Book Review: The Swan Book
Imagine the AAMI black swans TV ad took place in Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. Imagine that the swans were not on the attack, but were the spiritual brothers and sisters of a mute Aboriginal girl living half a century into the future under an even more punishing and widespread Intervention regime.
Indigenous author Alexis Wright, whose previous insight into Aboriginal Australia was set in a mythical Queensland community appropriately named Desperance, has delivered another powerful statement about the State’s denial of black self-determination in The Swan Book.
The protagonist is Oblivia Ethylene, who pursues, but is unable to articulate, a “quest to regain sovereignty over my own brain”. She lives on a contaminated lake controlled by the Army and filled with the detritus of war machinery and naval craft. Her homeland has become a secret locality for Defence Force scheduled training manoeuvres and bombing runs.
Into this incarcerated community, and others like it, are shipped all Aboriginal persons deemed unable or unwilling to adapt to life in capitalist Australia. These “growth centres” of “truck people” are the outcome of the National Aboriginal Relocation Policy which is set up to deal with the old people who, having done “nothing to change things by themselves for the future… had given up the right of sovereignty over their lives”.
Not all Aboriginal people are trucked to such camps. There are those who are exempt from the coercive policies imposed upon their compatriots by virtue of “presenting themselves as being well and truly yes people who were against arguing the toss about Aboriginal rights”. They were “anti about whatever there was to be anti about if white people say so” and were thus granted an Aboriginal Nation Government. From their ranks emerges young Warren Finch, and where have we heard before of a “Warren” in Aboriginal Australian political life?
Wright says of Finch: “He had become the only public Aboriginal voice of the era. The only one Australians would listen to, and reported in the newspapers, or had given their airways to whenever he spoke publicly. It certainly seemed as though there was national deafness to hearing what other Aboriginal people had to say of themselves.” And so she disposes of the black Judenrats promoted by the Murdoch media!
Finch claims Oblivia as his promise-wife and orders the Army to bomb her community out of existence so she has nothing to which to return.
Like Desolation Row, Wright’s novel has its cast of strange characters.
There is Oblivia’s protector, Bella Donna of the Champions, who arrives in the swamp community as a refugee from the climate change wars of the global north, an old white lady with a swan-bone flute. She and others like her were the “new gypsies of the world…millions of white people…drifting among the other countless stateless millions of sea gypsies looking for somewhere to live.”
Bella Donna spends much of her time arguing with the Harbourmaster, an “Aboriginal man with an Asian heritage…a healer for the country…he just flies where he wants to” although we are not talking aeroplanes here.
He and his monkey Rigoletto appear and disappear at will, as one would expect of a healer of great power; however, he is in reality a delusional character who “only had a big mouth and that was not going to move the sand mountain” that kept building up like a pile of unsolved social problems at the mouth of the lake’s entrance to the sea.
Wright’s acknowledgements include a nod in the direction of the late Tom Trevorrow, a Ngarrindjeri Elder from the Coorong which, like the Lake, had its entrance to the sea silted up as a result of climate change.
These two powerful themes, failure to respect Indigenous self-determination and failure to respond to climate change, make The Swan Book a powerful weapon for dissecting the problems of contemporary Australian reality.