One of the less enjoyable things about growing older is that books blow your mind less regularly. Books that explode the possibilities of the novel are rare; when they do appear, however, it is with more lasting power. For the last six years I’ve been grabbing lapels and insisting that Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria was the Great Australian Novel. With The Swan Book, she’s done something new, again.
Raised in a swamp by a stateless refugee-survivor and storyteller, Oblivia Ethyl(ene) is a damaged child, identifying mainly with the flock of black swans that inhabits her landscape of old wrecks. Indigenous political leader Warren Finch – a fantastical parody of Noel Pearson, Warren Mundine, and the stars of assimilationist politics – was fascinated by the swan girl as a boy. When he is ready to take up his leadership role he returns to the north and takes her as his promised bride. Grey areas between traditional and contemporary standards are turned to stark comedy in Wright’s fanciful, darting prose. As the pair travel to the city through a landscape of plagues, Oblivia’s mute passivity becomes endurance, survival and finally resilience. Her desire to be reunited with her swans echoes the great patience of those longing for a return to country – or indeed, the return of country.
This is not the Great Australian Novel; it is the great novel of the Federal Intervention. Despite being set in the year 2088, and the buzz of need for contemporary writing that addresses climate change, it is the political urgency of right now that gives The Swan Book its energy. This is where it finds its power as a great book of exile.
That power is sometimes dry: ‘The military intervention was seen as such an overwhelming success in controlling the Aboriginal world it blinded awareness of the practical failures to make anyone’s life better’.
It is sometimes farcical: ‘They were also anti-truancy, anti-consultation, anti-others, anti-urban, city blacks, mix-bloods etc, just as much as they were anti-racists, anti-anyone black, white or whatever and from wherever else speaking on their behalf…and they were anti about whatever there was to be anti about if white people say so, and even if they seemed to be just a bunch of negative people, or uncle Toms, or coconuts…’
It is also at times despairing: ‘The trouble of being micro-managed by the government with intervention this, and intervention that, until passivity breeds the life out of you and you may as well be dead’.
Wright does not let up. It’s the politics that some readers will find discomfiting, I suspect. But, if you happen to agree with her insider’s (piss)take on Indigenous Affairs, the relentless roller-coaster is wonderfully therapeutic.
The wonder doesn’t depend on agreement, though. There is much beauty between these pages, sudden gusts and floods of it. Wright’s voice is wry, involved, talkative and playful, slipping weirdly between registers and tenses. She does not hesitate to pluck twigs of swan stories from every tradition and work them into this nest: poetry, song and folktales from China, France, and Adelaide; Rilke and Baudelaire and Hank Williams and the swan-bone flutes of Palaeolithic Europe. Sometimes this concatenation of swans can feel excessive but it is how Wright builds, from fragments, and the cumulative effect of swan-ness gives the book another, more authoritative, authorship in myth.
And so the women turn into birds and the birds turn into women. Swan maidens refer to survivors and their swan cloaks to the reclamation of the body after rape; there is Leda and the Swan; there is the awful ordinariness of childhood violence rendered as a bloody poetry. The writing shimmers, as Carpentaria shimmered. It is startling and confusing and somewhat feral. It belongs to a world where landscapes have drastically altered and human conflicts seem stuck in an increasingly absurd battle for land, complete with occupation and policing of borders.
Here, too, is survivor’s guilt and shame, as Oblivia leaves her country and travels to the city, experiencing the exile of cultural loss and displacement, the sweet and sour mixture of success and failure that attends leaving a community in the throes of government-sponsored dysfunction. She is insane, unique and magical; at the same time, there are a hundred boarding-school kids just like her.
In a recent n+1 editorial much was made of the collapse of ‘world literature’ radicalism in the 1980s. Wright is either very late to the party or has started her own. It feels like more of a wake. Like Midnight’s Children-era Rushdie, The Swan Book shocks with possibility but unlike his work Wright’s does not strive for some illusion of acceptable universality. It is an adaptive hybrid, unashamedly situated. Slipping easily between myth and reality, constantly engaged in the contested politics of its own identity, it offers a way forward for the leached political power of the magical real.
This slippery storyteller’s voice reminds me of reading Patrick Chamoiseau, or even early Toni Morrison for the first time – it blows through your head like the wind. Indeed, Wright’s work speaks more from a black literary tradition than it does from an Australian one, and arguably from a global South – the secret South that parts of Australia inhabit.
In her bower of cultural borrowing there is also a reclamation or a remixing of language. Waanyi words, from a language under threat, are not peppered or sprinkled but part of the bones of the story, lending their strength to the urgency of loss. Just as importantly, another English is claimed as Wright constantly takes the piss out of the language of the Aboriginal industry and government bureaucracy: Closing the Gap, the Intervention, and the realities of traumatic passivity are thrown again and again into ridicule. It is not English or Waanyi that are endangered by the circumstances of colonisation but meaning itself.
The patois and puns do not come along to dissolve or displace Wright’s rage but to give proper voice to it; it’s a wonderful marriage of form and content. This is a strategy employed more often in poetry than fiction. Wright is the link between the European expressionism of James Joyce and the radical reclaiming of Lionel Fogarty. Her language is deeply destabilising.
The novel of exile remains a novel of empathy. The Swan Book’s synthesis is a project, ultimately, of finding a way home, even in the too-lateness of climate disaster, even when home is a thing destroyed. No national literature can address this post-national problem. Here, the weave becomes knotted between Indigenous and asylum-seeker struggles and this knot becomes a global tangle in a world where everyone is a displaced person attempting to survive. Despite its teeming wildness and overgrowth, The Swan Book is cunningly made. The will to resilience is finally shown to be inseparable from the core meaning of belonging to landscape, however spoiled.
With a new government already dead keen on displacement and intervention, and a promise of more brutal resource grabs that will visit further trauma upon people and landscape, it is Wright’s radical refusal to take the whole ridiculous idea of Australia seriously that Australia most needs right now. The Swan Book is that rarest of birds: an urgent and necessary work of fiction.