Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Track to Bralgu by B. Wongar

In these powerful stories B. Wongar deals with the clash of cultures, with what it means to be a  black man in a white man's continent: Australia.

This short collection of stories packs one hell of a punch. Beautiful, angry, haunting, bitter,  they show the world through the eyes of Aboriginal Australians of the Northern Territory. Wongar's characters call on the spirits of the wind and the rain, but even Jambawal, the Thunder Man, cannot drive away the white man who is destroying the Australian landscape: The settlers cleared the bush long ago and the country hereabouts looks like a skinned beast.

It came as a shock therefore to discover that the author is a white man, a Serbian. However he lived with the Aboriginal Australians of Northern Territory and married a local woman. According to his autobiography, Wongar's wife and children died of radiation poisoning arising from the uranium mining. Wongar's legitimacy as a writer about the experience of Aboriginal Australians has been called into question. Maybe that is a way of deflecting the serious issues he wrote about. It should also be said that Australia is an enormous country and so the culture, legends and experience shown here are of a specific tribe and area. 

It is a shame that it is necessary to refer to Wongar's biography, because as I say above this is a powerful collection. To this British reader the stories ring true, but who am I to know? It strikes me that Wongar is neither an Aboriginal Australian nor a white Australian. He is an outsider to both cultures and maybe this gives him an insight. 

So let us look at this book at face value: These stories are written with a stark beauty, like the landscape in which they are set. Wongar's writing style is poetic, full of powerful imagery. The stories are written in the first person (spoken by Aboriginal Australians) and are in the present tense, which gives them immediacy. 

Bralgu of the title is the land of the dead: The Rijatjigu elders say often when a man dies his spirit splits in three parts: one goes to Bralgu to join the ancestors; another sits on the bottom of the totemic waterhole and waits to be reborn; while the third, the Mogwoi, they call it, wanders around tribal country. In the stories these three parts appear. Many of Wongar's characters are on the track to Bralgu. They see the Mogwoi around them, the most startling example being the narrator of one of my favourite stories, Maramara. And they are shocked by the destruction of the sacred waterholes or are separated from them by the seizure of their lands and the brutal enforcement of anti-trespass laws. 

The ironic portrayal of the white man is as someone who values the uranium and ore-rich rocks and yet tears them from the soil, so destroying the land. Even people who should be caring, such as the priests, come with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. The nurse Helen in Maramara carries a bag for rocks and it is she that finds the uranium-bearing rocks in the tribe's sacred cave. There is the suggestion that she poisoned the children: your friend the nurse gave him a biscuit and he died soon after. 

This is a bleak and powerful book and a good example of how magic realism can tackle serious subjects.

No comments: