One of Australia’s largest independent publishers, Text, have recently brought out a new line of Australian classics. This has been accompanied with a series of articles talking about why it’s important for Australians to read their own literature, and despairing so many twentieth century novels are out of print. To rescue a book from the scrapheap of out of printness takes great courage, to assume that it can live beyond its own context.
A nameless documentary maker comes to the Plains – the vast, never-ending land in the middle of Australia – to make a documentary for his fellow coast dwellers. As he begins to investigate the unique culture in which he finds himself, though, he begins to realise just how bit a task he has set himself. This will not be easy, and as time passes, he becomes more and more frustrated with both the plains, and his own inability to understand them.
There are echoes of More’s Utopia, but with a uniquely Australian bent. The novel is split into two sections, the first of which outlines some of the basic history and culture of the plainsmen, while the second deals more closely with the frustrations and struggles of the film-maker living “in country”. As in Utopia, the first section is like an introduction to the historical context, while the second finds the observer/narrator interacting with these previously abstract theories. The created society Murnanme paints is that of the “plainsmen”, a society cut off from the rest of coastal Australia, preferring to live on the plains, and let their culture blossom from the unique landscape in which they find themselves.
Murnane teases out a lot of issues still facing contemporary Australia. The tension between city and country becomes conflated with the Great Dividing Rage, and those of us who live on the coast (which is most of us) spend our time trying not to think about what’s on the other side of those mountains. And so the basis for Murnane’s fictionalised Australian begins to make more sense. I rather suspect those who live inland view people on the coast as city-slickers, with no understanding what the “real” Australia is. So, too, the plainsmen see those who live on the coast as a little backward and stunted, people who couldn’t live up to the culture of the plains which, for the plainsmen, is inherently better. Of course, there could be another explanation. Maybe it’s the tension bewteen Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The relationship between Indigenous Australians and the unique bush of our fine continent is echoed in the plainsmen’s fascination with portraying, and indeed not portraying, the fields in their own culture.
And in the end, none of us are any the wiser. We still don’t understand the relationship between the plainsmen and the plains. We don’t know why Australia has split itself in two. We don’t know what the plains really are. Where do they start? Where do they end? This gets to the crux, I think, of what Murnane is trying to talk about – the relationship between the artist and her subject. Ultimately, the film-maker is trying to make a film about something unknowable, and he fails. Has he spent too long in the plains to be a passive observer? Does one have to be totally detached from the subject to talk properly about it? Or is his problem the opposite? Is he too tainted by the coast to ever understand the plains? I know this is a paragraph made up almost entirely of rhetorical questions, but in my defence, the entire novel is essentially one long question, so I feel somewhat justified.
I lent this to a friend of mine after I read it, and when I asked her what she thought of it, she told me she “hated it”. It’s not hard to see why The Plains originally out of print. Whatever literary merit it might have, it’s not a satisfying read. There are no hard and fast conclusions. In fact, there are no conclusions at all. Murnane paints a continent divided, where two groups of people cannot find common ground, even though there seem to be attempts to find some. There are more questions than answers, which is not always a bad thing.