Looking back, Australian author Robert Drewe’s first novel, ‘The Savage Crows’, seems somewhat of an odd debut for a writer whose subsequent career has been largely that of a contemporary social satirist or commentator (‘Our Sunshine’ notably aside). Half this book is contemporary social satire, that is, of the 1970s, and for those who can remember, these mordantly observed scenes are sharp and funny, if inevitably somewhat dated (particularly the portraits of women). The specificity of the detail, much of which would be lost on present readers, makes them feel autobiographical, and since our protagonist, Stephen Crisp, shadows Drewe’s own adolescence and early manhood, one assumes for the most part they are.
What is odd is how Crisp’s story is interspersed, presumably for contrast and comparison, with a freely bowdlerised version of the 1830s journals of George Augustus Robinson, the so-called ‘protector’ of the Tasmanian Aborigines, who with Governor Arthur’s warrant, roamed the State rounding up tribes and individuals prior to them being shipped off to Flinders Island where almost all perished through neglect. The two worlds portrayed here are worlds apart, to put it mildly. Is that the point, or part of it? Are there connections to be made and conclusions to be drawn?
We’ll start with the Journals. What initially strikes a reader in 2018, or this reader, is that how the way Drewe has treated this material would hardly be possible were he writing the novel today, or more accurately, he would not think to approach his material in this way. Drewe states in his preliminary author’s note: ‘I have allowed myself great freedom of imagination in reconstructing some 19th century events’. He has; not that anything seems falsified, on the contrary, but in fictionally animating such presently revered historical Aboriginal figures such as Manna-largenner (here Drewe steers close to caricature), and others such as Truganini and Wooraddy (Drewe’s spelling for these), as a middle-class white writer, Drewe is out of line. Even the great Thomas Keneally has recently commented on ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’ that today he would not write Jimmy’s character ‘from within a black consciousness’. Personally, I find it regrettable that he might look askance, if that’s what he is doing, at such fine work.
But then perhaps we shouldn’t beat our breasts too much about all this, particularly when we recall that throughout history writers have rarely been free to write what they fancy and are usually able to invent creative solutions circumventing various censors. Directly defying the strictures of identity politics might at most incite a social media damning, which would not be pleasant (would future loss of funding be offset by sales?), but it would not send a writer to prison.
Anyway, Drewe’s historical pastiche is done with great skill, and despite much of the grim subject matter, considerable humour. One occasionally knows when reading Robinson and when reading Drewe, but the transitions are seamless. Drewe is presenting these ‘historical’ journals, I believe, with the (now disputed) contention that Australian colonists committed a successful genocide in Tasmania. He wants us to realise this and think on it…
…while we, two centuries later, are living in a materially rich, opportunity ripe, sunny egalitarian democracy. Are we? Maybe we are not, or maybe we are but there is a dark underbelly to it all. Which brings us to the story of Stephen Crisp.
Stephen is not in a good space. First his wife has left him, then his girlfriend, and also he has thrown in a promising career. Why? Because he has become obsessed with Robinson’s Journals and feels the overriding need to write some magnum opus either about the Journals or deriving from them. But his writing is stalled, like his life. The Journals are only inspiring a premature mid-life crisis, but what exactly is this crisis, and what can he do about it? Well, while Stephen never really seems to get to the bottom of his crisis, he does eventually do something about it, providing a catharsis of sorts for himself and some kind of denouement to the novel, which I will leave to readers to pass their own judgements on.
Nevertheless, the oddity persists. Terrible crimes of all stripes were committed in the early years of British settlement; now good ship Australia is sailing breezily on. Again, what is the connection? Is Drewe telling us all to get a conscience, or that Australian life is even more morally vacuous than it appears? Drewe convincingly shows we are modern amnesiacs, materially pre-occupied, and yes of course, few would disagree we should know more about the sins of our past, if only to do some justice for people still affected by them. But the two narrative strands here seem too disparate to make some kind of coherent whole of the novel. We need more guidance from the author, or some kind of bridge. ‘The Savage Crows’, despite its many qualities, feels incomplete, and Drewe’s overall project here, remains somewhat enigmatic.