As the book goes on, this occult patterning makes us realise that every one of the characters that Rothwell meets, highly particular though each one is in his idiosyncratic habits and lifestyle and life story, is to some degree a reflection of the narrator. His friend Gina has a note of “inward grief or pensiveness” about her eyes, and something “otherworldly” about her, despite her involvement in real-world negotiations for the UN. The photographer Mike Gillam lives behind a latticework of eccentric defences, and, giving Rothwell a tour around his impromptu temple of found objects, notes that “everything that’s lost and cast aside in Central Australia” receives a second chance here. The spinifex expert Peter Lutz sees “life’s surface as fugitive, governed by hidden forces.”
The narrative therefore seems itself to be guided by such forces, and one registers that it is as strictly shaped and selected as a poem. In many stories of wandering, the protagonist takes us through a seemingly casual record of his days: encounters that peter out, random observations, plans that go wrong, moments that occasionally go right. In Rothwell’s work, all the excess and the banality is pared away, so that we move through a sequence of epiphanies, all of which suggest a hidden logic at the core of things. The ultimate effect is of a book that is spiritual, without much dipping into religion at all. Here – in the text and in the deep deserts – is a realm of sign and wonder, though we meet almost nothing in the way of explicit religious thinking or doctrine. A spiritual book, it tells us, is simply one that has to do with the most private, hidden things, such as loss and fear and the longing to be redeemed.
This could all seem much too portentous or freighted with meaning were it not for Rothwell’s persistent drollness and his wry mockery of his own temperament. Over and over he flies into high-pitched talk of a “wounded healer”. His guide, who knows the terrain more intimately than he, says mordantly, “I don’t know I’d be applying some spiritual grid to Finlayson.” Most of the people he meets are down-to-earth, full of the laconic ways of desert friendship, even as they go about their own unlikely pastimes and tell him not to mourn any vanished golden age (no age is golden in the moment) or not to grow too romantic about a slain kangaroo (nature feasts on renewals). Indeed, The Red Highway contrives at once to be a bravely sincere, harrowed journey into the hope for salvation among the great spaces of the bush, and a gently comical reminder that most schemes such as this are doomed at heart to fail.
This grounding mechanism has a particular power when it comes to the depiction of the narrator himself. Rothwell keeps his presence scrupulously out of the centre of the frame, and all we tend to see is a shadow leaning forward to transcribe the stories and observations of people wiser than himself. In the process, though, we come to know him, like a self-deceiving character in Ishiguro, almost entirely through the eyes of others. “You look awful,” says an old friend when encountering him suddenly. “You look half dead,” says another. In a wonderful corrective to the self-aggrandisement and mock-heroism of most such journeys (I think first and foremost of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines), this narrator is seen only in outline, being put in place by people who affectionately reproach him for his illusions, his overripe interpretations, his bedraggled look. At one archetypal point, a friend suggests a venomous snake for Rothwell. It is, he notes pointedly, “very self-contained, and full of grace.”
What this indirect procedure makes possible, as in no such book that I can remember, is a sense of powerful, sometimes overwhelming emotion, the more affecting for being pushed down. On the face of it, the narrator is a conscientious journalist, simply recording details and transcribing the talk of the people he interviews. But constantly, almost in spite of himself, something deeper and more vulnerable breaks through. Looking at a glass case full of “flat, white stones,” he confesses that he’s so close in his scrutiny that his breath fogs the glass. Going over some letters from Kupka in a library, he is quietly upbraided by an attendant because he’s smearing the pages (with his tears). Rothwell is a figure of rare and bracing learning, restraint, control and attention. But at one moment, he suddenly lets out that all his days in the Middle East were “ones of grief and emptiness,” and “I could see no pattern or path ahead in life.”
As the book rises and pushes on towards its climax, even the poison used in a local wild-dog control experiment takes us back to the German “military chemists” who came up with it, and we notice again that almost every story we hear is of a meeting with death. Tales of the old European explorers in the Outback ultimately come back to one simple, inescapable question: “how to perish, how to face death – marooned, in silence, alone.” Rothwell is clearly following in their footsteps in leaving the death zones of Iraq and Kurdistan for the “unwritten country” of the red highway, where people come “because they’re lost, or searching, or on the edge of life, and silence, and they’re chasing after some kind of pattern, some redemption they think might be lurking, on the line of the horizon, out in the faint, receding perspectives of the bush.” Like Kupka, hoping for a second life. Or the Special Ops veteran of Vietnam, at the end, who carries us into acid trips and meetings with destruction in the jungles of Indochina (soldiers, he notes en passant, routinely passed through Darwin on their way to war).
The innocent browser may, picking up The Red Highway, think it is a ‘travel book’. She couldn’t be more wrong. It is in fact a book about being shriven and broken down and brought so close to oblivion that you are released to something else. Though full of long drives into the bush, it has nothing to do with locomotion, and everything to do with being stirred and moved, carried out of the self. Nicolas Rothwell gives us huge amounts of information in his pages about warfare and nudibranchs and perenties, history from the nineteenth century and the details of Aboriginal art. He carries us higher and higher with his antique elegance and a rapt, attentive interest in everything human, vegetable and celestial that tempts one to use the almost outdated word ‘sublime’.
But the deeper he goes, the more he leaves all words behind. He leaves behind his ideas, too, his books, his romances, like the dry skin that a snake sheds in the process of remaking itself. In its final pages, going back and forth between the silences of the Red Centre and the haunted mind’s images of ghost ships coming in across the water, the narrative mounts to such a pitch of sustained epiphany that Rothwell’s questions become our own, and we recognise that mind cannot grasp – nor mouth form – them. That is another characteristic of Kupka’s that he’d introduced at the very beginning: the exile’s feeling that “Self-effacement is a form of transcendence.” When you put The Red Highway down, it may be with that rarest and most heart-shaking of sensations: you’ve travelled somewhere essential and now, not a moment too soon, you’re coming back, at last, from the dead.