The Riddle of the Index

Simon Ryan reviews Subverting the Empire: Explorers and Exploration in Australian Fiction by Paul Genoni

© all rights reserved

The ‘riddle’ of Australian geography was never satisfactorily solved for European settlement. Having constructed the centre of Australia as the realm of an inland sea or lost civilization or great river leading to the ‘Indies’, Europeans were faced with an absence of a spectacular resolution to a self-imposed question. ‘Nothing’ was the mysterious and unsettling, and of course wrong answer to the question of what lay inland. Australian culture lives with this legacy of puzzled disappointment that began with the journals of explorers and resonates through more recent writing.

Subverting the Empire begins by tracing the European pre-discovery myths about a southern continent and then continues to provide a broad and very useful overview of the journals of the explorers. Rightly emphasizing the importance of the early explorer John Oxley, Genoni notes that travellers like Oxley often had difficulty describing the country through which they journeyed. ‘I cannot begin to describe’ became a common refrain in the journals of Oxley and others, to the frustration of the Colonial Office. Explorers were subsequently encouraged to become a little more linguistically adventurous and their journals became the place to cement one’s literary as well as geographical reputation.

The journals of Thomas Mitchell and Charles Sturt that display these literary ambitions are underplayed in Subverting the Empire, but there is an insightful account of Edward Eyre’s journal. Recording his journey across the arid coastal regions of South Australia, Eyre attempts to fashion a reputation for pitting stoic heroism against a merciless environment; however, the practical outcomes of the trip were known by Eyre to be next to non-existent before he set out. The idea of a journey for its own sake, then, emerges quite early in Australian exploration. The first two chapters work towards the culmination of this idea in the journals of self-conscious and historically aware Ernest Giles, and then continue by noting the late nineteenth century efflorescence of ‘lost explorer’ novels, which, through imaginary discoveries of inland seas or civilizations, offer some imaginary solace for the ‘nothingness’ that was this apparent fruit of inland exploration.

The real purpose of Genoni’s book makes itself felt in the subsequent chapters. After noting that Patrick White’s Voss has had a somewhat inhibitory effect on the incorporation of explorers in Australian fiction, Subverting the Empire shows that the theme of exploration has nevertheless been a presence in recent white Australian writing. Works by Thea Astley, Gerald Murnane and Rodney Hall are explored (if one may use that metaphor) for the ways in which the themes of exploration, mapping and the geography recur. Genoni perceptively winnows out a few commonalities in each of the authors. None of their works reproduce the confident, panoptic explorer of the nineteenth century. In discussing Astley’s The Slow Natives and An Item from the Late News Genoni insightfully demonstrates that the emptiness the characters discover is psychological rather than geographical aridity. Faces are maps of disappointment or travail in Astley’s writing, as the environment writes itself on the visage of its settler inhabitants. In Murnane’s writing the quest is more clearly into the intricacies of the mind of the characters than a geographical journey. The failure to find a centre to the land is often a failure to find a centre to one’s white Australian identity, a well-established trope for this literature of misplaced, metaphysical journeying.

When a form of exploration does take place in Astley’s An Item from the Late News, it is a parody of traditional exploration, as the unwilling leader/guide, Wafer, has already found his home and has no idea how to direct the group whose greed drives them. Genoni, in contrast, acts as a splendid guide through his explication of the writing; the section on Murnane’s novel The Plains is as clear an exposition of the novel and of the philosophical debate at its heart as it is possible to have. He also brilliantly shows how Rodney Hall’s The Second Bridegroom is an extended meditation on the explorer as author, on the role of language in discovery and on the extravagant egotism of pretending to ‘discover’ and ‘name’ a land that has stood for countless ages. The three chapters dealing with Astley, Murnane and Hall are entirely successful in drawing out issues of identity and geography in their works.

However, I am not sure whether the Subverting the Empire ever really overcomes the fact that these novelists don’t fictionalize exploration. Sometimes the analysis is really stretching the thin connection between, say, travel and description in the novel, and the nineteenth century avocation of explorer. And while reviews that criticise an author for doing X when the reviewer thinks Y should have been done are odious, it seems odd to omit mention of Catherine Martin (author of the long poem The Explorers ), Francis Webb, Martin Thomas and a number of other authors who commemorate, critique or debate the role of explorers. Indeed, the exclusive focus on fiction means that arguably some of the most interesting material, the late twentieth century reconstructions of explorers’ routes (‘In the footsteps of…’) that Genoni mentions (75) are left unanalysed. If images of exploration are still circling through the national mind then an analysis of their presence in fiction is only going to capture part of the picture.

There are a few other minor issues that prevent this volume from being as useful as it might be. The index seems to have left the party and struck off in a westerly direction, never to be seen again. But otherwise this is a useful volume that continues the good work done by the ASAL publishing series.

Paul Genoni’s Subverting the Empire: Explorers and Exploration in Australian Fiction was published by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature/Common Ground in 2004. ISBN 1 86335 553 7. 262 pp.

Dr Simon Ryan teaches in Literature and Australian Studies at the Australian Catholic University, McAuley Campus, Brisbane. He is the author of The Cartographic Eye: How Explorers Saw Australia(1996).

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]