The first thing I did when I brought Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor home from the library was to Google its title. I skipped the few reviews because I didn’t want to read any of them until after I’d written my own, but I couldn’t make a connection between the image on the front cover and the title. I was also curious about the frontispiece image of the Belomor Channel. Where was this book going to take me?
Well, (thanks to the photo credits) I was able to find out that there’s a Byelomorsko–Baltiyskiy Kanal in Russia that was constructed by convict labour in the 1930s between the White Sea and the Baltic. Under Stalin’s forced labour program, many of these convicts died, though the numbers are disputed. There was also a brand of Soviet cigarettes called Belomorkanal which was introduced in 1932 to commemorate the building of the canal. What’s not clear until you view the original image at Photodom is that those shaggy bits are not a beard; the image is of a man whose head is bent upon his filthy hands, and the title of the photograph Belomor Thoughts (Crisis) hints at why he might be in this pose. I thought that the book designer might have done better to show the whole image not just a bit of it.
Except that as it turns out, the image, the cigarette and the canal are mere fragments in the most fragmented book I have read in a long time. What’s more, there are so many allusions to people, places and history that were unfamiliar to me, that my brief quest to discover meaning from these images turned out to be emblematic of the frustrating experience of reading this entire book.
Anyway, armed with this information I began reading…
And almost immediately I headed off to Google again! (Truly, I don’t usually do this! I prefer to read a book, not Google it.) But Rothwell begins ‘Belomorkanal’, the first of four tenuously linked short stories with more than a mention of a Venetian painter called Bernardo Bellotto. This 18th century artist painted wild, picturesque valleys in Dresden, and just happened to be nephew to Giovanni Antonio Canal, known to us as Canaletto. Rothwell makes it clear that Bellotto’s style is significant, and I’d never heard of him, so I just had to Google the contrast between Canaletto’s much-loved landscapes filled with light and colour and Bellotto’s chill and solemn works. Indeed they are chill and solemn, they’re downright gloomy and therefore IMO emblematic of the mood of the book.
The four separate longish stories are united by a strong sense of male angst. V S Naipaul got himself in a lot of trouble with The Sisterhood when he claimed that there was a discernable ‘female’ style of writing, but I’ll risk the reverse anyway: Belomor seems a masculine book, not just notable for the near total absence of women, but for its style. The book is written in a collage of fiction and a heavy preponderance of non-fiction, though I couldn’t confidently say which is which because characters that seem fictional may well be real people. (If I’m not erudite enough to know who all Rothwell’s allusions are, too bad, I’m not hunting them all down with Google). There is also what seems to be memoir and reflection; essays mostly on art and history; and long slabs of dialogue. This dialogue is not IMO conversation. That is because the characters talk in what socio-linguist Deborah Tannen calls ‘report-talk’ not ‘rapport-talk’. The reader is overwhelmed by a sense of the characters trying to establish status through the dialogue. It is hard to resist the impression that the author is doing the same with the text.
There are numerous journeys, quests, and identity issues swirling about, but characters (and the narrator) talk at each other rather than with each other. They are consumed by their own preoccupations; they are not interested in relationships. Indeed even when they are companions they seem more often like rivals; and they lecture each other. It is like being at a dinner party with a consummate bore who uses every brief interjection as an opportunity to launch into another monologue. Rothwell (see Wikipedia) is an award winning author and a writer of considerable prestige, so presumably this style which I find so alienating is intended. I, presumably, with my suspicions that Belomor is akin to the Ern Malley hoax, have missed the point.
The line between fiction and non-fiction blurs. Sometimes the long paragraphs are like slabs out of a history textbook.
These disquieting qualities in Bellotto’s work have gone largely unremarked in our time because of a circumstance that the artist himself could not have foreseen. His reputation grew; he travelled widely between the court cities of the Saxon kingdom. The sweeping panoramic views he made during the last years of his life were painted in Warsaw, where he worked for another ruler with an eye to posterity, who commissioned another series of grand vistas, designed to hang in the royal castle. This idyllic Warsaw, rich in parks and fountains, was destroyed, down to the last building, in the course of World War II: the post-war communist regime, in need of some grand project that might absorb Polish nationalist sentiments, decided to rebuild the capital in the image of the old city, stone by stone, brick by brick. Bellotto’s paintings were the only systematic blueprint. They became the model, and secured him a late-dawning international fame: for the documentary precision of his work, which derived from the relentless use of a camera obscura to gudie his hand, allowed the specialist teams of labourers and architects charged with the reconstruction of Warsaw to build a city in his image, and the recreated avenues and palaces of the Polish capital retain in their aspect to this day something of Bellotto’s cool temperament. (p. 6)
I was puzzled by the randomness of the first story but curious enough to progress to the second. ‘Muratti Ambassador’ is about an art historian called Aby Warburg who becomes ‘disgusted by the established system of art history‘. He rejects the ‘quiet contemplation of images’ that Betty Churcher describes with such captivating joy. He wants action. (Try bungee-jumping, I thought rebelliously, and I hope the rope breaks, because by now I was tired of Rothwell and his pompous characters, but felt I had to press on because this is a Miles Franklin nomination, and people who are smarter than I am about books reckon this one is great). Anyway, Warburg finds his ‘action’ in the art of indigenous people and hangs out in the Pueblo regions of the US. Here the celestial snake is the key to life as snakes also seem to be in the Northern Territory for a wildlife photographer. I am tentatively rebellious about this too, because appropriating indigenous totems is offensive in some circles, but I am not really sure whether the wildlife photographer was indigenous or not. I found this ‘story’ very dense but I lost interest in having to re-read bits of it to clarify things.
(In the course of writing this review I realised that Rothwell is a Big Noise in terms of writing about Aboriginal Art because he writes about it for The Australian. It would be nice to feel confident that he has respected indigenous protocols in the writing of this book, but the recent controversy generated in The Australian suggests that it would be naïve to make any assumptions one way or the other. It’s odd how quickly culture wars are resurrected with a change of government, isn’t it?)
Whatever. It is at this point I must make a confession. I am also reading Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. I’m about half way through. I had started it before Belomor arrived at the library, and of course I was loving it. Now I know it’s not fair to compare any writer with a Nobel prize-winning author of the stature of Patrick White. But Rothwell, unless I am mistaken, is trying to write about the same idea in a similar way, i.e. four people linked by their common mystic experience. But White’s novels show us that metaphysical enlightenment can belong to any of us and can be found in everyday life among everyday things, and his books are full of vivid characters with the mystic elements deriving from their experiences. In Riders of the Chariot Miss Hare and the Jewish refugee Himmelfarb are real, irresistible people and their stories are compelling in their own right. Their mystic experiences belong in the novel and they illuminate it.
In Rothwell’s book, these mystic experiences are swamped by the solidity of his prose. This excerpt is from a very long paragraph where Warburg travels to the Indian hill settlement of Acoma and interprets Indian symbols of the walls of a Christian church:
As his eyes adjusted to the dark of the church interior, and the rhythm of the service bore in on him, he even made out the fork-tongued lightning images Jurino and his son had drawn. Theory, at this point, came rushing in: surely these emblems were embodiments of knowledge; surely the mind, here, was depicting itself: the steps even spoke of advances, progress, evolution – the forward march of humanity. It was clear. Man who no longer walks on four limbs can hold his head aloft; standing upright is thus the human act par excellence, the striving of the earthbound towards heaven – and this notion propels Warburg to an unhinging discovery, one that whispers like a secret in his work. Light draws man: but there is a light beyond the light, there is code beyond all codes – the world of the senses, the wide world that exceeds us will simply not submit. Its glare annihilates: ‘contemplation of the sky is the grace and curse of humanity.’
As if torn apart by realisations of this nature, Warburg fled the desert: he made his way to California; he dreamed of crossing the Pacific, and pursuing his investigations in Japan- but by the end of March he was back in Arizona, in quest of deeper traces of the pagan past. (p. 56)
Uh, ok… maybe all this rushing about is a commentary on the search for enlightenment in the hurly-burly of the 21st century. But I felt as if this mystic moment were buried under a rugby scrum.
The third story, ‘Winfield Blue’ (what is it with the cigarettes??) is the story of a young high-flyer in the contemporary art scene called Tony Oliver also in search of himself. Here Rothwell takes us to the Kimberley where Oliver (without knowing it at the time) was seeking the light too. It is not until years later when (as cultural adviser to the Vietnamese government, I kid you not) he is building a house at China Beach (I kid you not), that he realises that all he was in quest of, was the gleam: the flame inside the light. It was the glow in the country they [Aboriginal artists at Jirraween] were trying to put down in paint (p. 164)
The fourth story (which is no more of a ‘story’ than the other three) features a woman (wow!) She’s a film-maker from the old Eastern bloc who introduces a German author called Specht to the narrator, who then sets off on another pilgrimage to learn about Winckelmann (founder of archaeology), Chekhov and John Cage. This journey concludes with a revelation from Tjampa, who explains his people’s vision of what happens in the afterlife:
We think there’s a white sea at the end of the world: I’ve even seen it, in pictures, in dreams, inside my head – it’s quiet, and cold, and there are clouds over it, clouds of ice; and you have to walk there, by yourself, across the sand. It’s a hard, long journey: but when you get there, then you see the sun breaking through the clouds, and that white lake gleams, and shines, and looks like fire. (p. 246)
Alas, there was no such illumination for me at the end of my journey through this book.
For reviews which explain better than mine does why this book has been nominated for our most prestigious literary prize, see
- Kim Mahood’s review at the Sydney Review of Books,
- Alex Clark’s at The Guardian,
- Andrew Reimer’s at the SMH, and
- Julia Tulloh’s thoughts at Readings. which, with her comment about how the book sometimes felt like a bit of white male crisis, with lots of male researchers trying to find meaning in so-called ‘exotic’ cultures came closest to how I felt about Belomor.
PS One of these reviews says that all the chapter headings are names of cigarettes.
PPS I am aghast at the suggestion that Rothwell’s claustrophobic melancholy has anything in common with Gerald Murnane’s exquisite fictions.
If you click the link to Fishpond below, you can also see a swag of laudatory comments, with which I am comprehensively out-of-step.
Author: Nicholas Rothwell
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
Source: Kingston Library