FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

A Story for the Anthropocene

“An alien planet” – “old and strange as the moon” – “like arriving on a different planet” – “red and dry and hot.” Australia’s burning.

Kate Thompson’s novel is called Provenance, a tricky term both authenticating art as private property for the auction houses and the collectors’ circuits and a term related somehow to human origins and everything else. Who and what exactly is on the auction block? Not the desert. Perhaps the planet.

It’s explained that as a kardiya (non-indigenous) person and you go to work in an Australian Aboriginal community you’re either a missionary, mercenary, or misfit. Twice the England-born doctor, Elliot by name, afflicted by nose-bleed, goes into “country,” a misfit. His anxieties and fears are neither assuaged by possessiveness nor reduced by money. They leave him angry and untrusting of his companions, the yapa people or Warlpiri, who can find their way around the desert. Nevertheless, Elliot, this whitefella, is open to “the intangible essence of the land.” Even if he doesn’t know it, it knows him. Mulga, ghost-gum, saltbush, spinifex, dingo, the song of the butcher bird, the meat of the goanna, and – at last! – water from the jila.

The first time Elliot enters “country” it is with an art-hunting collector. The second time it is with Luke, an Aboriginal man who once worked the gold mines in Kimberley, and now takes it upon himself to teach a couple adolescent kids “in language” traditional indigenous “law” and “ceremony” by taking them thousands of kilometers into the deserts of northern Australia. He’ll clean up their insides with bush tucker. What’s “middle of nowhere” to Elliot turns out to be sacred homeland to Luke. Naïve, isolated, childless, and unprepossessing, Elliot is uncertain politically and romantically vulnerable, but he’s also a good doctor at the edge of … what? civilization? neo-liberalism? capitalism? the city? Actually, all of these, where people behave like steamrollers. On the other side of that edge people believe that “Money is for everyone” and act as though automobiles were common property. Something numinous, the holy shivers, touches Elliot.

A small and precious particle of erotic energy leads to one thing then another – a glance, a bargain, a troopy, and an expedition that leads to near baptism with a skin name and to a skull-
fracturing disaster: a collision that compresses tens of thousands of years of human cultures into incomplete memories, dreams from the hospital bed, fragmentary thoughts from a brain recovering, signs painted on rocks, lines and dots painted on canvases – this is aboriginal dreamtime transferred with acrylic into the high class art market, all for the clamorous racket of private property, ego-centrism, and the money fetish. The novel moves harmoniously switching between the tale of the wounded doctor doing good amid vicious, humbugging structures to the dreams, memories, and visions of a recovering person longing for redemption.

Psychologically subtle with an array of interesting children, women, and men, philosophically unpretentious and ever faithful to the locale, this is a thrilling read, a human story for the anthropocene. It explains jukurrpa, that dancing, signing, and sacred inseparability between self and land.

The tone of the book is far from nostalgic. The yapa and the whitefellas strain against each other like a tug of war, in town and in wild country, yet this is not a book of pure identities. Elliot returns to the practice of medicine yet “still roaming with the dingoes on the other side of the dog fence.”

It might be usefully read in conjunction with what Mary Watkins writes in her book Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons (Yale, 2019) who shows other subjectivities than missionary, mercenary, or misfit. Watkins quotes Aboriginal activists, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

More articles by:

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
May 22, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Hugh Iglarsh
Aiming Missiles at Viruses: a Plea for Sanity in a Time of Plague
Paul Street
How Obama Could Find Some Redemption
Marc Levy
On Meeting Bao Ninh: “These Good Men Meant as Much to Me as Yours Did to You”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Shallò: 120 Days of COVID
Joan Roelofs
Greening the Old New Deal
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Still Matters
Charles Pierson
Is the US-Saudi Alliance Headed Off a Cliff?
Robert Hunziker
10C Above Baseline
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
The Fed’s Chair and Vice Chair Got Rich at Carlyle Group, a Private Equity Fund With a String of Bankruptcies and Job Losses
Eve Ottenberg
Factory Farming on Hold
Andrew Levine
If Nancy Pelosi Is So Great, How Come Donald Trump Still Isn’t Dead in the Water?
Ishmael Reed
Alex Azar Knows About Diabetes
Joseph Natoli
Will Things Fall Apart Now or in November?
Richard D. Wolff
An Old Story Again: Capitalism vs. Health and Safety
Louis Proyect
What Stanford University and Fox News Have in Common
Pete Dolack
Work is Inevitable But its Organization is Not
David A. Schultz
America and the Rise of the Chinese Century
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Fears the Nakba: How Memory Became Palestine’s Greatest Weapon
Heather Gray – Jonathan King
Coronavirus and Other US Health Threats? Fund Public Health Not Foreign Wars
Brian Cloughley
Don’t Be Black in America
Kenn Orphan
A Pandemic and a Plague of Absurdity
Matthew Stevenson
Our Friend Eugene Schulman
Richard C. Gross
The Man Who Cried Wolf
Ron Jacobs
Road Trippin’
Robert P. Alvarez
A Simple Solution for the Coronavirus Crisis in Prisons
Aadesh Ravi
The Long March of the Locked-Down Migrants
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Proliferation of Conspiracy Theories & the Crisis of Science
Nilofar Suhrawardy
The Other Side of Covid-19
Binoy Kampmark
Battles Over Barley: Australia, China and the Tariff Wars
Cesar Chelala
Donald Trump can Learn Something from Mao Zedong’s Mistakes
Nicky Reid
The New New Cold War is Pretty Much the Old New Cold War
Dave Lindorff
As Republicans Face November Disaster, Efforts to Undermine Social Security Mount
Gaither Stewart
Remembrances of Meeting Cult Novelist Andrzej Kusniewicz in Warsaw
Gary Olson
“No. It’s Capitalism, Stupid.”
Jesse Jackson
The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education
Phil Knight
Wilderness and Recreation: an Uneasy Partnership
Alicia Salvadeo – Carolyn Pandolfo
No Bernie, Delegates Won’t “Turn Down the Volume”!
George Wuerthner
Massive Logging Putsch Planned for Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Forest
Laura Finley
The Peace Sign: A Safe Greeting and Sign of Victory over COVID!
Bernie Horn
To Save Lives, and Democracy, We Need to Vote by Mail
Dean Baker
Can You Make Stagnating Incomes Go Away? The NYT Wants You To…
Christopher Brauchli
Great Minds Think Alike: From Trump to Bolsonaro
Sophie Jones
Mutual Aid in Queens Amidst COVID-19
Jimmy Centeno
A Memoir of Time and Place: Margaret Randal’s “I Never Left Home”
David Yearsley
Corona Carpenter
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail