Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 2, December 1985

Reading the Book

Colin Johnson [Mudrooroo]

Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984. 251 pp., $29.50.

At the beginning of a journey, when you are about to cover strange Territory, you are always ignorant and you have to rely on local guides. They are the ones who know the safe tracks as well as places of danger ... one ignores the local guide at one's peril, for he is telling us how to survive in this country, and survival depends not just on the right sort of physical treatment of the country, but also on what one says about it, writes about it, and the images one makes of it.'

This quotation is found on the flyleaf of the dustcover of Reading the Country, and from it we may start our journey, or if we wish to do so retrace our steps, in the way of all analogies, back to the cover illustration, which strongly reminds us of a tourist resort with the round beach umbrellas under which we may recline as we discuss our forays into the surrounding countryside. For in these times we as travellers are often tourists, and our journeys are to well-prepared places of the spirit bounded by those well-known signs of civilisation: fences to keep out the native. The frontispiece in light, pastel shades of nonthreat, again has fences surrounding and containing within all the facts of our tourist itinerary. We are not in the realm of rough camps and the unknown wilderness. Everything appears already known, already mapped out. We are to engage in a guided tour of the region, or of the reading of the region, and may expect few surprises, though a third illustration adds that extra dark mystery which all good tours seek to incorporate, or at least hint at. But this is followed by a map rendering everything in its proper perspective and in a sense concealing the country in its white blankness, spotted with European names, naming the country known.

The text of the book begins with a quotation from Althusser, a Marxist introduction, which assures us that we are safely in a material world heavy with history and ideology. Perhaps the only thing which is out of place is a photograph of Paddy Roe with a sideways glance which may add a touch of doubt.

But the native is clothed in European clothing and his glance rests on yet another illustration, again bounded and captured. Where are the nomads, we may ask? Not in the following map, not in the following section on Nomadic


Writing, prefaced with words of Foucault and Barthes. Or are these the modern nomads? Perhaps they are, for we read on to words like summer vacation, college, old Falcon utility while wishing for the mad rush of a Jack Kerouac and his orgasms in the blood. Unfortunately as tourists we are at the mercy of our guides and must wait for a line or two to signify some magic of the poet, a change of language which does not fit into the information overload which we have received at the beginning of our trip and which in effect has constrained us into seeing what others have chosen for us to see. We are forced past any tiny fragile flowers to the greater interest lying always beyond.

Our first sense of the other, the exotic, comes in the shapes of language, letters italicised.

Garrigarrigabu iwarra warra larrayi
indina ima ngaringarindjina yana

These are opposed to another illustration with those straight lines which we are very used to, though we have only reached page thirty two. It is only when we turn the page and find the language coming out at us in irregular lines, and with the accompanying photographs stretching out to the abrupt ending of borders, that we find a sense of all that the word nomad conjures up: flat deserts and sand, springs of water and a sense of desolation. In the last photograph of this section the image of a forsaken bathtub balanced against an abandoned tyre lying in the background attempts to show how this land turns on the settled life. Now we tourists begin to feel that we are starting to get value for our money, thirty-odd dollars we have shelled out for this book journey, and at last the money is being earned. We begin to gain a feel of the country, the flatness of Australia, the strangeness of the names attached to the pools and waterholes, the Australianness of Australia or at least that part around Broome, anglicised for us tourists as Roebuck Plains: which lets us know, that reassures us, as do the illustrations, that European man has trodden this land, has marked this land, has rendered it into the pastel shades of civilisation of the European variety. And then later on we read a section titled 'Strategic Nomadology: Introduction' which once and for all shifts the identification from any would-be native nomads to us tourists: we are the modern nomads! We with our maps and texts enter this land, to see the sights, to meet selected natives on our carefully planned educational tour. We are the nomads, seeing or Reading the Country in carefully constructed prose passages which straighten out the meanings implicit in Paddy Roe's seemingly wandering prose. Nomadism is only implicit in those journeys we make out from home. We are always centred, always constrained within the fences of our illustrations. Our journey thus become equated with those


filmic images we hold in our minds of true nomads. Nomads are riders on camels that pass silently in the night. They drift as dreams from place to place in an ever-moving series of homes, and we may be privileged, as the tourist brochures tell us, to experience that nomadism in a ride on a camel, in a glimpse of an oasis. It is something away from us and as romantic as a glimpse of Ayer's Rock in the moonlight, though it is not my home. My home is Roebourne, Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin, Broome and Fitzroy. My home is fixed and immutable. There are few nomads left in this world, though the convoys of mobile homes snaking up from Florida each northern summer and down again each northern winter may reflect the eternal round of the nomad visiting familiar place after familiar place season after season in a true state of ever being on the move. Life is a ceaseless journeying with static breaks, and nomadism is not the glimpses of a romantic tourist extending his knowledge on educational tours with sudden sadnesses for home-sweet-home.

And so what do we have in this Introduction to Nomadology, the secondary title of this volume? The long roads and fences of the north cutting through the old nomadic trails; an introduction to a broken circle or circles of nomadology as shown in the fragmented texts of discourses which Paddy Roe places in careful dialogue sequences bounded by questions: 'How is it possible to consider the present, and quite specific present, with a mode of thought elaborated for a past which is often remote and superseded?' (Gramsci). Perhaps the answer is to romanticise that past in a journey and read the country into the authorship of a book, of a text with artwork which may be portraying the future of Broome as a major tourist centre of isolated resorts filled with the colourful circles of beach umbrellas spaced through spaces which fill us with feelings of the nomad, until we tire and seek refuge beside the swimming pool and not at the unkempt fenced-off waterhole where once we sat pondering our move towards another waterhole and another and another and around through the enduring seasons until we found a somewhat static home at last at one waterhole or close to another.

Colin Johnson teaches at Murdoch university.

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