years now, Nicolas Rothwell has travelled the length and breadth of Northern and Central Australia. This book collects published and unpublished writing from that time. It contains sundry tales of marvellous places, told in an inimitable style. There are profiles of mystics and artists, explorers and healers, accounts of desert journeys, ground-breaking pieces on art, politics, landscape and much more.
Many of the pieces concern WA subjects, such as the Pilbara region, the Jirrawun and Tjulyuru arts movements, the Gibson Desert and more.
It is also a book which coheres into a multifaceted unity, forming a literary portrait of places and communities – at once a kind of occasional travelogue and an evocation, a set of stories, an introduction to some recent Aboriginal art and a clear-eyed account of some unfolding catastrophes.

"This book represents a substantial journalistic inquiry. It deserves to be read because it goes so far beyond the average Australian’s comprehension of their own country." — Martin Flanagan

"Subtle, elegant and disciplined." — Nicholas Jose

"Rothwell is a stylist of talent … His style seems peculiarly suited to the Territory, a place of grand hopes and failures, full of the “sweet bite” of nostalgia. His portraits of Aboriginal artists and elders have this same elegiac, haunting tone. He is acutely sensitive to the sadness in Aboriginal art …" — Stephen Gray

"Rothwell writes vividly about characters of the Outback and … picks his way deftly through the maze of small-town politics to the big picture of 360-degree horizons." — Tim Lloyd

"The astonishing thing about Another Country is not how often Rothwell is defeated by the difficulty of reconciling two radically different ways of seeing, it is how tantalisingly close he comes to pulling it off … To these accounts, Rothwell brings all his considerable descriptive and analytic skills to bear." — Geordie Williamson
22395776


Nicolas Rothwell, Heaven and Earth, Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999.


A recreation in novel form of the “year of wonders” that led to the collapse of East European communism, set within the frame of a coming of age story.


review by Silke Hesse


Photo: Andy Barclay

What Lies Beyond Us: Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture

WHAT LIES BEYOND US: Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture, NLA, October 2014.
What is the secret that hides behind the landscape? What are the half-glimpsed shadow-lines that draw us in? What mystery of energy or presence is it that we feel around us when we find ourselves alone in the bush, surrounded by the unfolding expanse of the country: plants, earth, ranges, sky, each element shaping and defining all the others. I pose these interlinked questions more as a set of soundings sent down into a formless dark than as steps on a track towards some systematic inquiry. They stand in close relationship to a different dilemma, a dilemma of political, or moral, nature – one that faces us with ever greater clarity as each fresh year in the settlement of Australia grinds on. How should we conceive of our place in the landscape of the continent we have claimed as our own: are we its custodians, masters, brokers, servants – and what is its place in our world of thought? Read more »

The mirror that creates: Australia imagined in Western eyes

This essay forms the basis of the closing address delivered at the Adelaide Festival in 2013: it was published in slightly abridged form in Meanjin the same year, vol. 72 number 2
In the green heart of Adelaide, near the centre of the lush Botanic Gardens, there stands a palazzo from the mid-nineteenth century, made of glass, German-designed, indeed German-manufactured, built in its component parts in the Hanseatic port-city of Bremen and transported in this fragmented form all the way to the southern hemisphere. It was commissioned by the keen-eyed Moritz Richard Schomburgk, the curator of the new parklands, a systematic plant collector, a man of grand ambitions, who bore a strong resemblance in both looks and cast of mind to the composer Wagner, his near-exact coeval. Schomburgk’s long apprenticeship in scientific gardening had been performed at Sans Souci, amidst the palaces and glasshouses of Potsdam: he had travelled through the wilds of British Guinea on an expedition with his older brother Robert, a celebrated explorer, and written a three-volume account of their journey: and these experiences had convinced him that the equatorial palm trees he wished to import would not be able to withstand the chill of the South Australian climate – though palms, in fact, thrive across almost the entirety of this continent. Read more »

Quicksilver: Reflections

The 2011 Madgwick Lecture, delivered at the University of New England in November
I should like to guide you through three distinct episodes in recent history: one from 18th century Europe, dominated by grand, unstable empires, one from the Australian colonial frontier of almost a century ago, and one from the central deserts, from our own time horizon. Each has its particular ironies, and its angled lessons to impart. I choose them not because I think them simple events, but because I think there is a mysterious, fearful beauty about them all. On one level, I trust that these episodes will seem to hang together as a suggestive sequence, cameos from the retreating past; on another I hope the parallels between my stories, drawn as they are from such different realms, may hint at some regularities in human affairs: and lastly, I have the dream that my examples may encourage you to turn your thoughts inwards – to gaze at the strange stillness we bear inside ourselves. Read more »

True North: An interview carried in Bookseller and Publisher

From “Bookseller and Publisher” May/June 2009, on The Red Highway and fictional form, the questions put by David Cohen
Q: The Red Highway begins with a detailed account of Czech artist Karel Kupka’s explorations in Australia’s Far North. How did you come to use Kupka’s story as a starting point for the book?
A: Kupka stands as the precursor figure at the opening of this book for a number of reasons: much in his experience seems to mirror what later artists and seekers in the landscape and amidst the societies of north Australia have found: the beauty and the grief of the life-worlds there, the air of complicity that seems to spring up around their travels, the sense of freedom to think and feel deeply, edged by a persistent conviction that the realm they aim to grasp remains elusive. Kupka, I now realize, has served me as a means to focus my own thoughts and sensations, and he has done this because of several elements in his biography that call out to aspects of my own life: he, like me, descends from Prague in Central Europe; his impossible aim is to see and appreciate remote Australia but not do harm in the act of looking and classifying; and the burden of his own being weighs on him very much. He is also a representative of a particular time, an era in the history of the modern world that seems to me to have set and determined our collective fate as a civilization. Read more »

On The Red Highway and its themes

Excerpt from an interview in the magazine Australian Aboriginal Art, June 2009
Darwin-based author and arts writer Nicolas Rothwell is particularly known for his interest in Australian Indigenous art and culture. His fourth book, The Red Highway, follows Rothwell’s mystical and sometimes fictional journey through northern Australia, a beautiful place strangely unfamiliar to most Australians. He travels from Darwin’s beaches to deep into the Kimberley, encountering along the way a variety of local people – from an aging priest and a cattle station “queen” to artists and art centre managers. While exploring deserted coastlines, hidden towns and the vast landscapes, Rothwell discovers how both ancient and modern Australia connect to the landscape – and to himself. Read more »

Science and sceptics shrink Darwin’s big idea

By Nicolas Rothwell. First published in the Australian Literary Review, February 4th 2009. It also appears in The Best Australian Essays: A ten year collection, published by Black Inc, April 2011
Charles Darwin’s emotional trajectory and intellectual legacy reconsidered from Darwin on the bicentennial of his birth
Early in the morning of January 12, 1836, the young naturalist Charles Darwin, on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Beagle, caught his first glimpse of Sydney Harbour and the fledgling colony of New South Wales. He expected wonders: but what he saw, as he wrote that day in his diary, was a level landscape, “bare and horizontal strata of sandstone, covered by woods of thin, scrubby trees that bespoke useless sterility”. Darwin was close to his 27th birthday and fresh from the Galapagos Islands, his mind brimming with rich, strange impressions, an instinct for pattern and order coming alive inside his heart.Read more »












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