The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson

Having introduced the group to this 2011 Vogel Prize winner (and I would like to introduce the 2012 winner tonight), I explained then (and will repeat now) that I have personal links with the background to this story and to one element in particular. The horribly murdered infant referred to at pg. 45, John Isaac Tibbs, was my 1C4R. His mother, Elizabeth, was my GGG Grandaunt, sister to my GGG Grandmother Mary.

As a result of regular family and good friend visits to Tasmania, I am familiar with the areas described throughout the novel, though I have had no great experience deep into the Eastern Highlands close to Ben Lomond apart from visiting some lake fishing shacks.  Overall, the Tasmanian environment is always very beautiful but with a threatening edge and always very changeable. Its impact on first European settlers reflected that threat which only mellowed with experience. Those feelings are well presented by Wilson.

Rohan Wilson was born in 1976 and raised largely in Launceston though he went to school in Southern Queensland and Melbourne and holds diplomas or degrees at the Universities of Tasmania, Southern Queensland and Melbourne. He has lived in Bicheno, Hobart and parts of the north coast and the central highlands of Tasmania. He graduated from UTAS in 1998 where he is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing. He jobbed in Hospitality before leaving for Japan in 2003.

Japan is important to him as he taught English there, met his wife Machiko there and had a job loss when his employer failed. However, he has recorded that the idea for the novel crystallised there one night in Kobe, September 2007. With my interest in the psychology of Creativity, his story of how this came about is illuminating

‘The last place you should be pondering a man like John Batman, the son of a Parramatta convict, a pioneer settler, a bounty hunter, a killer of men. But there I was, rolling off my futon and onto the tatami floor, reaching for my laptop to type. Somehow, the framework of a novel had fallen half-formed from my subconscious and I had to get it down.”

“What I had needed was a push … There were rumours of an obscure Japanese law, a system of compensation for workers dudded out of their entitlements: work until the company collapses, and the government will repay a percentage of the lost wages. It wasn’t much, but it kept most of us working until the creditors came to carry off the furniture. Or in my case, working, and then writing like a condemned man in breaks between classes.”

“I’d been reading around the subject since early 2001 but didn’t start writing until 2007.”

“A lot of the research I did at the State Library. But some things, like John Batman’s diary, were only available in Victoria so I had to make special appointments to see them in the archives section and put the white gloves on to view them.”

“For years the stories of men like Wooreddy, Manalargena, Brady, and Batman had been brewing inside me, fed on a grist of great historians and cowboy movies. I’d written short stories. I’d written bits and pieces of novels. Things you wouldn’t even show your wife. Twaddle. But I had never published anything, never even finished anything. I was exactly what my teachers had always warned me I would become: an underachiever. Or what my boss in Japan somewhat less tactfully called a “useless bloody turd”. Now that wort [primitive brew] of frontier violence and heroic myth had fermented into a clear, workable outline in the middle of the night. It was a revelatory moment.”

“So we came home, my family and I, with a few hundred thousand yen compensation, and an idiotic idea that my Batman manuscript might have a future.”

“The first, and the most momentous, event in this run was the discovery of a man called William Ponsonby, or “Black Bill” as he was universally known in 1829. What the initial draft of The Roving Party had taught me was this: Batman was a tedious, banal, self-serving killer in the mold of a low-level Einsatzgruppen officer, or an Ottoman of the Teşkilat-i Mahsusa. He was motivated by racial hate, and by the ambition to become a great landholder, a great man. He was not the character I needed to guide me through the Tasmanian genocide. But Black Bill offered something more. Here was an Aborigine alienated from his birth culture, raised in the ways of hatred so common among frontier whites. An outsider, but a participant nonetheless. He had an ambiguity that was immediately compelling.”

“My Masters research proposal at the University of Melbourne was accepted. It was entitled ‘ The Roving Party: Extinction Discourse in the Literature of Tasmania’ and investigates the way in which the ‘extinction discourse [shapes] the features of modern literature about Tasmania’. Upon completion in 2010, I won a scholarship for a PhD position and I was now free to write without fear of going hungry. Luck took an even stranger turn when in spring 2010 I learned that a much revised and developed manuscript for The Roving Party had won the Australian/Vogel’s Prize for Literature I didn’t see a copy of the book until after winning the $30,000 Vogel while being interviewed for ‘The Australian’.”

Tasmania’s very early history was cursed by a number of influences – the large number of convicts leading to an equally large number of desperate escapees -the alienation of huge tracts of the best land to a privileged few and the consequent generation of an underemployed landless class – and difficult black/white relationships. Elements of the landless, lawless and alienated combined create a climate of great tension and fear. In this climate, some more powerful and desperate settlers, especially those operating on the fringe, unleashed a virtual Black War with individuals and roving parties hunting down blacks and whites who lived a guerrilla-style existence. This war against the local Plindermairhemener tribe proved largely futile as the land was not unlocked from the land grandees and many settlers moved to Western Port, the new Melbourne and the beginnings of SA while the defeated and coralled aborigines were led to their demise (for most) at beautiful Wybalenna on Flinders Island.

There are two elements to consider in this novel – the language and the story line and characterisations.

The language has had a mixed reception. Vogel judges reported that it was not the smoothest manuscript in competition. Nor was it the most comfortable read. But it impelled the judges’ attentions like no other book. It was described as “… self-consciously archaic, comma-wary, a combination of fragments and rolling sentences that combine gruesome verisimilitude with hallucinatory flights.” It is at times heavily worked but is constantly redeemed by the vernacular language put into the mouths of the men in the roving party and the hair-raising descriptions of violent acts.

The story line resurrects elements of the ‘History Wars’ which centred on the claim by Keith Windschuttle that Tasmania’s colonial history was less violent than some had portrayed and that it did not constitute genocide.Wilsonsees Batman as man with little redemption and the tale as ‘the utterly desperate man  hunting a chameleon prey in an environment splendidly grand and frightening like a wild gothic landscape come to life’. The two best fleshed out characters are Black Bill and Manalargena who represent the social and moral complexities of the situation into which Tasmania’s original inhabitants had been thrust. The treatment of women is also interesting, the aboriginal coming off somewhat better than the white (Batman had  a long but troubled relationship with his eventual wife).

It is significant that Wilson switches between using ‘The Vandemonian’ and ‘Black Bill’. ‘Black Bill’ is a typical piece of white man devaluation of the person but an accurate pointer to where Bill has found himself. ‘Vandemonian’ hints at an original condition of untouched natural grandeur. The word, like Bill, was doomed to be linked to this conflict and convictism and eliminated in favour of ‘Tasmanian’ in order to close the door on this sorry  tale.

Influences – I have read reviews that see two influences on Wilson’s work. One is Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’ and I think it is easy to discern similarities in the plot, physical circumstances and moral dilemmas but that is all. This is after all, a first novel. Others have mentioned Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’, ‘All The Pretty Horses, ‘The Road’ and ‘No Country for Men’ and here I think there is a stronger case especially with the inclusion of a boy character who is  finding his manhood in a dark place.

One last influence I personally believe I can feel is that of Japanese cinema. There are times when I feel I can imagine this tale set in a Japanese landscape with characters to match. Would it be too much to remember that the birthplace of this story in Kobe, Japan?


~ John C


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