BOOK REVIEW / The wrong road to Oz: Living in a new country - Paul Carter: Faber, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
THIS looks like an oddity, and to some extent it is. But it is worth persevering with for the sake of the nuggets of pure gold buried among the iron pyrites. Paul Carter has produced a series of philosophical essays on aspects of Australia: its space, the landscape paintings it inspires, the aborigines.

There is a 26-page excursus given up to the senses, sounds and references of the name 'Yarra'; an essay on a possible third position between the stance of taking all your cultural and intellectual lumber with you to a new country and that of acting as tabula rasa or going to the new land to be reborn; and some sharp observations on the exploration of the southern continent. The idea of migration to a strange land is the bed on which these disparate ideas are made to lie.

Like Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this book is a montage of travel and philosophy, and could therefore become a cult. But unlike Pirsig, Carter seems almost to fear the immediacy of experience, so that all his impressions are filtered through a prism of sociology, ethnography, linguistics and semiology.

Big names are called in to buttress the arguments - Bradley, Eliot, Pound, Ernst, Valery, Auerbach, Malinowski, Lukacs - and there is a lot of modish baloney about 'narrative', 'discourse', 'closure' and so on. Dedication is required from the reader, who is obliged to do battle with metacommunication, intersubjectivity and protention as well as adjectives such as 'anastomosing', 'dialogical' and 'presemiotic'.

Some of the debates seem conjured out of the void, with all the pointlessness of medieval theology: Carter, for instance, sees momentous significance in a shift in narrative voice in explorers' writings from the past to the present tense, though this was old hat, in the form of the 'historic present', with Tacitus and other classical authors.

Carter's application of post-structuralist categories to the exploration of Australia is uneasy, yet this is the book's best section. Carter is expert at distinguishing the genuine explorer from the mere traveller, and assigning the correct predicates and auxiliaries to each: guide to explorer, tracker to traveller, for example.

A first journey into the unknown, he argues, poses peculiar problems of narrative and plot, which is why explorers' accounts are sui generis, neither purely narrative nor non-narrative. Explorers aim not just to record history but to make it and above all to be 'first': hence the well-known rivalries between pairs of explorers aiming to conquer the same space: Burton and Speke; Stanley and Brazza; Peary and Cook; Scott and Amundsen.

Carter has much to say about Australia's explorers. He points out that the aborigines play almost no role in the story, unlike the blacks in African exploration, and that filling in the blank spaces of Australia did not end in major discoveries of geographical or economic interest, with the possible exception of Sturt's charting of the Murray-Darling river.

Carter defends the typical explorer's narrative against the charge that it is a self-aggrandising fiction and maintains that it is, rather, a metaphysical way of apprehending a novel reality. Some of his own analyses, however, sound metaphysical in the Lewis Carroll sense, as in the following: 'What Sturt effectively creates here is a place in the narrative, not so much a place-name as a name-place, that seems to record the absence of a place in reality.'

We are back, it seems, to Heideggerian 'not-being' and Sartre's 'the absence of Pierre haunts the cafe'.

Carter also provides an excellent overview of exploration seen through a psychoanalytic lens, though as he is deeply interested in both Freudianism and aborigine culture he surely misses a trick in not applying Freudian categories to 'the dream time'. It is a persistent fault of this book that it takes the less interesting of the two paths where roads diverge.

There is an almost total absence of humour: where a writer with a lighter touch would have had some fun - with 'tiger look' and other Strine-isms - Carter is po-faced. In general, one applauds the author's undoubted originality while having misgivings about some of his methods and most of his results. Most of all, one misses the spirit of the outback.