The other day at work I stumbled across a couple of titles I thought would make good reads for the Gaia/nature challenge, so far I have read one of those titles, and I have to say, what a fantastic, serendipitous find it was! So what was my happy find?
Well, it is a title I knew might be a bit problematic. Racism, is a potential issue but despite that, I was curious and thought it worth a go. It was certainly written in a less aware and informed era, but it was well worth the effort and despite some remaining reservations I am now in the process of seeking out all the other titles in the series by this author. So who is the author? Some readers will recognise the name Arthur Upfield, a crime writing legend, the series of course is Upfield’s Bony series of mystery novels written from the 1930s with the final novel published posthumously in the 1960s.
Curiously, Upfield made his hero an Aboriginal man at a time when mainstream thinking in Australia was overtly racist, this is the height of “smoothing the pillow of a dying race” thinking, this is the age of the stolen generation, when white Australia was actively practising what can only be described as genocide, following massacres with cultural extermination, and the theft of children, to compound the theft of land. Our first nation people were not even recognised as full citizens until 1967. What is problematic is Upfield’s emphasis on Bony’s heritage as part white and part Aboriginal, with an implication that Bony’s fierce, analytical intellect is derived from his white father, and his connection with the natural world springs from his Indigenous mother. Upfield is still sprouting the kind of dogma that allowed for the stolen generation to occur. At the same time, I don’t doubt Upfield had a very genuine respect for Aboriginal Australians, and his intention was not to further denigrate a people and culture he clearly admired. To an extent, what Upfield is guilty of, is cultural appropriation and well intentioned romanticism. I think it is important to bear that in mind when reading Upfield’s mysteries but it does not lessen the achievement of this fascinating Australian author.
What was so fascinating about the title I read, was the emphasis given to the land, the environment itself. The setting had if anything more complexity and importance than the human protagonists. The crime was incidental to a larger story about the cyclical nature of life on one of the driest and oldest places on earth, the Australian outback. Even the title referred not to a criminal murder but to an environmental death; Death of a Lake. The novel starts with the line; “Lake Otway was dying”. And concludes with Bony saying; “Should you be here at the time, let me know when Lake Otway is born again.” Book-ended between those two lines is a human drama played out before the backdrop of environmental change and the endless cycle of life and death. In fact there may not even be a crime to investigate, just a mysterious disappearance that will inevitably be solved with the inevitable drying of the lake. Life and death takes on a timeless and inevitable cyclic nature. Crime and justice become almost inconsequential in face of that larger picture. Mystery fans will still find satisfaction though, there is another related death to occur within the novel, and a conventional line of inquiry and questioning.
Personally, the mystery element was not really what held my attention. I did find the outcome fairly predictable and some of the characters cliche, especially the women, but that did not in any way detract from my enjoyment of reading the novel. It was the dramatic recording of the death of the lake, the constantly evolving environment, combined with privileging of a character normally marginalised at best in Australian culture, an Aboriginal man, that kept me turning pages. In many ways the novel seems quite subversive in the way it presents alternative ways of thinking. There is a sense that it seeks to subvert linear ways of thinking about time, it has a deep time perspective on the cyclic nature of the outback environment, death can flourish, as much as life and it is just part of that cycle. Human deaths are just part of that longer time perspective, just as the death of fish, rabbits and roos, are part of that environmental flux and flow. With Bony there is a sense that his heritage does give him a greater insight into that time and process, when one character succumbs to the heat: “Bony fought for self control. The bad moment passed, and his maternal ancestors crowded about him, whispering and cajoling. They pleaded with him to remain passive if only for a minute. They told him of their battle with this homicidal sun, bought him their lore and wisdom.”
Environment is foundational to the novel and dramatic descriptions abound. There is dramatic, vivid description of rabbit trapping and desperate, thirsty wild life. The description of the leaving of the pelicans from Lake Otway is emblematic of the novel:
The sky slowly acknowledged the threat of the sun. The surface of the lake caught and held the same threat, and when the edge of the sun lifted above the trees behind Johnson’s Well, the first bird took off.
The unit detached itself from a mass, flapped its great wings, paddled strongly and began to lift. When air-borne, the bird took the long upward slant as though bored with flying. Another bird followed, a third and so on to form a chain being drawn up to the burnished sky by a magnetic sun. The same routine was followed by the other congregations of pelicans, until there were eleven long black chains over Lake Otway, each link rhythmically waving its white flag.
When a thousand feet above the water, the leader of each chain rested upon outspread pinions, and those following gained position each side of the leader and also rested. Thus a fleet was formed, which proceeded to gain further height,every ‘ship’ of each ‘fleet’ alternatively winging and resting in perfect unison. The chains having been wound up and the fleets formed, the sky was ribbed and curved with black and white ships, each with its golden prow. Like ten thousand Argosies, they sailed before the sun, fleet above fleet, in circles great and small as thought the commanders waited for the sailing orders.” (pp87-88).
In addition to the compelling descriptions of landscape and wildlife the novel is scattered with curious reflections, like this: “Bony sat with Barby, their backs to the hut wall and with gum-tips whisked the flies from their faces. Barby explored the possibilities of generating power from the sun’s heat, and climaxed the subject by asserting that the capitalists would never allow it.” (p141) That line struck me as particularly significant, given the resistance to renewables from our current political leadership, remember this novel was first published in 1954. Barby and Bony, further reflect on economics and politics, the plight of the common man and again there seems to be a subversive element in Upfield’s writing: “Something wrong somewhere. Old age pensioners freezing all winter in their one rooms down in the stinkin’ cities, and the politicians rushing round the world on holiday trips we pay for.” (p142).
There is a sense that greed has widespread destructive consequences, it is certainly a motive for murder, there is also a sense in the novel that a simpler life more in tune with natural cycles of death and renewal has virtues. Greed might be the motive for murder in Death of a Lake but ultimately it is not the human deaths that really matter but the murder of the lake by that “homicidal sun”.
There is a distinct environmental element to the novel, Upfield brilliantly evokes the harsh reality of inland Australia in the grip of drought, and for that reason, I think it is fair to include this as a Gaia/nature read. My curiosity about Upfield and his Bony novels has been aroused, looking forward to rummaging in second hand bookshops to track down more of these really quiet enjoyable reads.