Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 192 pages; 2013.
When I first embarked on my project to read exclusively Australian literature for a year, I was excited by the prospect of discovering some intriguing — and perhaps unusual — titles lurking in my tottering TBR pile. What I hadn’t expected, when I picked up Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, was to find the Australian equivalent of Kafka on my shelf. Indeed, this novel, which was first published in 1982, took me on such a surreal journey I’m still not quite sure if I fully “got” what it was about. And I suspect each person who reads it comes to a different interpretation of events.
An unusual story
The Plains was Murnane’s third novel — he’s written eight more since then and has recently published his memoir — but this was the first of his that I had read, so I have no idea if this story is typical of his style or subject. It’s essentially an allegory, which is neatly summed up by the opening lines:
Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.
In it, the unnamed narrator ventures to inland Australia, where he plans to make a film about the people who live there. He stays in a hotel in a remote town and spends most of his time drinking with the locals as part of his research. He does not tell them his real reason for visiting because he doesn’t want to scare them off or to prejudice their behaviour towards him: he wants to study the “real” plainsmen and find out about their cultures and customs.
When he discovers that there is a chance to petition some of the richest landowners in the region for patronage, he throws his name in the hat and wins funding from a wealthy plainsman. And then he spends the next two decades living on his property without once filming a single frame…
A curious and playful novel
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this curious novel is the playful way in which Murnane turns many ideas about Australia on their head. I don’t think you have to be Australian to appreciate that most of the population lives on the coastal fringes and rarely, if ever, ventures into the interior (or outback), which is regarded as a cultural wasteland. But in The Plains, Murnane suggests that the reverse is true: the fringe-dwellers live on the “sterile margins of the continent”, where the culture of the capital cities is “despised”, while the plainsmen comprise a varied assortment of intellectuals, artists, musicians, poets and writers who lead rich and stimulating lives, not without their own cultural “spats” and feuds.
Murnane also challenges the notion of the “cultural cringe” — where Australians dismiss their own culture in the belief that it is inferior to the Old Country — by portraying the culture of the plainsmen as being just as sophisticated, if not more so, than anything Britain could offer. And he plays with the idea of high culture influencing the nation’s politics and sense of self:
The Brotherhood of the Endless Plain devoted themselves to an elaborate scheme for transforming Australia into a Union of States whose seat of government was far inland and whose culture welled up from its plains and spilled outwards. The coastal districts would then be seen as a mere borderland where truly Australian customs were debased by contact with the Old World. The League of Heartlanders wanted nothing less than a separate Republic of the Plains with manned frontier-posts on every road and railway line that crossed the Great Dividing Range.
And, of course, he also debunks the myth that the great open spaces of the landscape are empty: if you look closer “what had at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of wildlife”.
Languid prose style
This might make the book sound a bit “stuffy” and “intellectual” and hard work, but it’s not. It’s playful and often humorous — there’s certainly a lot of poking fun at the pomposity of Australian cultural snobbery — and it’s written in such a languid, almost limpid style, that it feels effortless to read.
Admittedly I was about a quarter-way through the book before I clocked it was a fable, and then I suddenly began to see the metaphors and little digs at preconceived notions of how landscape and location marks out certain Australians from other Australians. I can’t pretend I understood everything Murnane was alluding to, but it certainly tickled my brain matter in a way I hadn’t expected when I plucked it from the shelf.
It felt like something Kafka might have cooked up with Magnus Mills if the two of them spent some time Down Under.
This is my ninth book for #ReadingAustralia2016.
This book is published in both ebook and paperback format and is available in the UK, US and Canada.