Mapping Down Under

Dominique Nabokov
Peter Carey, New York City, 2010

In “Do You Love Me?,” a Borgesian short story first published in 1975, Peter Carey described an unnamed country in which things—first landscapes, later objects and people—begin to disappear “like the image on an improperly fixed photograph.” The unloved “nether regions” of the country are the first to go. “We had no use for these areas,” says the narrator, the son of a cartographer, “these deserts, swamps, and coastlines, which is why, of course, they disappeared. They were merely possessions of ours and if they had any use at all it was as symbols for our poets, writers and film makers.” The questions raised by “Do You Love Me?” have been asked in different ways across many of Carey’s novels: Is it true that the less a country is witnessed—or the less it is written about—the less real it becomes? And just who should get to do the witnessing?

For readers who have never been there, Australia exists as an imaginative blank over which Carey, of all contemporary novelists, has staked the strongest claim. His novels sometimes read as ornate, bafflingly detailed maps. In the past he has used a variety of genres—metafictional tall tale in Illywhacker (1985), picaresque pastiche in Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Dickensian homage in Jack Maggs (1997), faux memoir in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)—as navigational aids, marking out with recognizable literary forms the immense panorama of emptiness that, for many readers, constitutes Australian history. But in the process he’s left plenty of territory unlabeled.

Carey’s maps often suggest a particular aspect of his country’s colonial inheritance: the divide between what the geographer Thomas Griffith Taylor identified as Australia’s “productive agricultural” coastlines and the “sparse” and “useless” landscape of its interior. Leah Goldstein, the doctor-turned-dancer in Illywhacker, called this land “a black man’s country: sharp stones, rocks, sticks, bull ants, flies,” through which the colonial settlers could only move “like tourists.” In Oscar and Lucinda, for which Carey won the first of his two Booker Prizes, Mr. Jeffris—the frustrated adventurer who leads Oscar’s Fitzcarraldoesque expedition to transport a glass church through the outback—is obsessed with the idea that “he should be an explorer of unmapped territories.” The sheets of glass carried by the expedition, he thinks, “would cut a new path in history. They would slice the white dust-covers of geography and reveal the map beneath, with rivers, mountains, and names, the streets of his birthplace, Bromley, married to the rivers of savage Australia.”

Midway through A Long Way from Home, Carey’s fourteenth novel—a funny, humane, and enchanting book that is among his finest—one of the two central narrators, Willie Bachhuber, meets an Aboriginal man nicknamed Doctor Battery and takes him for a drive through an anonymous landscape. “If this was our country’s heart,” thinks Willie, “I never saw anything so stony, so…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.