Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (Picador 2010)
Having enjoyed the movie Red Dog in spite of its erasure of Aboriginal people from the Pilbara, I was glad to turn to the Book Group’s pick of the month for a bit of counterpoint. Sadly, I turned to it too late to finish it before the group met over soup, bread and cheese on 17 August. So here we are, reversing the usual order of my Book Group posts: first the meeting and then the book.
We had a good turn-up, and more than half had read the whole book. All but one of us were big fans, and the dissenter – who was about a third of the way through – was prepared to keep an open mind. I’d read only 110 pages or so myself, but at that point was finding it exhilarating. Discussion was animated, emphatic, mostly good humoured. I won’t try to summarise beyond saying that there was a shared sense that the novel made us see the British settlement of Western Australia with fresh eyes. Also the whaling industry, but I hadn’t read to that point, so tried not to listen. I had read the short chapter where a convict who has been speared by Noongars in payback for wrongs done by someone else – though smarting with the injustice, he understands that it’s necessary for the whites to accept the payback without further retaliation if there is to be peace in the small settlement. In terms of the plot, he feels like a powder keg waiting to explode, but I love Kim Scott’s open hearted portrayal of him as a complex individual (as opposed, say, to the equivalent lower-class ‘bad whites’ of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River). No one would engage with me on this line of discussion because they didn’t want to give the plot away – true gentlemen every one.
The subject of Red Dog was raised, and those who’d seen it were even less impressed than I was, regarding the praise lavished on it by Margaret, David and Julie as symptomatic of misguided and misleading advocacy for the local product. We had brief but sharp differences of opinion about The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) and The Riders (Tim Winton), and some disparagement of The Unknown Terrorist (Richard Flanagan) and the literal minded TV adaptation of Cloud Street (Winton again).
I came away looking forward to the rest of the book.
After the meeting:
I took nearly two more weeks to finish, but that’s no reflection on the book. (See previous post for partial explanation of my reduced reading time.) While I was reading it I heard on a podcast of the Book Show that Melbourne University currently doesn’t offer a course in Australian literature – one enterprising student has organised monthly lectures by poets and others who are willing to talk for free (apparently without input of any kind from the academic staff!). One justification for this state of affairs is that students in general think Aus Lit is boring, conservative and ‘white’, so the course wouldn’t be popular enough to justify itself. I guess this is what happens when the profit motive holds sway in education. But, stepping down from my media-generated-outrage soapbox, I’d have to concede that That Deadman Dance does make some other much-praised Aust fic look fairly timid and vanilla. It tackles the same general area as Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers: the first, hopeful contact between Aboriginal Australians and white invaders and the seeds of the subsequent tragic genocidal history. Where Clendinnen wrote history, excavating the journals of early settlers in Sydney to reconstruct a hypothetical account from the point of view of the Indigenous Australians, Kim Scott tells what his narrator calls a ‘simple story of Bobby and his few friends’ about the settlement in south west Western Australia, confidently taking us into the minds of black and white, young and old, male and female. I’d be surprised if he hadn’t read the Clendinnen book, but it’s very much its own work: joyful, funny, superhumanly broad in its sympathies, challenging, vivid and in the end heartbreaking.
The central story tells of Wabalanginy/Bobby, a Noongar man born after the arrival of whites, who finds friendship among the new arrivals, studies them, at times acts as an intermediary, is virtually adopted into a white family but remains firmly connected with his Noongar community. He’s a brilliant character – admired as a clever mimic by the whites and held in awe for his artistry in song and dance by the Noongars. His engagement with both cultures is enacted beautifully: a number of times we’re taken inside his way of perceiving and responding to the world in wonderfully lyrical writing.
At one stage, the desecration of a grave is described as ‘deliberate and careless all at once’, a phrase that resonates like a gong through the last, darkening chapters, when the logic of capitalism and colonialism asserts itself, and we gradually lose any sense of the inner lives of the settlers as they become more completely incomprehensible to Bobby and appear to forget the almost reasonable relationships of the recent past: deliberate and careless, intentional and oblivious.
Maybe one day even the hallowed halls of Melbourne University will encourage its students to read this, and other books that will help them wrap their imaginations around the history they inherit.