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
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
H. Bruce Franklin
August 12-22, 1945: Washington Starts the Korean and Vietnam Wars
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
David Yearsley
Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach