In the Land of Oz

  • Review
By – July 9, 2014

In the mid-’80s, Eng­lish nov­el­ist Howard Jacob­son was com­mis­sioned by his British pub­lish­er to write a book about Aus­tralia. Why Oz? Oztralia? It’s appar­ent­ly an Eng­lish thing. The book was not pub­lished in the U.S. — then came Kaloo­ki Nights, which was longlist­ed for the Man Book­er Prize in 2006, fol­lowed by The Fin­kler Ques­tion, which won the Man Book­er in 2010. Blooms­bury reis­sued In the Land of Oz for the U.S. the fol­low­ing year with a brief Pref­ace by Jacob­son, who had lived in Austra­lia for sev­er­al years in the mid-’60s, hap­pi­ly teach­ing lit­er­a­ture in Syd­ney. But this trip was not to be a revis­it­ing of old haunts. Quite the con­trary. He set out with his then-wife, Ros­alin San­dler, Perth-born and Catholic, on a jour­ney that would even­tu­al­ly clock some 10,000 miles and scores of encoun­ters — his aim was to expe­ri­ence Aus­tralia in a way most vis­i­tors don’t get to do. To be sure, there are views of World Her­itage-like sites along the way and all man­ner of ref­er­ences to Aus­tralian fau­na and food. But the meat of the book is Jacobson’s many encoun­ters with ordi­nary Aus­tralians, among them, bus dri­vers, taxi dri­vers, hotel clerks, social ser­vice work­ers, teach­ers, wait­resses, any­one will­ing to talk. And the talk? Pri­mar­i­ly on white-abo­rig­i­nal rela­tions. Begin­ning in Dar­win on the north­ern coast where ten­sions between the two are pal­pa­ble — The Abo­rig­ine him­self some­where between a pet­ty prob­lem and a pesti­lence” — we shad­ow Jacob­son and Ros” trav­el­ing coun­ter­clock­wise around the coastal perime­ter, head­ed to Perth on the south­west­ern tip — some 2,500 miles by bus — stay­ing in mod­est hotels, mak­ing incur­sions inland, and every­where Jacob­son talk­ing and ques­tion­ing. Leav­ing Perth for Ade­laide, again by bus — east­ward, more than 1,600 miles — they soon head into the north­ern ter­ri­to­ries by camper to spend adven­tur­ous days among the abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple of the cen­tral Aus­tralian desert. Despite Jacobson’s occa­sion­al throw­ing in some gra­tu­itous and/​or self-dep­re­cat­ing sen­tences about being a Jew­ish trav­el­er, what emerges over more than 500 pages is Jacob­son the unre­lent­ing explor­er of the real­i­ties behind appear­ances, his not-so sub­li­mat­ed out­rage at the way Abo­rig­i­nal lands have been tak­en over, and his moral indig­na­tion at the country’s embed­ded racism — the hope­less intran­si­gence of white atti­tudes to blacks.” At bot­tom, The Land of Oz is also a primer on how to expe­ri­ence any coun­try beyond the stan­dard guide­book sites: dis­count­ing the hyper­bole, Jacob­son writes, I actu­al­ly didn’t see any­thing unless I was talk­ing. Or lis­ten­ing. There is of course no world that is pure­ly and objec­tive­ly out there. Every voy­ager paints and peo­ples his own land­scape … I jour­neyed to the cen­tre of dia­logue; where it was I thought I’d been. I’d nev­er in fact set a foot out­side conversation.”

Relat­ed Content

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

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