peteg's blog - noise - books - 2011 01 04 Herbert Capricornia

Xavier Herbert: Capricornia. (1938)

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I haven't read many of these classic Australian literary works, scarred by the neo non-classic Maestro in HSC English. I was fortunate to dig a copy out of the UNSW Library, proving that it's not just a café afterall.

The opening chapter is a blistering tragicomic account of an exploitative frontiersman arriving in an Aboriginal nation and demanding the services of the locals, specifically their women, for him and his Aboriginal company. In that Herbert neatly expresses so much of what can be misunderstood amongst cultures, as does his rapid co-decimation (keep one-in-ten) of the tribe occupying Port Zodiac (Darwin), which is similarly painful and masterful. The bar is set unendurably high too early, but it is easy to forgive Herbert as he never slips far.

Perhaps Henry Lawson could have written like this if he'd settled somewhere for long enough; this comes well after Lawson carked it (1922). It is also on the track to Donald Horne's brand of commentary (The Lucky Country), whinging about the general crappiness of the people running the place. They might not be relieved to know that nothing has changed.

I only have two complaints about this book, neither of which kill it: the first is that the plot is lost somewhere in the middle when too much time is spent adjusting the epistemic states of the characters without anything much happening. The second is that the final third or so is a big set piece about how the law is an ass, both in general and specifically in these sorts of places, e.g. due to the impossibility of a jury trial and the pomposity of the rule-of-law minority-of-two (or so). This is a bit tiring.

Conversely I liked the heavy-handed character names: they were quaint. I also enjoyed the lightness of his treatment of the relationship between the Capricornians and the Asians, e.g. the pre-national Indonesia (Java, Papua, Timor), and the Japanese pearlers. I wish the female characters had more heft, as e.g. Heather and Jasmine have pivotal roles but it is unclear what drives them. Marigold is all status but is written out just as she is developing.

Like Hunter S. Thompson's Las Vegas, Capricornia is Herbert's vantage point for watching the wave breaking and rolling back. I'll have to read Poor Fellow My Country now, I guess.