“As I drive past a wrecked, burning vehicle from some military convoy, or the remains of an IED attack along the Baghdad International Airport Road, or as a roadblock manned by dubious-looking paramilitaries looms ahead, my fingers close around a little piece of ochre I always carry with me as a guardian charm, deep in my coat’s inmost pocket – it is white, with pink hues shot through it, like a constant mineralised, Kimberley dawn: and I see Freddie Timms leaning towards me, handing me this piece of country and murmuring, `We’ll be coming with you in your head – you won’t be lonely. Just remember us’.”
Passages like the above are littered throughout Another Country, glittering with the same force as the Aboriginal artworks and Pilbara diamonds of the Kimberley region with which Nicolas Rothwell is so powerfully familiar. When it comes to colour, metaphor, historic detail and mysticism, you don’t get better in Australian non-fiction than Rothwell. And yet something is missing.
The above passage from `Jirrawun: Beyond the Frontier’ appears late in Another Country. It pinpoints a yearning central to this collection of stories and essays and portraits: to belong, and to feel this belonging through what might be termed `a calling’ from people and country itself.
One of Australia’s most fluent and intelligent journalists, Rothwell made his reputation decisively for The Australian during his twenties, reporting from Europe as Cold War divides fell away in the 80s and 90s. His work in America, the Pacific and periodically in the Middle East has only consolidated this reputation and the kind of stellar newspaper grooming that lays the world at your feet.
For him to return in 1996 and ask to be posted to Darwin as The Australian’s northern correspondent shows a uniqueness of character that must have surprised contemporaries. It was not the most obvious career move.
Of course, the Territory houses some of this country’s finest non-fiction writers, a reflection of its frontier appeals. Among them the self-styled Hunter S. Thompson of the Top End, Andrew McMillan; Paul Toohey, who Rothwell calls “The Bulletin’s cunning northern correspondent”; and “the wraith-like, anarchistic Chips Mackinolty, sometime stringer for the Fairfax press and a current media svengali of the Labor government of the Territory.” All are members of the wryly named Darwin Foreign Correspondents Association.
Rothwell calls Darwin “the capital of the second chance” and captures a little of what Mackinolty calls “the lotus eating quality about the town.” But he’s better at watching rather than joining in, and it’s the eerie journeys into Aboriginal country and his own isolated reflections that really stun you.
A heady analyst of the world around him, he’s overly fond of flashing his intelligence forward in the odd word certain to send you to a dictionary. His sense of other people’s voices also jars, as if everyone is gifted with the Queen’s English and a perfect philosophical riposte. One senses in these Chatwin-esque flaws how hard he finds it to let the human world permeate him. How much more comfortable he is with landscape and dreams.
Rothwell opens this collection with a statement about “a dream that afflicts the writer and correspondent staring out across uncharted terrain: the dream of total coverage, a kind of Borgesian dream that one’s words will spread out and relate all the stories, all the nuances of landscape and every momentary thought and yearning that has ever been felt by those within it.”
He claims to refute this ambition, to be looking for “another wayâ€¦the way of chance: a life path that is fragmentary, spasmodic, full of erasures and forgettings, of mirages and missed encounters.”
It’s a manifesto, of course, for a collection of articles like this. But Rothwell, a Romantic, is still bound up in the Borgesian project he claims to reject. He does want to sum it all up. Somewhat detached essays on everything from Aboriginal health to alcohol, violence and social dysfunction dominant the middle of the book: they’re important but they don’t advance the Kapuscinski-like dimensions of Rothwell’s earlier storytelling. His portraits of Aboriginal artists suffer even more by being lined up like so many same-shaped dominos, taking on the standardized hue of the 1000 word newspaper profile.
For all the hints of his inner self, the poetic grandeur, Rothwell is also oddly absent from the work. In a book with so much great writing, it’s as the frontier he has yet to break through is himself.