Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2016

Poor Fellow My Country, by Xavier Herbert

Poor Fellow My CountryAt 1443 pages, Xavier Herbert’s masterwork Poor Fellow My Country took a month to read.  I set myself a target of 50 pages or so each day, and interspersed the reading with other books to (literally) lighten the load.  My hardback copy weighs nearly 2 kilos, and it measures 23.5 x 16 x 6cm, which makes it hard to hold in the hand, but it’s heavy going in more ways than one.  The book is dense with characters; it alludes to real people and events that involve guesswork about who they are; plot points are resurrected many pages after their first mention; and there are chunks of polemical rants that seem to go on and on forever.  The reader needs stamina, tolerance and patience to read Poor Fellow My Country.  It is an intensely political novel, and what many Australian readers may find confronting is that Herbert makes no secret of his contempt for his fellow Australians.

Poor Fellow My Country

First edition, 1975

Yet Wikipedia lists Poor Fellow My Country among its “notable” books published for that decade, and it won the Miles Franklin Award in 1975.  IMO that’s not because the novel has great prose, or wonderful characters or lyric qualities or even a very good plot.  It won, I think, because it’s one of the few books I’ve read that tackles the issue of Australian identity.

Poor Fellow My Country is a lament for the Australia that Herbert thought it could have been, an Australia that could reconcile the dispossession of its indigenous people and throw off its colonial apron strings.   I think that most Australians now would have some sympathy with his resentment of Australia’s largely self-imposed deference to all things British, which meant that British still held sovereignty in many areas.  Because of the Australian Parliament’s delay in ratifying the Statute of Westminster (1931), by the time WW2 started Australia still wasn’t part of the Commonwealth of Nations but rather still part of the British Empire.  Its soldiers were British, travelling on British passports, and under British command.  Herbert regarded this as a second dispossession in Australia.

However, I suspect that his vision of a Creole Anglo-Aboriginal nation would sit ill with many, not least our Indigenous people themselves because they want to retain their own unique culture, heritage and identity.  Some might also feel that by recording some of their myths and cultural practices in this book, Herbert is guilty of appropriation.  He was a champion of indigenous issues for his time, and (according to the introduction in the A&R edition), his efforts to use fiction to bring these issues to a wider audience were valued by Indigenous people in that era, but times have changed.  I’d be very interested to read a review of Poor Fellow My Country by a contemporary indigenous reader.

Until I read Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines, I did not know that a Creole society once existed in Tasmania in the early 1800s.  Sealers had abducted some Aboriginal women, and others had been traded by their own people.  Whatever their origins, these societies did not survive the brutal dispossession of Tasmanian Aborigines in the wake of intensified settlement.  But in Herbert’s vision for Australia, the imbalance between the sexes in the days of early settlement could have been resolved in mixed-race relationships of equal status with other relationships.  This is the ideal that the character of pastoralist Jeremy Lacy had had for the settlements of the Northern Territory, but by the time the story takes place – from the 1930s up to WW2 – Jeremy is disillusioned.  There is nothing but racism around him, the Indigenous people have been dispossessed and are now exploited, White Australia wanted them to learn its ways but not how to make a profit on their own land, and the cultural aspects of their traditions are not valued.  More than that, the people that he hoped might influence attitudinal change, turn out to be a disappointment.

(I should point out that the novel was written over a very long period of time.  Its gestation began pre WW2 and was interrupted by Herbert’s service in the Pacific theatre, not started again until twenty years later, and then not finished until nine years after that.  Herbert’s own political views changed considerably over that length of time, but whatever happened in the revision and editing process, it seems to me that the novel still betrays a sense of tortured confusion and self-hatred about what could and should be achieved, and which people could be trusted to campaign for it.)

Anyway…

Much of the plot revolves around the central character young Prindy, grandson of White cattleman Jeremy and the son of Nelyerri (Nellie) making him heir to both Aboriginal and Australian heritage.  Technically fatherless, he appeals to the many men without sons, and the fluidity of his identity means that he has a potential role to play in both societies: his Indigenous people want to initiate him into the role of Pookarakka, a sort of shaman of the Rainbow-snake totem, but his mother, who’s been on the receiving end of racism wants to keep him away from tribal influences.  Everyone wants a bit of Prindy: at different times, the Whites want him to become heir to Jeremy’s land, a gifted musician, a military leader, or a Communist.  He is a snake man to his own people; he’s a little bit Jew to the Jewish characters; and he’s Catholic to the Catholic characters including the nuns who think he’s a little angel. He is attractive to both men and women but ends up marrying a young Indian girl, a marriage that no one takes seriously except for Prindy and the girl, and a marriage that – disastrously – is apparently a breach of indigenous law.

Also critical to the plot is the role of Rivkah, a Jewish refugee, who, because she has suffered terribly in Nazi Germany, identifies with the Aboriginal community and wants to build a new life with them.  However, although almost every man that sets eyes on her falls in love with her, she is thought by some to be a Communist, a spy, and a trouble-maker, accusations which are used against her by other rivals for Jeremy’s affection or people who just want to sabotage him.  I found myself somewhat irritated by the soppy way almost all the men fawned over her great wide eyes and proposed marriage to her willy-nilly,  and I was slightly doubtful about the way she, a non-religious Jew, appropriated Jewish cultural festivals that she knew nothing about, in order to indulge a love of cooking and festivity.  And I’m really not sure how respectful Herbert’s attitude to mixed marriages was, when Jeremy, legally married to his Aboriginal wife Nan, was openly in love with Rivkah in their home and Nan was not only ok with that, but encouraged it as if a White relationship was inherently superior to the relationship that she had with Jeremy.  She happily shares her kitchen as well as her husband…

Jeremy, however, for all his flaws, is motivated by a deep love of country.  Discussing the prospect of a Japanese invasion, Jeremy says that resort to arms in self-defence means only to increase vindictiveness but that he would fight to defend the home he wants to live in as he likes.  He rejects the help of Fergus, an anthropologist turned charter pilot, saying that their purposes would be too different.

I want simply to stay on in my own country, to die in it. sooner or later, loving it as an old blackfellow does when he dies… his love born of his knowledge of it.  (p.1275)

But Jeremy’s belief that all Australian landowners are accessories to theft – and instead of creating Aboriginal reserves and paying ‘handouts’ – should pay a ‘guilt tax’ goes down like a lead balloon with the ‘Free Australia Party’ which had hoped to use him as a figurehead.  This thread in the novel involves a convoluted plot in which Jeremy (who’s supposed to be A Good Thing and also supposed to be the wisest, least racist character) gets naively involved with this party which is clearly a far right, fascist organisation.   Apparently (again, according to the introduction) in real life Herbert got himself mixed up with the notorious Inky Stephenson whose Australia First Movement morphed from being Anti-Imperialist to being Anti-British, which got him interned during the war.  Herbert who was against Australia joining the war in Europe, enlisted when the Japanese became a threat to Australia.  In the novel, complicated by the unlikely attraction between Jeremy and Alfie Candlemas who starts out as a reformer but shows her nasty anti-Semitic streak as the plot progresses, Herbert IMO struggles to show how Jeremy was ever interested in any association with ‘Free Australia’ without making him look like a fool.  (Perhaps he thought he himself had been a fool?)

There are some mixed race families and mixed race relationships based on mutual respect rather than exploitation. But these potential Creole families are despised by White society and Prindy himself, on the verge of initiation into the secrets of his own culture, is constantly at risk of capture by the White authorities who want him confined in the Mission. And the tragic conclusion of the novel suggests that intolerance isn’t something unique to White society.  Torture and murder is repugnant in any culture, but especially so when it’s done without discussion or trial to innocents.  This utterly repellent conclusion was a strange way for an author to conclude a book that was meant to make people admire indigenous culture.

Does it read well?  Yes, and no.  There are exciting, dramatic and poignant moments when Herbert has mastery of his craft – and there are pompous polemics which are tiresome indeed.  Some of the dialogue reads like didactic speech-making, with some (presumably unintentionally) hilarious results.  Jeremy, for example, rants on for a page and a bit about Captain Cook releasing pigs to be the first immigrants in Australia, to Alfie who has just lost her baby. I can only assume that Herbert’s editor was not a woman, because any woman would have pointed out that the suggestion that Alfie console herself by working with Jeremy on wiping out these pigs was risible.  Herbert compounds his folly by reinforcing the insult.  When Jeremy notices that Alfie’s a bit down on Courage at the moment, he switches tack and suggests they could start with wiping out the Indian Myna bird, and ticks her off when she looks glum.  And later on he delivers a long and ludicrous lecture about females and reproduction, but *oops* I forgot to note the page number.

Along with the persistent use of terms like ‘half-caste’ and ‘octoroon’, there are passages that are downright cringeworthy:

Fergus remarked: ‘There is a theory that the intellectual development of people stops at varying ages… like seven in the moron.  The average age is supposed to be about sixteen.’

‘Yes … I’ve read that.  It struck me as significant too … as having something to do with sexual development.  [….] It’s a fact that animals are easiest to train before sexual maturity, in most cases impossible afterwards.  Blacks are similar … I mean in the matter of educating them in our ways.  It’s generally accepted that their capacity for schooling collapses utterly at puberty.  Generally it’s put down to natural stupidity … even though that’s obviously gainsaid by the fact that they start off learning our ways easily … and, of course, in their own ways can be so astute as to leave a whiteman marvelling. (p.1283-4)

At times there’s repetition, and at other times when a character or plot point is resurrected from pages way back, a reprise would have been welcome.  (I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many notes about a plot!)  Some of it is melodramatic, but some of it is genuinely exciting, and the divided loyalties of Communists and Irishmen attracting attention during the War was quite interesting.  Overall, of course, the good outweighs the bad, otherwise I would have abandoned it, Miles Franklin winner or not.

Still, I was inordinately glad to get to the end of it!

PS I was not at all impressed by the litany of spelling mistakes in this edition.  With spell-checking obviously available to the publisher, some of them are unforgiveable.

  • p645 I isn’t (it isn’t)
  • p726 learnt (instead of learned, as in our learned friends)
  • p816 teatotal (as in teetotal, i.e. not a drinker)
  • p831 maters (military matters)
  • p1073 halluncination
  • p1197 hosiptality
  • p1201 afield (a field)
  • p1244 could friend (‘ould friend, meaning old friend)
  • p1263 narow (narrow)
  • p1325 Tll (I’ll) look after it

Update 1/3/17: I have just discovered a terrific resource about Xavier Herbert.  It’s called A Long and Winding Road, Xavier Herbert’s Literary Journey, and it was published by UWA Press in 2003.  The author, who is a Xavier Herbert scholar and enthusiast, is concerned about the neglect of this author, so has made the whole book available online in order to spread the word about Herbert’s achievement.  Click here to read the whole book, or just chapters about specific novels.

Author: Xavier Herbert
Title: Poor Fellow My Country
Introduction by Prof. Russell McDougall, University of New England
Publisher: A&R (Angus & Robertson) Classics, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2014
ISBN: 9780732299460|
Personal copy, gift from The Offspring
(I also have a first edition, but I preferred to read this edition because (a) it kept my first edition pristine and (b) it has an introduction.


Responses

  1. Congratulations on finishing it! I don’t think I could ever tackle it, so thank you for the review.

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    • LOL I feel as if I’ve done readers a bit of a service in reading it. I suspect that most contemporary readers are reading it for scholarly reasons, rather than just curiosity like me.

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  2. Great review, and thank you. Do you often persevere with books you don’t enjoy? I’ll confess that I’ll regularly ditch books part way through. Life is too short!

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    • It depends on the book. I don’t persist with books that are facile, but this one is an important albeit flawed book. The Spouse and I dined out tonight, and we had an interesting time discussing the ideas from Poor Fellow. Overall I’m glad I read it.

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  3. Well done Lisa … I’m not sure I’m keen enough to read it, but you never know, one day I might decide I need to read it. I’m interested in your comment about its being a rare book in terms of tackling Australian identity. I feel I’ve read quite a few books that do that? Some are non-fiction. I’ll need to think a bit more about fiction though my sense is that many novels do tackle it, even if not always overtly. White, Winton, Tsiolkas?

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    • Hmm, I think I would say that Herbert is coming at identity from a different place, a much more political idea of identity than the ‘Australian character’ approach taken by White, Winton and Tsolkias. He is ferocious about Australia being still legally tied to Britain as it then was (remember we still had appeals to the Privy Council right up to the middle 1980s?) and he loathed the cultural copy cat behaviour, the naming of pastoral leases and other places after English places, the adoption of British snobberies at race meetings and so on. There’s a lot in it about communism and a side of it that we don’t see these days : it’s the communist train driver, for instance, who refuses to transport Aborigines in cattle trucks because that’s how Jews were transported. And while plenty of writers have deplored Australian racism, I can’t think of any that seriously proposed an alternative kind of society as a solution.

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      • Ah, thanks for explaining further what you meant. That makes sense.

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        • Really, I could have written a much longer review, but at 2000 odd words, I thought, who’s going to read it if I write any more!

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          • I know the feeling. I start to worry when I get to 1300 words or so. that’s when I often break it into two posts, though I’m not sure whether many people read the second one!

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            • Well, I think Poor Fellow is probably a bit like Voss. I wrote my Voss review years ago and it still gets heaps of hits, obviously from students writing essays about it. A Poor Fellow review is similar in that I suspect most people reading it will be reading it for some sort of study or for historical interest rather than for the sheer pleasure of it.

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  4. 50 pages x 30 days, calculating 300 words per page. That’s a 450,000 word epic, give and take. With few notable exceptions, An author in this age would hardly get a look in the door if they pitched a work of that length. Bravo on completing the marathon. Out of curiosity, roughly how many books do you have in your collection?

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    • I don’t know, Robyn. Thousands, even not counting those belonging to The Spouse. Currently I have 875 on the TBR (because I bought three more today at the Jewish Writers Festival) but just looking at the shelves I have many more that I’ve already read even though I haven’t been able to keep them all.

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  5. Thanks for reading it so that we don’t have to 😉

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  6. I’m glad you undertook the project of reading/reviewing what is obviously an important Australian book (I wonder how many of the MF judges read it right through). I think all Australian books contribute to defining Australian identity, but you’re probably right in that only a few have it has a principal objective. Herbert was probably well meaning and wrong headed in the field of race relations, but his comparing of Jewish and Aboriginal experience is interesting.
    Sorry I took so long to reply – I assumed the ‘gap’ in your posts was you finishing Herbert, not me somehow getting disconnected.

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    • You know how they release cabinet papers after a certain period of time has elapsed? I like to hope that one day the MF judges’ deliberations are released – it would be so good to know their thoughts about it all.
      I can imagine that a few hearts sank when they realised that such a long book to read, to whatever deadline there was.
      (I am a bit alarmed that email notifications have been going walkabout, I hope it’s not happening to others as well).
      Herbert’s wife was Jewish, which might account for the way he idealises his character Rivkah, and probably also for the instinctive way that Rivkah identifies with the Aboriginal experience. But I couldn’t help remembering something that Anita Heiss said in one of her writings: I can’t quote it exactly but it was something like that she thought everyone had a sense of connection to land and a spiritual dimension to their lives, but that they had to find it themselves, Aboriginal people couldn’t give it to them. Herbert wanting to have it shines through this novel, he passionately wanted to have his love of Australia unencumbered by guilt about dispossession.

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      • It’s sad that farmers/graziers who no doubt do have a feeling for their properties often feel the need to deny Indigenous connection, which so obviously has a different dimension. Australians need to find a way of acknowledging and incorporating Aboriginal experience without taking it over – and at this stage, without rewriting it in their own words – and literature is the best place to commence that.

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        • Agreed, though I think acknowledging our First People in the Constitution is long overdue. It’s a real pity that Constitutional reform is so difficult to achieve, I’m sure that if the provisions for amendment were less onerous this fundamental reform would have been achieved decades ago without too much angst.

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  7. […] is ploughing her way through Poor Fellow My Country and will shortly produce a review (link here), but what I wanted to say is that Healy regards Herbert as an important figure in the […]

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  8. Superb review Lisa and thanks for the link at the end. What a great resource. I really need to get on with this one considering it’s place in our literature.

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    • Thank you! It’s been such a long time since I read it myself that re-read the review to refresh my memory of it – and found myself a little bit tempted to re-read the book….

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  9. […] (see my review), and I have Poor Fellow My Country on my Miles Franklin winners TBR. (Update, see my review) Yes, he is ‘voluminous, incorrigibly didactic and often contradictory’ (p. 39) but […]

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