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Stolen paradise

Print edition : Sep 01, 2001 T+T-

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale; Hamish Hamilton, London, 2000; pages 462, 15.99 (hardback)

WHEN the Olympic Games rode into Sydney, last September, it was not just the glitzy new facilities or the brilliance of the sporting spectacle that captured world attention. Before the eyes of the crowds soaking up the spring sunshine, in the full gaze of the international media, thousands of aboriginal people materialised to put across a message more compelling than that of high-stake competitive athletics.

The protesters - representative of 430,000 dispossessed and marginalised people, the wretched of Australia's earth - drew attention not only to their current plight in a land of plenty, but also to a record of abuse reaching back two centuries. Driven off their land, robbed of their hunting and other traditional forms of livelihood, corralled into dismal 'settlements', decimated by disease, trapped in poverty, joblessness and despair, denied even the right to raise their own children by successive governments bent on practising policies of forced assimilation, the aboriginal people of Australia - so the protesters made clear - had had enough.

The events at the Sydney Olympics took place in the context of a gathering movement of national outrage and atonement involving broad sections of the Australian society. On May 28, a quarter of a million Australians of all ethnic backgrounds had marched across the Sydney Harbour bridge to acknowledge the injustices of the past and demand a change in policies. The message was repeated at a series of mass rallies held across the country, involving concerned Australians in large numbers (Frontline, September 29, 2000).

Among the demonstrations, there took place on July 23, 2000, a 'Reconciliation Walk' involving some 50,000 Tasmanians. As elsewhere, the participants were drawn from a range of ethnic backgrounds. But there were no aboriginal Tasmanians on the march. And for a very good reason: aboriginal Tasmanians no longer exist. By the mid-19th century, they had vanished from the face of the earth, victims of a genocide every bit as calculated and relentless as subsequent activities at Auschwitz.

HOW to tell the story of this small, quiet slice of humanity as, step by inexorable step, it was driven down the path of final solution? How to capture the many dimensions of its progress towards obliteration: the inputs of colonial policy-makers in distant places; the rationales provided by religious proselytising and 'master race' pseudo-science; the on-the-spot decisions taken by administrators, soldiers, clergy and other figures of authority in a time of heady, seemingly unstoppable colonial expansion?

Historians can take us some of the way, salvaging the past from archival and other written sources and reconstructing it within a framework of meaning. They can penetrate a barrier of silence, enabling distant voices to reach us across time. And historians conscious of the need to counter the hidden bias of the written record - its tendency to reflect and perpetuate the perspective of the rich and the powerful - will make a special effort to disinter the voices of the powerless and the forgotten and the defeated, as did E.P.Thompson in his epic study, The Making of the English Working Class.

But what to do when a whole chorus of voices from the past is irretrievably lost to us? Tasmania's aboriginal people did not write down the language they spoke; they were long gone before the advent of recording technology and notions of oral history. Who they were; how they lived their lives; how they perceived themselves and the world about them; how they viewed the demolition of their community and universe by aliens armed with sticks of fire and how they dread diseases: such questions can never be answered beyond the domain of conjecture and historically informed imagination.

This is why Matthew Kneale's extraordinary and powerful new novel, English Passengers, succeeds where a historical study might well make limited headway. The defining - and audacious - feature of the novel, which won last year's Whitbread Book of the Year award, is its attempt to retrieve a voice from historical perdition, to fashion from memory, possibility and imagination a means by which aboriginal Tasmanians can speak again.

FOR Kneale, who read modern history at Oxford and has published three previous novels, this determination shapes the structure of his enterprise. In place of a conventional narrative offered in the third person or by a single narrator, English Passengers unfolds its story through a jigsaw of voices, a throwing at the reader of different viewpoints and experiences from different moments in the past. Confusion is avoided by sparing the reader guesswork: each speaker is identified by name, position and year at the start of his or her contribution to this jigsaw of sound. There is also a strong narrative line - an ocean voyage - which acts to bind voices together and push the story forward. The result is an intricate dialectic of contending wills and viewpoints, an expose of the reality of colonial conquest in all its vainglory, delusions of high moral purpose and pernicious, life-destroying fallout.

Kneale's reliance on his cast of voices is crucial because - in contrast to the hierarchy and trampling instincts of empire - it establishes a level playing field of sorts. In the novel, rough equality is established between the various contributors to the debate; no side is silenced, nor is there a detached third person voice to intervene with 'perspective'. In this free-ranging debate, one player emerges to occupy centre stage. This is Peevay, an aboriginal Tasmanian, whose story, covering the years from 1824 to 1858, captures the complexity - the puzzlement, the terror, the defiance, the defeated hopes - of an ancient people judged to be expendable ethnographic curiosities standing in the path of progress.

For Kneale, the challenge lies in establishing the plausibility of Peevay as a witness for his people and in finding for him a voice, authentic for its time and place yet able to communicate to a contemporary audience. In a note at the start of the book, the writer explains his intention "to portray someone intelligent and interested in words, who is from a culture wholly remote from that of white men but has been educated by them, absorbing English phrases, both formal and informal, that were common in the 1830s. He does not sound like a modern mainland Australia aboriginal speaker, nor is meant to: my hope was to depict a particular character from this distant time."

PEEVAY speaks to us through a form of English all his own: shot through with archaic words and cadences, peppered with profanities acquired from foul-mouthed sailors and convict-settlers, yet thoroughly poetic in its instincts and suffused with a sense of delight in language. The following passage, in which Peevay recollects the first time he sets eyes on 'ghosts (white men), gives a flavour of it:

'Then twigs were breaking, telling us this something coming was clumsy. In fact it was three somethings. No, I had never seen creatures so strange, I do recollect. They were the shape of men but only this. Their skin was not like skin at all but was the colour of stone, and loose, so it flapped. Even their feet were ugly, too big and with no toes. Worst, though, was their faces. These were coloured like raw meat, with no alive look in them. Up they walked through the rain, which was getting very heavy now, so that it made the trees clap. They stopped when they saw the fire and meat, but then they ran towards it, very fast and grabbing.' (p.54)

Not only is this distinctive voice sustained across the course of the novel, bit by bit the reader (or rather listener) comes more deeply under its spell. Peevay's language, with its idiosyncrasies and favoured turns of phrase ('heinous', 'piss-poor', 'white scut', 'cherishings'), soon sheds its strangeness; we come to embrace its rhythms, to rely more and more on its implicit honesty, its striving to see reality for what it is.

In contrast, the voices from the 'other side' - the fraternity of white 'ghosts' bent on the destruction of Peevay and his people - resound with pomposity and self-delusion. These are people, suggests Kneale, so caught up in the madness of empire that they have forfeited essential human qualities - the capacity for self-critical awareness, the ability to look at the world, to question and think.

The two dominant voices from the imperialist camp ostensibly stand on opposing sides of a great 19th century debate. In one corner is the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, a small-time preacher seeking to leave his mark on posterity through an expedition to establish Tasmania as the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. In the other is Dr Thomas Potter, a 'scientist' whose rejection of religious creationism has led him to the further reaches of social darwinism and sinister racial stereotyping. For all their feuding, the two foes are shown to be locked into a grotesque mutual dependence: in a physical sense by the long sea voyage to the antipodes, at a more profound level by their shared reliance on make-belief, their resolve to twist the world to fit their absurd hypotheses.

A wonderfully sardonic commentary on the antics of the pair is provided by the captain of the ship charged to carry them from England to Australia. Kneale's masterstroke here is to have the captain himself an outsider with a well-founded grudge against his empire-fuelled English passengers. Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley is a Manxman, a resident of the Isle of Mann positioned in the Irish Sea midway between England and Ireland. Like Peevay in Tasmania, Kewley and his fellow islanders are survivors of English economic and cultural predatoriness; their ancient Celtic language has been largely stamped out, but remnants live on a in a feisty patois (Kneale includes an instructive glossary at the end of the book). In the hands, or rather voices, of Kewley and his Manx crew, language becomes a ruse by which small people can trip up ungainly Goliaths, a weapon by which little victories can be achieved and life safeguarded for another day: captain and crew do make it safely home.

For Peevay, lone survivor of his tribe by the novel's end, there too seems at least a glimmer of a future. He discovers a tiny enclave of fellow-survivors, like himself the children of aboriginal Tasmanian women raped and enslaved by European convict-settlers. Perhaps they can preserve elements of their ancient society, carry something of its flavour and richness forward for future generations.

But then with a chill it strikes you. As part of the forced assimilation policies that reigned in Australia from the 1890s to the 1970s, roughly one in three aboriginal children would have been forcibly removed from their parents and carried away to white-run missions, white foster homes and state institutions. Especially targeted were children whose lighter skins denoted a European ancestor.

For Peevay and his people there was no road into the future, the genocide was total. Our loss is immeasurable. Such is the message of this magnificent novel.