Alex Miller’s ‘Landscape of Farewell’ is the second in a loose trilogy of novels set in outback Queensland, following ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ and preceding ‘Coal Creek’. The novel opens about as far from the outback you can get, in Hamburg, where a retired German Professor of medieval history, Max Otto, is planning suicide, largely through grief at the recent death of his wife. He has a last guest lecture to deliver on ‘The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre’, an obviously fraught topic for a German citizen of the twentieth century. The lecture is a failure, we are not told why, and Max is challenged and saved by Vita (get it?) McLelland, a visiting aboriginal academic from Sydney University who takes him under her expansive wing and invites him to a reciprocal conference down under. She has plans for Max, again it is not clear why.
Vita, with all her exotic new world plumage, is a stereotype (‘fierce and uneasy lights flickered within the depths of her dark eyes’) and after playing her decisive plot role, gradually fades from the scene. To be replaced by her uncle Dougald, whom Max joins for a sabbatical up in Northern Queensland, where Miller himself worked as a jackaroo in his youth. The ‘difference’ for Max of this remote landscape is powerfully evoked.
Max is worried about what his father did during the war and his own persistent refusal to ask. Dougald needs a sympathetic scribe to memorialise the epic of his ancestor passed down through the male line, his great grandfather, the chief Gnapun, who prosecuted a massacre of white settlers. The two men from vastly different backgrounds, but with overlapping pre-occupations, connect beautifully: the subtle depiction of their maturing relationship is for me the highlight of the novel. Both, through one another, move towards a kind of closure to their life concerns; Max by articulating an empathetic formulation of a mass killing unconnected to his own background, and Dougald with Max’s emotional support being able to journey back to his ancestral lands and Gnapun’s grave.
But what does it all mean? Largely through Max, Miller continually links the Europe/Australia dichotomies. Max feels he needs to ‘face up to a denial in his own life concerning his country’s history’. Time and again he baldly states Miller’s thesis: ‘I know myself to be implicated in the guilt of both my species and my parents’. And this is only at page twenty.
A more thematic deployment of the issues is worked through a portrait of Max’s uncle with whom he spent a lonely farmhand apprenticeship during the war. Like Dougald, the uncle has a ‘blood relationship’ to his land. Unlike Dougald, he is a sinister figure, a loner, slightly mad and obsessed, a type that might well support an extreme nationalism such as Hitler’s.
The parallels continue to stack up: apology, denial, reparation, silence. The cumulative effect of all this is that after a while everything Max says explicitly or implicitly about World War Two we take as a given truth of white Australia’s relationship with black.
About two thirds of the way through, Miller presents the massacre as seen through Gnapun’s eyes in an extraordinary prose poem, which has an effect a bit like the slow movement of a classical concerto, a stretch of lyric beauty between much busyness, except the subject here is a horror. By inverting our customary idea of whites massacring blacks, it throws the moral ramifications of ‘tribal’ killing into a more objective relief. Embedded in a contemporary realistic narrative, the passage reads like a mini ‘epic’, Miller here, in a kind of literary reconciliation, employing sustained Biblical and Homeric rhetoric in the context of aboriginal folklore.
Epics, generally speaking, are not good on moral complexities, a lack abetting their solitary power. Presented in a modern novel, this heroic simplicity, entailing an elision over messy ethical issues, is for me party to a pervasive problem with Miller’s main narrative.
Can this massacre, which is basically a territorial dispute, seriously be compared with the Holocaust, and Europe’s long convoluted national and religious enmities? By so strongly linking these two very different scenarios Miller risks a moral reduction, simplification, perhaps even evasion of complex issues. And surely if we are to get any handle on these issues, perhaps move forward in resolving them, we need to be aware of their complexities and also their differences.
Max is a wonderfully realised character but I was unconvinced at the close of the novel that he had found through his Australian experience the solutions to his own national dilemmas. He certainly thinks he has, and good luck to him, but I feel the rest of us need more than simple moral ciphers, really platitudes, that here serve to undermine what is otherwise a moving story of personal reckoning.