I have been looking forward to this 2007 book by Australian writer Alex Miller for some time, but I did save it for Australian and New Zealand Literature Month. I have loved his other books, especially Conditions of Faith. His books are not easy to find here in the US, though the Charlottesville public library and the UVa library each have several.
The narrator is a retired professor in Hamburg whose wife has recently died unexpectedly. He plans to kill himself immediately after giving a lecture at a conference to summarize his uncompleted work on massacres, a subject that shapes the lives of Germans whose fathers were involved in the war. His lecture is challenged from the floor by a young Australian woman who critiques his work and says you cannot speak of massacre without talking about her people. He is humiliated and in the spirit of his beloved wife Winifred, he apologizes to her for his lame work. The two go out drinking together and his life begins anew, directed by this warm, opinionated woman.
If you have read Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss, you will recognize her in this character. This memoir of an energetic, academic, choc-lit writing (chick lit for urban Aboriginal women) is one of my favorites. But I digress.
Max, obeying Vita's dictates, travels to Australia and stays with her uncle Dougald Gnapin in a remote cabin in the Central Highlands of Queensland. The two fall into a companionable existence, with Max taking up the household chores while Douglad continues his work on behalf of his people which involves many phone conversations, much tapping on his computer, and occasional trips. They hardly speak to each other until a series of events requires them to move to a different level of friendship. Dougald tells Max the story of a massacre of men, women and children in a well-fortified settlement that his great-grandfather, a great warrier, led. Gnapin was approached by messengers and asked to help rectify the great wrong that was done to their people and when Gnapin entered the white settlers' camp, he
…is shocked to see the terrible evil that has been done there. No fiend, in all the great store of teachings, has ever been said to have done such a thing as this….The thought that enters his mind then is like a sharp splinter of poison and it makes him tremble: The strangers [white settlers] do not respect the reality of the messengers' people, but see them as beings who are less than human. What other explanation can there be for this horror? For the strangers have collected the stones of the sacred playgrounds of the messengers' Old People and have built walls from them.
Using his wits, Gnapin is able to lead the young men whose ancesters were so violated to kill all members of the strangers' community with no loss of life of their own. Gnapin recognizes the leader as a brother, and when the massacre occurs, he looks deep into the eyes of the leader so that he recognizes his coming death. After this event, Gnapin lives a nearly solitary life in the hills.
Though he has tried, Dougald has been unable to commit this story to paper and asked Max to do this for him so the story will be remembered. Over the course of some nights, Max undertakes this task and Dougald is happy with the results. They make an arduous and magical journey to the area where Dougald's great-grandfather lived. Max returns to Hamburg with a resolve to take up the personal and historical questions of the massacre of his own century.
Alex Miller writes in his acknowledgements that the massacre he described is his own fiction based on the 1861 Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, said to be the biggest massacre of white settlers by Indigenous Australians.
Alex Miller, Landscape of Farewell, Allen & Unwin, 2007, 322 pages. Available from independent sellers through Amazon.