Sunday, December 6, 2009
The Lieutenant is a classic, moving tale of a man discovering his selfhood and destiny through his encounter with another race at the dawn of modernity. It offers nothing less than a new template for Indigenous and non-Indigenous interaction in Australia.
Kate Grenville’s spectacularly successful previous novel, The Secret River, dealt with the involvement of an emancipated convict – a character based on one of her own ancestors – in a ruthless massacre of Indigenous people in early New South Wales.
The Secret River was famously criticised by Inga Clendinnen and other historians for masquerading as history, a charge Grenville strongly refuted. She covers a similar theme in The Lieutenant and here again her modus operandi – combining the fiction writer’s imaginative leap with painstaking historical research – pays off handsomely.
The Lieutenant is loosely based on the life of William Dawes, who was the First Fleet’s astronomer as well as a mathematician and linguist. Centuries ahead of his time, he left notebooks of his stay in New South Wales that paint a beguiling picture of his attempts to communicate with the local Cadigal people and learn the structures and lineaments of their complex language. He seems to have been helped in this by what was, as far as the written account suggests, a non-sexual friendship with a young Indigenous girl, Patyegarang.
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Daniel Rooke is a gifted boy from a background of genteel impoverishment in the new scientific age. A talented misfit at the Portsmouth Naval Academy, he is fascinated by the stars, languages and mathematics, and the promise of unknown worlds they seem to offer. He dreams there is a place ‘somewhere in the world, for the person he was’.
When he goes to sea as a marine to fight the American rebels in the War of Independence, Rooke receives a brutal education in the harsh realities of naval life. But his real education begins when he sails to New South Wales as astronomer with the First Fleet, bound for Australia’s east coast where a white convict settlement is to be created.
What pulls Rooke towards New South Wales is a yearning for intellectual adventure, one that he will eventually be able to embrace with his heart as well as his mind. New and familiar shores abound in the novel, presaging and symbolising the lure of the strange and the human instinct for novelty. Portsmouth, Rooke’s childhood home, offers a harbour where he dreams of the unknown and this dream seems to come true when he arrives at the exotic New South Wales coast.
There, in the first days of the young colony, Rooke encounters the local Cadigal people and forms a unique bond with a lively young girl, Tagaran. But relations with the local people and the settlers slowly disintegrate, and Rooke must choose between loyalty to the King and to his own emerging moral and emotional universe.
Rooke is a creature of the enlightenment, a true renaissance man. Yet in his role as lieutenant in the marines he finds himself repeatedly facing a dilemma that is, albeit in much more subtle forms, still inescapable today for some: being caught in a ruthlessly murderous machine that is aimed at material gain and also aided by the science and technology he adores. The horrors of unfettered capitalism interlock with the feudal structure in which Rooke is enmeshed to create an insouciant attitude to human life that renders Rooke himself vulnerable. The evil underbelly of empire is painfully exposed here.
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This is a work of huge imaginative power and grace. Grenville has a distinctive, authoritative take on the historical novel; rather than overburdening the reader with realms of historical fact, she wears her obviously considerable research extremely lightly. Historical details unfold as they are needed for the momentum of the narrative.
Subtle phrases such as ‘neighbour woman’ and ‘pinny pocket’ and a formality of tone in the dialogue suggest the past, but the language never strains to be authentic for the sake of it. Above all, Grenville wants to humanise her characters.
Nor does she attempt to give a panoramic view. Given that Rooke is part of the historic First Fleet and its first contact with the local people, this must have been a huge temptation. In fact the entire novel is told from Rooke’s viewpoint.
This works partly because, by the time he gets to New South Wales, Rooke is streets ahead of his fellow officers in emotional intelligence. But it’s equally effective when the more sinister machinations of empire are whirring away while Rooke is obliviously scanning the heavens for a comet. His belated understanding of the reality of his position catapults him further into the journey towards selfhood that he has already begun.
In this regard, Grenville’s eye resembles Rooke’s beloved telescope, homing in on the particular. This attention to detail is beautifully contrasted with the infinity of the universe that the night sky represents for Rooke, and that he returns his gaze to again and again, not just for scientific knowledge but for inspiration and reflection.
From Rooke’s perspective, Grenville slyly goes underneath the human skin of history, suggesting the drollery and range of motivations that would have lurked beneath the rituals of daily life. Scenes of the officers at dinner or on expeditions in the surrounding bushland are threaded with the kinds of human responses, sometimes so subtle that they would hardly have been visible, that history alone cannot offer.
Similarly, Grenville imagines how the strange new bushland environment would have affected not just human minds but human bodies: ‘unrelenting newness made for something like blindness. It was as if sight did not function properly in the absence of understanding’.
In these imagined reactions Grenville gives us what the history of public events cannot – the breathing emotions of real bodies, stuck in hierarchies of power and skill, yet displaying their individuality within those constraints. We also get glimpses of, and must imagine from a distance, what it must have been like for the labouring and sometimes raucous prisoners.
A similar distancing occurs in Grenville’s respectful treatment of the Cadigal people. She’s extremely careful not to try to present the narrative from their point of view, but the poise of the novel allows her to act as a kind of silent, benign witness of their complex reactions to this dramatic incursion into their lives.
Like Rooke, she can only guess at what some aspects of their behaviour – so different to Western responses – might have meant, but her guess is underpinned by a deep sense of their humanity. And in the character of Tagaran and the kin who surround her Grenville conveys a strong sense of a vibrant, functional society that is perfectly attuned to its environment.
While Grenville’s research does not draw attention to itself, it’s evident everywhere, from her descriptions of the workings of a musket to her detailed evocations of the ritual of shaving in the new colony. This also extends to the natural environment: you get the impression that she’s walked carefully through the modern incarnations of the various landscapes she describes, trying to imagine how they would have appeared at the time.
Critics have praised Grenville for the quietness of tone she achieves in this novel. There’s an attentiveness that is maintained even throughout scenes involving emblematic and sometimes tragic historical events. For example, the description of first contact between the First Fleet crew and a group of Indigenous men is imbued with a rich and almost sad irony:
The shield was a solid thing … but the ball had gone clean through it and left a ragged hole and a long split top to bottom. The old man picked it up. In his hands it fell into two pieces and he fitted them back together and touched with long fingers at where the ball had burst through the wood.
There’s plenty of drama in the confrontation of two starkly different cultures. But for Grenville, the drama must come from the emotional resonance of the moment, and she must wait, and the reader must wait, for it to reveal itself.
Yet this isn’t to suggest that the language is in any way slack – quite the opposite. We are always at the quiet heart of the action, seeing what needs to be shown and nothing else. There is not a superfluous word in the entire book.
In the novel’s mixture of humility and power, Grenville dramatises first contact as never before, conveying the excitement of encountering the other – for both sides. This human reaction to difference so often gets deleted from history, obscured by the economically convenient racism that usually followed initial contact.
Grenville quietly shows non-Indigenous readers the sense of creative opportunity and adventure with which we could be approaching Indigenous cultures. In particular, the emerging friendship between Tagaran and Rooke offers a template for a national conversation that could become a national adventure, and is partly what makes the book such a joy to read. The lively Tagaran herself, as well as the multi-layered relationship that develops between her and Rooke, provides the basis for this template:
It was more than intelligence, though Tagaran’s understanding was like quicksilver. It was more than assertiveness, though he watched her rapping out orders to the other children. It was a quality of fearless engagement with the world.
But the novel also suggests how a focus on economic and technological progress might obscure the primacy of the human story that is the basis of history. Technology certainly has a sacred place for the Westerners in the novel – the daily winding of the timekeeper on Rooke’s Australia-bound ship is nothing less than a religious ritual. However, human relations must also be attended to.
For example, following the First Fleet’s arrival, one of Governor Gilbert’s main priorities is to make contact with the Indigenous people and bring them ‘on side’. The importance of this rapprochement to a new colony with no knowledge of the terrain cannot be overemphasised. Similarly, Grenville’s descriptions of the Cadigal indicate their respect for and attentiveness to human culture and interactions, and how secure in their humanity these people seem to have been.
The book, then, is deeply political but in no way is it politically correct. Nor should it be seen as a substitute for history: hopefully it will send scurrying to the history books those interested readers searching for more background information. What it can do is bring alive to us a sense of the past as being no less visceral, chaotic and productive of human dilemmas than today’s complex world.