There are those vast forms that have informed the cultures of entire nations, but because they are cultures that are rarely discussed in the mainstream, they tend to be relics of a time and history which are often forgotten. As I began Poor Fellow My Country, the Miles Franklin winning novel of Xavier Herbert, I was immediately struck, by his description, of a boy… “Aboriginal… distinctly so by cast of countenance, while yet so lightly coloured as to pass for any light-skinned breed even tanned Caucasian. His skin was cream-caramel, with a hair-sheen of gold…. His nose, fleshed and curved in the mould of his savage ancestry, at the same time was given enough of the beakiness of the other side to make it a thing of perfection. Likewise his lips. Surely a beautiful creature to any eye but the most prejudiced in the matter of race. Indeed, but for knowing the depth and breadth of prejudice against the very strain that gave him perfection, one might well be amazed to know that such a thing could stand the sight of him. Yet most people… would dismiss him as just a boong. He was aged about eight.”
This is the first paragraph of Poor Fellow My Country. It is the longest known novel written in Australia, the language is sharp, and compelling, fully in control, and yet, it is both noble, and condescending. This is a book of the 1970s, and it is clear that Herbert, as a white Australian, was trying to do justice to an Aboriginal character. In fact, the whole book is meant to a chronicle of this little boy’s life, a story of how Prindy grows and weathers Australian life in the 1940s, over 1400 pages. And, yet, in the same way that no matter how much we clean our nails, a little bit of dirt gets into the space between the clavicle and the skin, Herbert cannot change the fact that he is a white man writing about an Aboriginal. And it is this very fixed gaze of his, to do good with language, and yet never truly enter the mind of his character, which made this book a most puzzling read.
Certain things about, I liked. It is rare to read a work of naturalism from Australia, and much like Ruth Park’s much better Harp in the South, I found myself feeling a sort of empathy for a slice of life I rarely delve into. Herbert has a lot of sympathy and honesty in his writing, and generally he creates well-rounded shades to his characters, a difficulty when one is trying to tell a tale outside of one’s perspective. It is one of the longest books ever written, and from a culture I’m very much a foreigner too. I wanted to like it so much more than I could.
Herbert’s syntax is unrelentingly simple. He writes in short and terse sentences, and he rarely strays from it. Because the style is told in Herbert’s voice and not Prindy, the character feels inanimate. Herbert has a great ear for dialogue, and renders all the different styles of speaking of Northern Australia extremely well. Unfortunately, as someone who doesn’t know the Austrialian dialect of English well enough, his use of apostrophe and broken sentences was a little taxing for me. A lot of it felt too long. A lot of it felt it could have been cut up, or tossed out.
After finishing Poor Fellow My Country, I felt like I read a really long book. Not in the sense that I read an epic of literature, which rewards one’s reading time with the philosophical and emotional weight of its world, but instead a book I went through a lot of in order to finish. It was a book I barely understood. It was a book that felt out of place for the story it was trying to write. I would say that perhaps I am too much of a foreigner in many aspects to be able to fully appreciate this classic, and that is something I have to accept, that not all books are universal, or are open enough to talk on those terms. At the same time, for a book that was trying to go specific into a social problem and give it depth, I wish that it tried harder to give its characters more life. Perhaps not more sympathy, or more thought, but just life.
Regardless, I would still recommend this book, for anyone who wants to read a neglected 20th century classic, for anyone who wants a portrait of the Aboriginal condition through white eyes.