Pico Iyer Journeys

Into the Shadowed Heart

In the same way, the reader starts to notice that each of the book’s four sections – ‘Exile’, ‘Belief’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Return’ – has a Biblical sound to it, and that each one, 60 pages long, is patterned as carefully as a musical movement. Investigations into the history of the exploration of Australia’s heart, and the exiled artists who sought it out, merge with stories of Rothwell’s own questing journeys into the interior, and the people he meets along the way: a music journalist, an expert on molluscs, a kangaroo hunter. As he pushes deeper and deeper into the Red Centre, he can find neither the ease of an indigenous being nor that of a casual sceptic. Instead, he’s propelled into a mystery that he seems ready to be humbled and silenced by, without trying to solve. “Resistant” is the word that comes up again and again, and while it could apply to the landscape, it clearly has application also to our narrator.

On the surface, the book juxtaposes Rothwell’s journeys around the Middle East, covering wars for the Australian, with his account of returning to his adopted home of Darwin in 2005, after a year away, as if summoned by the images he’s kept in his head. As the movements go on, however, you realise how close the charged spaces of Australia and of the Holy Land really are. Rothwell’s Aboriginal friends cannot stop asking about the deserts of Judaea and Samaria, he tells us; those unpeopled expanses that are said to be the site of serpents, Satan’s temptations, the 40 days in the wilderness. Meanwhile, wandering around Jerusalem, Rothwell bumps into a North American monk who wants to talk about his own time in Kalumburu, in the Kimberley. He runs into a shining-faced, young Russian Orthodox nun from Boston, who has in her possession an Aboriginal painting of what she calls “The Promised Land”. Photos of the Outback start tumbling in on him, from Australian friends, as he sits in the Internet cafes of Baghdad or Syria. If his day job, so to speak, is about covering these wars, his night thoughts are about what lies far behind the events of the day, that expanse of time and space he associates with the Kimberley and the Northern Territory.

So as his explorations intensify, we begin to notice how the same few references – Kupka, the war, burning ships – keep turning up. Everywhere he goes seems to bring him to the same place. It’s almost as if he has decided to turn a telescope the wrong way round, so that a land routinely seen in terms of bright surfaces, blond lifestyles and perpetual, unhistoried newness is here shown to be old and dark. Certainly I’ve never come across a depiction of Australia so weighted with a classical, sepulchral sense of prophecy before. Asked what he saw and learned in the Middle East, our hooded narrator answers, with typical reticence, “Some things are best untold.”

Just as the story is threatening to grow too heavy, though, or become edged with gravitas, Rothwell brings us back to earth with all the tough-minded bristle and straightforwardness of the bush. If the philosopher in him is always drawn to what lies behind and beyond things, the journalist, happily, is trained to fill every sentence with specifics. Here is all the tinselly poetry and irreverence of the Outback, in a 94-year-old monk who invented “an anti-snoring device, made out of tyre rubber”, and a nun whose attempts to cook set off widespread outbreaks of food poisoning. Here are vast raintrees in which “white cockatoos were shrieking, and cavorting, and hurtling through the air” and an “antiquated Thrifty troop-carrier” with “heraldic bullbars” whose “spurs and supports curved round the wings of the vehicle, much like the reliefs that clasp medieval altars in a sheltering, protecting frame.” Long sentences give way to short, trifling details mix with premonitions, high diction is brought to low comedy and the result is a mix of strangeness and charm that leaves us fruitfully unsettled: “Another Kingswood, midnight blue, dilapidated, its trunk held closed with elasticised ties and knotted snatch-straps, drove up at this point, spewing dark clouds of particulate from its exhaust pipe. Its back seats were full of children. They waved at us enthusiastically.”

Most books of wandering devolve into mere collections of observations; the ones that really hold us, and endure, draw these observations into something like a vision, a grasping at what is larger than the events we see. In Sebald, in Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski, in VS Naipaul, every tremor and oak tree and twitch is described – but at the same time we always feel that they are, in the end, just an entrance to something much more inward and treacherous. These writers are reporting on the world, but in the process they penetrate into some private and haunted space they can’t escape.

The Red Highway stands very much in that tradition; a journey into the interior that, like all Rothwell’s books, suggests, precisely by seeming impersonal and conjuring up familiars and alter egos at every turn, that underneath its surfaces it is telling an intensely personal story, with the highest stakes. The memories that come back to the narrator of his childhood above the Rhine are shocking and largely unsought. The monks and nuns he meets keep reminding him that the world we see and take to be ‘real’ is in fact just a passing show and that the real world is something within, inescapable. When, at one characteristic moment, Rothwell drives a 12-year-old Aboriginal girl across the annihilating emptiness – playing Haydn string quartets to her and reminiscing, spellbound, about his pilgrimage to the composer’s home in Vienna – you can feel one part of yourself touched and warmed by what might be a sweetly incongruous scene from a road movie. With another part of yourself, you realise that the narrator, to our profit, is never travelling light.

The first thing that probably hits you, reading Rothwell, is the style. The paragraphs are long, sonorous, at a contemplative distance from the world, and the sentences are intricate and full of turns, shadowed, labyrinthine, like many-chambered passageways in the mind of the opium-eater De Quincey. Around everything hangs an air at once elegiac and droll, as if the narrator is always over-brooded by a certain mournfulness and yet can see the absurdity of such a stance. Words like ‘totemic’, ‘hieratic’, ‘alarming’ recur. There is an almost tangible pressure underneath the words and a pushing against the surfaces of the world. ‘Loss’ tolls like a bell across the open spaces of the prose.

All round us was red sand and bleached spinifex. On a promontory above the salt flats were old, gnarled desert oaks, trailing their windswept leaves. Bushfire smoke was rising and unfurling on the horizon; the sun came beating down. Ahead, the lake’s white, dazzling surface glittered:it was too brilliant to look at; it caught and magnified the glare. On the far shore, where the red line of dunes merged with the distance, mirages – vast, troubling likenesses of ships, or breached, decaying castles – boiled away. In the view, there was that mingling of quiet and anguish that the far deserts hold. The compulsion, too; the urge to look. Come, the landscape seemed to say: come – come closer; dissolve; let the whole world slip and go. I dragged my gaze away. I shielded my eyes.

At the same time, as that passage discloses, images keep recurring: fires purging the landscape, recalling the firestorms of World War II. The repetition of those images gives the book its special air of secrecy, as if to suggest that all of us, however little we may be aware of it, are caught in some web of hidden patterning that legislates the trajectory of our lives (combined with the high language, this contrives to give Rothwell’s works the solemn nineteenth-century air of a Melville or a Poe). At one moment, for example, a woman the narrator encounters suddenly recalls looking down when she landed in Darwin and seeing, astonishingly, “a parade of medieval knights in armour” reflected in the water. Two hundred and thirty-two pages later, at the very end of the narrative, a man who has come close to death in the jungles of Laos sees a “procession of mounted, armoured knights” as he hallucinates. A ghost ship is spotted again and again just out to sea. “There are rhymes and echoes everywhere,” as one of Rothwell’s friends says, and a priest in Jerusalem notes that he is talking of his time in the Outback only because it is “a set of symbols and resonances; a parable about finding a true path ahead.”

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