Well! What to say about Alexis Wright’s teeming The Swan Book? How about some history? While reading a little (more) about Sydney’s early colonial history recently, I learned black swans lived in and around Sydney waterways, including Sydney Harbour, when the English landed in 1788. Journals written at that time spoke of twenty to thirty black swans flying regularly over Sydney Cove until, presumably, they were shot for food or, in some cases, sent back to England as natural curiosities. Swans were also seen in numbers in both coastal and inland lagoons, as well as along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River at foot of the Blue Mountains.
Sadly, you won’t see them in these places today; you need to go west of the ranges to find any. It is a reminder that the natural imbalance for Aboriginal people is no future dystopia at all—things have been out of whack for over two hundred years already, since the first settlement at Sydney Cove. Driven out of their natural habitats, it was the Sydney Cove swans I pictured when reading about the giant flock that follows the protagonist Oblivia around in wildly imaginative The Swan Book.
And what a wild ride itis! The ‘story’, such as it is, is centred on Oblivia, a mute young woman pulled out of the hollow of a tree after being gang-raped by a group of Aboriginal ‘boys’ who are high on the sniffing of petrol and glue. It is no coincidence she cannot speak; she is another Aboriginal voice silenced. It is Bella Donna of the Champions, the European climate-change refugee (‘invader’), who finds her. Together they live on a rusty old hulk located in the swamp that was once a lake in the far north of Australia. The army has control, and Aborigines have been rounded up and moved in.
This post climate change dystopia is a disturbing future world in which weather events are wild and about-face. Cities are prone to flooding; cyclones regularly occur at southern latitudes; in short, the old balance has been thrown out, and there’s no doubt who is at fault:
Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.
Bella Donna brings to Oblivia stories of European swans, and soon a flock of black swans arrive at the swamp and become Oblivia’s totem. They follow her south when she is taken by the flashy Warren Finch, the half-caste Aboriginal ‘saviour’ who has risen to become the vice-President of the Republic of Australia, and who needs a wife to take the step up to President. He grew up in the nearby Brolga Nation, and Oblivia is his promised wife. As soon as they depart south, he has her homeland swamp demolished.
Bella Donna also brought the story of her voyage from European wastelands, comparing it to Icarus’s flight. Icarus’s feathers melted because he did not heed the warnings of his father. And this ‘dreaming’ is a forewarning of what is to come in The Swan Book, the sense of people not listening to their elders. In describing myna birds, Wright laments:
From a safe distance, you could hear these birds swearing at the grass in throwback words of the traditional language for the country that was no longer spoken by any living human being on the Earth. … You had to hear these sooth-saying creatures creating glimpses of a new internationally dimensional language about global warming and changing climates for this land. Really listen hard to what they were saying.
The myna birds spew up some English that ‘you would have heard used to try to defeat lies in this part of the world. Just short words like Not true.’
There is a loose electricity in Wright’s story-telling, fusing styles, tenses, high and low registers, first and third-person points-of-view with varying degrees of ‘closeness’, left-field similes/metaphors, and numerous references to swans from other works. And it’s all underpinned by the Aboriginal belief system. Here’s an example:
Somebody had eye-witnessed the lake bubbling from tug boats mix-mastering the water with their propellers, whisking it like a spritzer and putrefying all the dead ancient things rising to the surface, spraying it around like the smell of eternity. No wonder the local people, the traditional owners and all that, were too frightened to go back to the lake anymore. They had heard stories – bad stories about what happened to anyone who went back there.
For the most part this energy is infectious, although I was occasionally somewhat bemused/lost, particularly in the overly long opening chapter (70-odd pages), in which I sometimes felt like a mouse spinning in the loop of Wright’s wheel but not going anywhere. Maybe this was maybe intentional on her part; maybe faced with the so-called greatest moral challenge of our time we are all, at the moment, spinning our wheels. In any event, after this chapter, when Warren Finch appears on the scene, the prose gains traction, repetition dissolves, and the bight of Wright’s razor-sharp teeth digs in.
It is a very political book. Wright skewers all sorts, such as the canaries repeating what they hear on talk-balk radio, and the many policies and practices aimed at ‘improving’ Aborigines. The ‘closing the gap’ mantra is given short-shrift, as is the policy of intervention in remote Aboriginal communities, and ‘moving forward’ as part of Aboriginal empowerment. The satire at times is very black, the rage seething. Although necessary, it is uncomfortable. Rich non-Indigenous Australians learn ‘about poverty by not being poor themselves’, and are oppressors ‘capable of slipping down to the bottom of a fetid well to destroy whoever got in the way of their success.’
Wright also points to difficulty of singling out one Aboriginal person to speak for all Aboriginal peoples. This is what she says of Bella Donna’s arrival into the swamp land:
… she came to live out her last days among the poorest people in a rich land. … Another Eden. A place where hunger and death were commonplace to its elders, the landowners who knew that they were a social-science experiment with a very big cemetery. A small place where sometimes things got so bad when the swamp’s little gang of brain-damaged, toxic-fume-sniffing addicted kids ruled, that parents asked only for one moment of peace. … People were … gambling about the Messiah. … Messiahs come and go, usually in the form of academic researchers, or a few chosen blacks and one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people and sucking-dry government money bureaucrats.
I love the way Wright inserts traditional language words into the text when we’re in the swamp, but removes them when we get to the southern city, as if it has no place there. And how could it when buildings reach into the sky like giant fingers ‘that had come out of the ground to orchestrate the heavens’? Indeed, so out of place does Oblivia feel that when she sees people lay on the concrete paths with their ears to the ground, she assumes they are listening for the stories underneath, but they are actually listening for the tidal surges coming in through the sewer system below the city.
For all this, there are moments of great humour (the fitting of Oblivia’s wedding dress is a hoot), and great beauty, even in the swamp, where a crescent moon’s light ‘rode silver saddles on the backs of hundreds of black swans huddling around the hull with necks tucked under their wings…’
The sense of the magical is never far away. At one point Oblivia ‘thought that she was in the sky, flying, … she and the swans were caught in the winds of a ghost net dragged forward by the spirits of the country.’ Elsewhere, the ‘Harbour Master’, a larger-than-life guru of the swamp, comes and goes like a ghost. There is a lot of talk about ghosts in the novel, about spirits. Some people have used the term ‘Aboriginal Realism’ rather than ‘Magical Realism’ to describe Wright’s style, because they feel the former reflects the realism inherent in Aboriginal belief systems. While that is true, saying Magical Realism lacks grounding in reality misunderstands its use of magic in much the same way. Nevertheless, I quite like Aboriginal Realism as a term. It feels right (perhaps Wright?) to describe Wright’s story telling.
In statistics a ‘black swan event’ is something so outside our experience or comprehension it is impossible to believe (and therefore predict). The terms was coined for the surprise of finding black swans in New Holland (Australia) by the Dutch, an event depicted in the novel, because it was assumed prior to that that all swans must be white. (As a fan of the Sydney Swans AFL team, I’ve always found it curious the team’s swan is white rather than black. And yes, I know our colours are red and white, but this is an Australian team not an English one, and I’d very much like to see a black swan appear on the team’s outfits in future. It’s perhaps a measure of how European views persist. Maybe I should start a petition!)
Anyway, what is of no surprise, and in no way a black swan event, is The Swan Book. We should have expected such a thing to spring from the mind of one of our very best story tellers. Possessing old wisdom, and rife with global resonance, it may well see Wright add a second Miles Franklin Award to her list of accolades. I just wish some of those old-soul black swans could once again fly over the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour (and maybe roost on the Swannies’ jersey!). Both would be a welcome sight.
Alexis Wright is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). The talk she is giving on The Swan Book is free, so I better get there early!
If you would like to read more erudite thoughts on The Swan Book than mine, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers, and Jane Gleeson-White’s at the Sydney Review of Books.
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)