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.”

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