Talmalmo and ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’

Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) is a novel based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Aboriginal man who in 1900 was on the run after committing murder.

A similar tragedy predates this, however, and has received far less attention than the story Keneally put into his novel. This earlier event happened in a little pocket of Talmalmo, in a place called Dora Dora, and is the story of two Aboriginal men.

Whether because of being driven into a desperate corner, addiction, trying to start over and get home, or in retaliation for what had happened to their people, Bulyal and Tinamburra killed a white settler, who was a Polish exile living alone in the Dora Dora foothills.

The settler, whose name was Mursczkewicz, had made money in mining and would send some of it to his two nephews, his only relations, in Russia.  A myth grew up around this Polish exile, that he had a hoard of gold hidden in fence posts.  The belief (for no motive was ever ascertained) was that Bulyal and Tinamburra murdered the settler for his gold.

Bulyal was from around Mackay and Tinamburra’s home was Fraser Island. Authorities sent them to the foreign south-eastern countries of Victoria, enlisted them as trackers for the colonial government, and gave them the Anglo names of Jack and Willie, respectively.  They were then placed under the supervision of Detective Sergeant Sainsbury at Benalla.  This was early in 1891.

But then, after a month or so, Bunyal and Tinamburra, Jack and Willie — two of four Queensland trackers assigned to police in Benalla — suddenly went missing.  There had been an attack on a Benalla resident who lived alone, an elderly widow. Old Mrs Smith would later die from her injuries. She didn’t know her attacker, and in her deposition, she gave this description of his appearance: ‘He was a black man … rather slim built, tall’. This scant, and indeed stereotypical, description would be used to identify Jack.  Mary Smith also said that her assailant was well-known around the district and ‘full of villainy’.

And so Sainsbury set out to find Jack and Willie. He spent a good month or two trying to hunt them both down, but unsuccessfully. Then news came that a settler had been speared and robbed.  It was the Polish miner.  Badly wounded and taken by coach to the hospital in Albury, a journey that took eight or nine hours, Mursczkewicz lost a lot of blood.  In his deposition he said that there were ‘two blackfellows’. I was speared, he said, and as I was being robbed by one man, another came out from behind a tree and took the money. A few days after giving his sworn evidence Mursczkewicz died.  It’s certainly debateable whether Bunyal and Tinamburra intended to kill Mursczkewicz.  The spear wound wasn’t necessarily fatal.  The circumstances were.

What happened next was a two-and-a-half-year manhunt in pursuit of Bulyal and Tinamburra through New South Wales and deep into Queensland. Troopers, armed civilians, many police from several different stations in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and, of course, Detective Sergeant Sainsbury — all involved in hunting down Jack and Willie, or, as they came to be known in the news reports, ‘The Dora Dora Blacks’.

Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld. : 1867 – 1919), Wednesday 31 January 1894

Trying to get home, Bulyal and Tinamburra had both made it to Queensland.  But police eventually apprehended them: Bulyal on Pigeon Island, north of Mackay, and Tinamburra at Bundaberg.  They were then tried for the murder of Mursczkewicz.  The sentence given was death.  

There was quite a bit of coverage in the news about all this, and remarkably, from our later perspective, there was noticeable public sympathy for ‘Jack and Willie’.  ‘The courage and cunning of the Dora Dora blacks’, wrote one sympathiser in the Maryborough Chronicle, 20 February, 1894, ‘is a welcome bit of sunshine in the dull dreary darkness of humiliation of the Australian aborigine’. In April, 1894, an open meeting was held in Albury in support of reducing the sentences passed on Bulyal and Tinamburra.  The day after the meeting, the Albury Border Post reported that, ‘Strong opinion had been expressed in town and outside against the execution of the aboriginals’. The Border Post also published supportive statements made by people at the meeting: ‘[T]hey are not criminals in the sense murderers are’, said one person. ‘[A]s civilised people [we] should extend mercy toward the blacks.  There was no envy or malice in their attack’, said another.  Moreover, someone suggested that, ‘The men might reasonably have thought Mursczkewicz intended to attack them, having a gun in his hand’. (Were Bulyal and Tinamburra acting in self-defence?).  In May of the same year, the sentences were commuted: Bulyal’s was reduced to life imprisonment, and Tinamburra’s to 15 years.

Then the two men were quickly forgotten.

But in July, 1900, when the Governor Brothers (of Keneally’s novel) were being hunted down for murder, Bulyal and Tinamburra returned to the public’s attention. Newspapers mentioned similarities between the crimes and the circumstances which led to them, and left it at that.  The individual fates of Bunyal and Tinamburra were never mentioned.  Given that the life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian in confinement was at the time less than Tinamburra’s term of imprisonment, they were conveniently forgotten about.

One thing that was never discussed at the time was that Bulyal was addicted to opium.  Let’s not forget that opium was a very ‘British’ drug.  The British had controlled its production in the early 1800s and pushed it on the Chinese in order to increase trade revenue.  Bunyal had confessed to Sainsbury that he needed opium and had been getting it from ‘a Chinaman’s place’. I wanted the last words here to be Bulyal’s, but unfortunately, research reveals only others speaking for him. According to Sainsbury, Bunyal told him he ‘boiled this opium in a billy can and drank it every morning like tea. The effect of this was to make his head “cranky”.’

Talmalmo Landscapes

Talmalmo began as a place of dispossession and massacre, but with the passing of a century it regained innocence and beauty in the eyes of children.  There are a remarkable number of archived letters written by children describing the landscapes of their home.  Children were asked by the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express newspapers to write letters for a Children’s Corner column.  Many of the letters are little nature articles written by Talmalmo teenagers.  These letters take pleasure in describing wildflowers and wild raspberries, emus and their eggs, the snow-covered hills, the change of seasons, the snakes seen in the paddocks, the vegetables growing in the gardens, the curing of tobacco, the rains flooding the river and washing away the footbridge, birds building their nests in the roof of the school, a plague of grasshoppers, and so on. 

You sometimes get the impression, however, that some of these letters might have been written (or helped along) by the parents wanting to put the astounding country in which they lived into words, to have it documented.  One letter from 1922, written by George Le Guier, delves into local history by stating that the name Talmalmo derives from ‘an aborigine word meaning “tall man”,’ and that the road which passes the public school (no longer there) ‘has a cutting named Abraham’s Bosom,’ which was named after Abraham Miller, an emancipist.  

But mostly these letters are written through the eyes of children, revealing pastoral landscapes of enchantment and adventure.  As such, these letters are the ‘Songs of Innocence’ as opposed to the ‘Songs of Experience’, to use the poet William Blake’s contrary states of being.  The ‘Songs of Experience’ are of course the documented historical truths of dispossession of First Peoples from their homelands by white settlers (though they are hardly songs).  And so perhaps we could say that these letters document a different kind of discovery.  The first, more than a century earlier, was violent and horrific.  It was discovery seen through an imperial, conquistadorial eye.  The other, the one we see through children’s eyes, naively, is not a discovery by conquest but one which makes room for the astonishment of nature and the free-play of imagination.

*

There is also the romantic Talmalmo landscape.  These accounts were written between the wars and often appeared in The Farmer and the Settler.  They described the valley as delightful, and provided a narrative of gorges, spur crests and alluvial flats, where mile upon mile travellers could encounter a fresh picture of beauty.  Such descriptions were a romance of the settler past, with an eye for spotting, for example, a long-gone cottage’s crumbling chimney, or old charred posts and traces of stockyards. The writers of this romance had set out with an English kind of fantasy in mind.  In Talmalmo and Upper Murray landscapes they sought out the picturesque beauty of the moment, yet also wanting to romanticise a pastoral ruin and the sentimental achievements of the past.     

Then there’s the landscape seen through the painter’s eye. Few artists have painted the region.  One of them was William Piguenit (1836-1914).  His most renowned works are those of the Darling River floods (see below). 

Flood in the Darling, 1890 (1895), by WC Piguenit. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au

Piguenit’s only work of our Talmalmo region is called Mount Kosciusko and the Valley of the Upper Murray (c1883).  It depicts impressive skies, wide landscapes and low horizons.  The ranges are soft, the land meadow-like.  But unfortunately, Piguenit’s painting of the Upper Murray is very hard to come by.  No image of it was available to display.

Arthur Streeton’s Storm over Corryong (1910) shows pastures and a darkening sky. The hills are low and blue, a cosy strip of settlement can be seen, and in the foreground sheep are grazing.

Arthur Streeton, Storm over Corryong (1910).

Though there is in the painting a sense of protection from the harsh Australian sun, this is not a bright, ‘sun-drenched’ land.  The landscape here is rich and green.  Moody, too. But the mood, or storm, is passing.  

With both Piguenit and Streeton, the point is always the appearance of something glorious. There’s nothing ‘close-up’.  There’s not much in the way of farm buildings and habitation.  In Streeton these are dwarfed by the land and sky. The point is invariably one of an indelible impression of grandeur, and of wide panoramas. This kind of landscape has nothing to do with the past because it’s supposed to be a timeless one, glimpsed and brought to life by the painter’s visionary eye.  Yet this kind of landscape still exists today.  You can see it for yourself.

On a Sunday drive from Albury to Tindaldra or Corryong, through the mountains and down into the valley following the course of the river, you will see it, eyeing vistas as you go.  But this kind of landscape doesn’t capture what no longer exists. It is a landscape of familiarity; it is a recognisable one; it is an easy pleasure and comfort.  For the romance writers and painters of the Upper Murray, to look at the land and see countryside was not to see the past.  Or if there was a past to be seen it was the Settler’s and not the First People’s. This past was never readable in the landscape, as it was for Indigenous Australians.  The settler past, the past of the pioneers, merely floated on the surface; it was never embedded in the land.  And it was always at threat of vanishing (nature intervening in human history).  The old crumbling chimney, the charred posts and the traces of stockyard that were written about between the wars — they’re all gone.  They were fugitive scraps.

Talmalmo – Historical Beginnings

TALMALMO, of Upper Murray country.

Talmalmo is a mountain-locked valley in Upper Murray country.  Its beginnings occur within the colonial context of the early decades of the nineteenth century, when there was a movement for inland settlement and a search for country suitable for grazing. Once a route south from Sydney across the Blue Mountains had been achieved by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813, the idea of (or desire for) pastoral settlement away from the administrative centre was gaining in reality. And reports of inland exploration continued to add to a general fervour for land. Attention was being drawn to the value of the country, which, according to explorer Charles Sturt, was ‘yielding support to an industrious and moral population’.  A way was being made open. The country could be traversed. There were a great number of applications made for grazing country now. Hungry for land, men could set out, make a go of it, graze Crown lands. That was the enthusiasm. An enthusiasm for ‘new’ country.

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Image: Elders Real Estate

In the late spring of 1824 Hamilton Hume and William Hovell journeyed just north of the mountainous and densely forested country that lay to the west of the Great Dividing Range and which today forms the Woomargama National Park; and the land on the other, southern, side of the mountains and forest — the land which squeezes down tightly into a horseshoe bend in a river, a river that was for a brief few years called the Hume but then named the Murray in 1830 by Sturt— this is the land that became Talmalmo, land first taken up (or stolen) by settlers in 1838 (other areas of land in the Upper Murray region had already been settled a few years earlier).

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Image: Feral Walker

Talmalmo began as a run, or open land used for pasture and the raising of stock. It was a small run compared with others in the region, particularly those on the opposite — what would become the Victorian — side of the river, where land was more suitably expansive for an entrepreneurial kind of grazing. In its first few decades Talmalmo changed many hands. And in the years that followed people came, had brief stints at living off the land, and left. Settlers had gone there with high hopes, looking for an agrarian bounty. Land-hungry pastoralists were out to make money from meat, wool and grain and wanted to establish impressive homesteads. But the country was not fit for large-scale ventures. It was too rough and mountainous (the roads were almost impassable in a big wheat-bearing dray) and the river flats were too poor for sizeable grazing. Only self-sustaining ventures would be viable. Hardly was there a profit to be had. For the ambitious, for the greedy (of whom there were many), disillusionment quickly set in.

The cost of all this pioneering is too easily forgotten today.

By the 1860s Indigenous Australians of the river valley were all but gone, or being forgotten. Talmalmo was on the northern side of the river. Tribes were confined, mostly, to their respective sides, as A. W. Howitt noted in The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (1904). So those who utilised this particular tract of country belonged not to the southern Jaitmatang but to the large Riverine clan whose language root was Wiradjuri. The last Indigenous Australians of Talmalmo and surrounding runs most likely died on Bringenbrong Station, which was owned by John Francois Huon Mitchell. Mitchell owned at least three stations on the Upper Murray: Khancoban, Bringenbrong and Towong, all upriver from Talmalmo. His life on the Murray began when he was eleven. As a child he frolicked with the local Aborigines and picked up on their language. In 1906 he produced a dictionary of ‘Woradgery Tongue’, a compilation of words and phrases related to birds and fishes, weapons and timber, and also to tribal ceremonies and customs. Looking back on the early days of his life spent on the Murray he wrote:

It may be noted as significant considering the popular notion nowadays of the utter worthlessness of the blacks, that the whole of our old pioneers, the men who had come into personal contact with them when the country was almost still in its primeval state, spoke with more or less affection of the native race — more than one of the white boys of the early days learnt the language of this tribe and spent many days of their time hunting and fishing with them, and obtaining a knowledge of their tribal habits, etc. — they had great influence over the blacks and so suffered but little from their raids.

So that’s J. F. H. Mitchell. But then downriver from Talmalmo, at Cumberoona, there’s John Jobbins. Cumberoona was a principal camping ground for the First Peoples in the Upper Murray. Jobbins set up station there in 1836. He intimidated the Aborigines off their land. And he was out to make an example of his self-proclaimed authority. It was reported that he had used a cutlass to hack a Wiradjuri man to death after catching him trying to milk a cow. Moreover, in the same year, upriver a few miles and on the southern side, another settlement was being made.  Here two settlers were killed by Aborigines. Jobbins retaliated. Settlers banded together under him. And as a mob they killed anyone with black skin they could get a shot at: men, women, and children. More than twelve or thirteen people were murdered. In a series of articles written for The Border Morning Mail in 1936, C. A. Smithwick noted that the Cumberoona Aborigines ‘composed a song or poem about Jobbins which they introduced into their corroborees’. Smithwick calls this poem or song, a ‘hymn of hate’, and notes,

The late J. F. H. Mitchell could repeat the whole of this song and also a translation that he made of it; he said a good many of the words had no equivalent meaning in English, being “blackfellow curses”. One line went something like this: “Nein-mudder, Bel-mudder, Jobbin, Jobbin merijole”. Mitchell said the meaning of the first two words was quite unprintable, and the balance signified that Jobbins was a wicked rascal.

Forced from their land, the First Peoples of Cumberoona moved far downriver, to a site adjacent to Albury, which was managed more compassionately by Mitchell (though many here would die from diseases such as whooping cough, measles and small pox). For every Mitchell there’s a Jobbins.

Mitchell’s brother-in-law was Elliot Heriot. He came to the land on the western side of Talmalmo (what would become known as Dora Dora) in 1837. He was engaged there as an overseer, gaining ‘colonial experience’. At Dora Dora it was said that Heriot had ‘considerable experience of the ways of the blacks’.  He had befriended a chief, and he was supposedly tipped off by this chief about an attack on his men, none of whom were killed or injured, but seven or eight Aborigines were.  Heriot refused to join the fight against the local indigenous population. He did not ride with Jobbin’s mob and took no part in the massacre. The Aborigines of Dora Dora had made use of the land at Talmalmo. There were lagoons which contained the delicacies of catfish and mud turtles. C. A. Smithwick — who lived most of his life at Talmalmo station, his father having purchased land there as both run and freehold in 1868 — writes that,

Talmalmo was undoubtedly a much used central camping ground for the natives before the advent of the whites, for there was no place along the river that showed more visible traces of their habitation. Dozens of gum trees round the lagoons had had canoes stripped from their trunks and before the land was cleared of timber by burning off, almost every hollow tree carried the marks of a row of toe holes, made with tomahawks while in pursuit of opossums or bird eggs.

This is not the case today. Smithwick refers back to the 1870s. In the late 1850s, his father Robert Smithwick had observed of the Aborigines that they were not seen anywhere ‘between Albury and Ournie; higher up the river there were a few living at the different stations, where they were used as horse and cow boys.’ ‘Whatever cause, death had been busy with them’, wrote Charles Sturt of the First Peoples in the 1840s.

And I could not but contemplate the remnant of these unfortunate people without a feeling of Melancholy. The hand of destiny had fallen upon their retreats; and the silence of their forests had been invaded. A new era was dawning and a fearful change was coming for them. Whether for good or for evil God only knows. 

Forget God.  It’s the study of history and literature and the work of historians and writers who bring light into the darkness of Australian ignorance.

Inattentions of Reading

This essay first appeared in Meanjin, Autumn 2019, in a slightly different form.

Whatever else it is, reading is surely one of the central activities and interests of literature.  Literature itself, though, is hardly a central activity or interest in contemporary culture.  So it seems odd that readers of Gerald Murnane who are also critics or reviewers like to point to the author’s eccentricities: he has never worn sunglasses, for example; he’s reclusive, never flown on a plane, and doesn’t like to travel; he never watches films, doesn’t like the sea, and, among other things, he’s obsessed with horse racing, keeping colour-coded files on races, horses and jockeys which can be recalled or retrieved at will, and so on.  But, we might want to ask, isn’t literature itself (of which Murnane may be an Australian exemplar) already an eccentric activity or interest?  Certainly a passionate interest in and a devotion to literature today isn’t as eccentric as it gets, but nevertheless it’s unconventional and slightly strange. 

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Image: Morganna Magee, for The New York Times.

Labelling Murnane an ‘eccentric’ merely helps to reconventionalise all the other so-called literary fiction that isn’t like that, reassuring writers and readers in the belief (and commercial prospect) that they are central to some ongoing project, and that they won’t be pushed to the outer ‘eccentric’ rim.  Murnane may or may not be as central as ever, but he’s certainly distinctive.  And no doubt his books can work in very idiosyncratic ways (if only for the idiosyncratic reader).  To read them is perhaps to feel a powerful inducement to write about the experience, an experience that just has to be accounted for and cannot be let to pass, as if to read Murnane is, for some, to be roused not only into more words but also into new words, and that these just have to be set down in writing.   His books, in short, can evoke profound responses in a reader. 

One account of such an experience of reading Murnane is an essay by Luke Carman in the Sydney Review of Books (‘In the Room with Gerald Murnane,’ 24/04/2018).  For Carman, Murnane is a writer who can inspire passionate reading, and his essay seems to suggest (if only in its method and style) that to read Murnane is to be inspired to read in one’s own way (unconventionally, idiosyncratically).  ‘Efficiency is not my forte as a reader,’ he writes.

I am cursed with the inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure. The writing I most enjoy tends to get me so exercised by its effects that I am soon deep in a fugue state of mind, a kind of dissociative wandering from which I am required to return before I can come back to the page which started me off in the first place.  No sooner have I read a sentence or two of this stimulating prose, which seems to awaken some novelty of consciousness in me, than I find that I have spent the afternoon hours pacing back and forth about the house, the book which started the whole thing in motion having been long abandoned on a bench in the hallway.

Carman here reveals what extraordinary possibilities there can be in the relationship between reader and text.  When he reads the books he loves (which include Murnane’s) he becomes intensely preoccupied by thought (‘so exercised’).  Inspired by the sentences he reads, language, ideas and images rush in and take him over, leave him disassociated from himself, as though a book can conjure up other selves (even seemingly new selves — ‘some novelty of consciousness’) and throw identity into doubt or have it flee.  In Border Districts, Murnane writes: ‘sometimes, while reading a work of fiction, I seem to have knowledge of what it would be to have knowledge of the essence of some or another personality.’  Perhaps Carman’s ‘novelty of consciousness’ is Murnane’s ‘essence of some or another personality.’  Moreover, when Carman writes of an ‘inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure’ we could say that this is a way of forestalling that pleasure in order to, paradoxically, keep it alive as a future possibility, postponing it to a later date (the book is unfinished and perhaps one day will be returned to).  But this admission by Carman of course also suggests that the pleasure is in fact too overwhelming.  It is indeed curious that he sees this as a curse and is a little hard on himself (perhaps to make a point or for stylistic effect).  Of course, you would have to allow for his being ironic here, that his reading experience is a curse or affliction only in the sense of it being strongly impressionistic and, as he posits in the essay, when pitted against ‘efficient’ readers, those readers who could construe in academic circles what he calls ‘an acceptable defence,’ as though academics hold all the cards when it comes to reading and supposedly knowing what reading is and what it can do (and of course the idea of efficiency also suggests a productivity measurable to monetised outcomes).  What we therefore need, Carman seems to suggest, is not only evocative reading that is peculiarly individualist but also idiosyncratic accounts of it, rather than (or as well as) ‘acceptable defences’ and ‘efficient’ readings that merely gather information and leave little room for curiosity and perhaps even less room for risk.

Murnane has stated that when reading novels, he sometimes fails to ‘follow plots and comprehend the motives of characters’.  In Barley Patch he writes:

a person who claims to remember having read one or another book is seldom able to  quote from memory even one sentence from the text.  What the person probably   remembers is part of the experience of having read the book: part of what happened in his or her mind during the hours while the book was being read.

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Image: Still from ‘Words and Silk: the imaginary and real worlds of Gerald Murnane.’ Director, Philip Tyndall.

If memory is memory of desire — as psychoanalysis would put it — then what is remembered here is desire, and one of the marvellous things about reading is that it can make you think not only of the words on the page before your eyes but by association many other things about yourself and the world as well.  In its associative power, reading could be if not equivalent then at least analogous to dreaming, powerfully activating primary processes of the unconscious mind; and as with dreaming we may have trouble recalling what has happened, left only with glimpsed images and the hauntings of voices, which are also the creative movements of the mind.  And there is an interesting aside to all this, that in trying to create a piece of writing, sitting at the desk and staring at the page, trying to think of the words for what comes next, you get up and leave off, and as soon as you do this — go out of the house and do something different — the words come to you but you’re now in no position to write them down, so you remember them (which could attest to writing’s primordial function of documenting what needs to be remembered).

In his essay Carman mentions — again, rather self-critically — his own forgetfulness when reading.  ‘There’s no excuse,’ he writes, ‘for professional readers whose memories are faulty.’  This is not a point about poor memory but about experience.  In other words, not to remember what you have read is to focus on the experience the activity of reading has created for you — the effects, the evocativeness of reading — and not on the recall of information.  Here Carman aligns himself more with Murnane and with readerly ‘inefficiencies’ than with so-called academic readers. 

There is, moreover, another point to be made here about reading and forgetful inefficiencies.  Carman argues that Murnane’s writing is ‘an extension of lapsed religious liturgy.’  To be lapsed is of course to no longer follow the rules and practices of a religion.  But a lapse is a brief or temporary failure of concentration and memory, even of judgement, and so if as Carman says Murnane’s writing is a form of lapsed worship, to read it is therefore to undertake an experience of spiritual inattention, which remembers the ecstatic and the revelatory and forgets, as Murnane would say, the unremarkable, or what isn’t evocative and moving.

There are many accounts of writing in our culture — how to do it, why to do it, what is happening when you’re doing it, who is doing it, who isn’t doing it, who should and shouldn’t be doing it, who is and isn’t winning the prizes, and so on, as if this is a culture of writing.  But rarely are there strong accounts of the reading experience.  One reason for this is that reading might be a more idiosyncratic activity than writing, and thus more difficult to account for (and the academic or so-called ‘efficient’ method would therefore become the easy way out).  Carman, it would seem, wants to keep something alive, a form of reading that needs to seek its fit (or match) in a powerful account of it (and his essay certainly has a kind of free-floating, digressive strength and energy about it; it’s also quite intricate, as in full of tricks and perplexities).  It’s as though a book is a force of nature, and what reading therefore stirs up are desires whose powerful excess needs expression through writing, as if writing is the only way to attend to this experience, a way not only of rereading the text (experience regained) but also of redescribing that which the text has elicited from within (language regained) — redescribing and not describing because, as one might assume, this experience (as Carman has documented it) has happened before, has perhaps even been sought out again and again (reading is thus the seeking out).  It’s as though to forget the words of the book you have been reading and enjoying (at least for Carman and Murnane) is to remember words of your own that are about, or have been inspired by, that book; that to forget is to make available something else of yourself — and of language, as selves are of course composed in language — that the book has brought into being, which is to continue the pleasure and associative power of reading in another way, in a writer’s way.  Writing is therefore describing and redescribing the varieties of our reading experiences.

And so when Carman describes the journey taken by the narrator of Border Districts from the city to the border town as ‘a temptation of associations’ and being ‘caught up in an immense digression of connectedness,’ this sounds very much like an apt description of the form his essay takes in response to reading Murnane.  These associations and digressions are the connections that arise out of evocative reading.  At the end of his essay Carman quotes a critic who says about Murnane: ‘I wonder if we will one day understand what we have here, in this man.’  Carman leaves the question (if it is a question) unanswered.  But there’s really no need (as the critic seems to imply) to be mysterious or overly precious about it.  What we have is a variety of reading experiences, whether efficient or inefficient or both together or something else entirely.  Perhaps, though, for Murnane’s work to survive what it needs is inspiring redescriptions by writers who keep trying to account for their powerful reading experiences.  Indeed, Murnane’s works may be the kind of writing that needs creative reading, needs a spiritual inattention.  Carman attempts this, and a reader of his essay may well think it fortunate that he’s the kind of writer who is also an inefficient reader.

Paperless Pilgrims

This review first appeared in Arena Magazine, Number 150, 2017. It appears here in a slightly altered form.

Oscar Martinez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail is an important book for anyone who wants to know why people are forced to flee their home for life in another country.  It is the first English translation of Los migrantes que no importan, or, ‘the migrants who do not matter’.  The Spanish edition was published in 2010; the English in 2013. 

Enthralling and humane, The Beast is a work of great daring.  It contains, however, stories that are quite horrific.  One of these is the story of Erika.  When she was a girl Erika was treated like a slave and sent out into the streets of Honduras to sell fish and firewood.  If she didn’t get rid of everything her adoptive mother would whip her with an electrical cord.  Beaten so badly, Erika had open sores all over her back.  Salt was used to cover the sores and Erika’s twin brother was made to lick it off.  The brother became sick and died.  Erika was told it was parasites, but she knew the punishments were the cause.

When Erika herself fell sick she was taken to the hospital, but no one came back to pick her up.  So thereafter she lived on the streets.  One day several years later she happened to run into her adoptive mother, who convinced Erika to come back with her.  But nothing would change.  Soon her step-brother was raping her.

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Óscar Martínez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington (Verso Books, 2013)

No wonder that at fourteen Erika left Honduras for a better life.  Like many other Central American migrants she would try to get to El Norte, the United States.  But once she was over the border and in Mexico she had endured enough.  And she needed money.  Migrants don’t get anywhere without money.  They have to pay Mexico’s borderland gangs and they have to pay the polleros (or people smugglers, who themselves are subject to gang-rule).  So, needing money, Erika spent her nights dancing and working clients in a strip club.

‘Erika paints a typical portrait of the Central American migrants whose suffering lights up the nights of border towns,’ writes Oscar Martinez in his powerful book.  Erika (not her real name) is one of the women who, without citizenship papers or other such forms of identification like a Birth Certificate, live and work in southern Mexico’s brothels, and whose story is recorded with great humanity by Martinez in The Beast

Since 2007, when a law was passed in Mexico against human trafficking, the plight of women and prostitution has been a much publicised issue.  Martinez, a journalist who has written for Latin America’s online digital newspaper elfaro.net, travelled Mexico’s borderlands to see for himself what was happening to people, particularly young women like Erika, who were poor, sexually enslaved, beaten, and whose bodies were ‘little more than a ticket from one hell to another hell.’  A woman migrant’s body is known colloquially as cuerpomatic, an idiomatic expression that means the body becomes a credit card which, as a community worker tells Martinez, ‘buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won’t get killed. … It buys a more comfortable ride on the train.’  Between 2008 and 2010 Martinez documented the heartbreaking experiences of migrants (Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans) who were trying to flee to the freight trains that would take them north to the United States.  The trains are known collectively as Le Bestia, or The Beast.  Martinez encountered not only migrants, but also polleros, migration agents, police, journalists, and priests who run migrant shelters. 

In The Beast Martinez concisely documents the very well-organised criminal networks of gangs, or cartels, and their operations that involve everything from kidnapping to extortion.  For cartels like the notorious Los Zetas — who own, run and administer whole towns and regions, influence local police, and have the migration agency turning a blind eye — migrants are third in line after the other businesses of drugs and arms trafficking.  Martinez describes Los Zetas as a ‘metastasizing cancer.’  As he explains, ‘Migrants are recruited.  Soldiers are recruited.  Policemen, mayors, businessmen — they’re all liable to become part of the web.’  In this enlightening book Martinez vividly depicts the hopelessness of what he sees, and shows that a sense of fatalism pervades everything.  This is a deterministic world.  People’s wills are not their own, their fates decided by cartels; for only cartels possess a will and the right to use it.

So where is the hope?  For the migrants it is of course in the chance of getting to the US.  But for the reader it’s in the writing.  Martinez’s writing has great purpose.  He sees it as ‘an ethical responsibility’.  Bringing the facts, he also writes a heart-breaking story of struggle, sorrow, brutality and suffering amongst the people who are marked by the magnetic pull of the United States.  But he doesn’t dwell on violence for its own sake and isn’t gratuitous in his telling of it.  And he’s not out to make the reader feel depressed.  He understands that the evidence will speak for itself.  Above all, Martinez writes to inform and dispel ignorance.  He wants the voices of people like Erika to be heard within the context of what they have to deal with.  Yet at the same time he keeps the narrative moving swiftly and episodically through those borderlands and beyond.   

What also makes The Beast so astonishing and so eloquent is the way Martinez is alive to language (his own and that of others).  He’s alert, for example, to the ‘subtle wordings’ used by traffickers and pimps which make ‘trafficking not sound exactly like trafficking; the suggestion that it’s the girls’ decision.’  Also, Martinez employs simile and metaphor very sparingly, but when he does they leap off the page: ‘In Indeco walking the streets is like stepping on a spinal cord, a touchy boundary line between two countries in conflict’; ‘The Beast is the Rio Grande’s first cousin.  They both flow with the same Central American blood’; ‘bones aren’t a metaphor for what’s past, but for what’s coming’; ‘a migrant passing through Mexico is like a wounded cat slinking through a dog kennel.’  Moreover, his style eloquently captures the everyday while hinting at the epic:

The highway snakes through the rocky hills in this vast, open desert.  Only the Gran Desierto of Sonora and Arizona is as large.  The hills here reach as high as 6,500 feet above sea level.  And the huge cold rocks that cover them resemble Olmec heads, as though fallen in some long-past Biblical rain.  These hills form into chains that stretch beyond the horizon.  In the middle of this desolate landscape lies the small truck-stop town, La Rumorosa.  It’s a town of little more than gas stations, twenty-four-hour restaurants, small cafes, and vacant lots where long-haul truckers like to pull off the road and doze.

From the vastness of desert to mythical and religious analogy the narrative sweeps down to the roads of a desolate town and ends with truckers dozing in their cabins.  This passage is typical of the way Martinez concisely and evocatively introduces his scenes.  It also shows how landscape becomes an important part of the migrants’ stories.  Climbing up a steep pass Martinez looks out across the land:

Rock after rock.  Hill after hill these men and women have to cross.  And then they have to navigate the dangers of getting caught along the distant highway.  This is the first clear crossing point we’ve come upon, and we realize that it’s just as dangerous for migrants as crossing through a narco zone.  It’s not a human hand here that kills the migrants, but the system that pushes them to walk this far.

Then there is La Arrocera, in southern Mexico — a remote area dense with overgrowth and vegetation that Central American migrants must pass through if they want to get to the train at Arriaga.  But travelling through La Arrocera means going unprotected.  So vast is the region that police cannot cover it, and bandits are better equipped (or armed) than cops.  This is the brutal reality of the land.  Martinez is an explorer of this reality, and because human realities are based on systems of value, The Beast is also an enquiry into such systems and the cartels who enforce them.

The accumulative power of the migrants’ stories and the episodes of Martinez’s journey through Mexico impel the reader on.  The Beast is in fact a compilation of chronicles or ‘Crónicas,’ artfully structured so that the book has thematic continuity.  Crónicas bring the news, report events and issues.  But they’re usually a long-form genre of writing that also offers analysis and interpretation, as well as the journalist’s perspective on his or her experiences ‘in the field’.  The journalist is part of the story in a chronicle.  The New Journalism of the 1960s in the US is something similar in intent to crónicas.  But Martinez’s book may be closer to Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926) than to New Journalism.  Like Babel, Martinez’s interest lies in the humanity which is buried in a world of dire circumstance.  Babel set out to tell a story of circumstance and what it was like to be trapped within it when he wrote of the experiences of a Jewish news correspondent who joins the Red Cossacks and reports on frontline action during the Soviet-Polish War.  Similarly, Martinez aims to chronicle the horrors of his time and place: extreme violence and a cruel indifference to the value of human life.  And though his commitment as a writer is to fact and event, the intensity of Martinez’s involvement never fails to come through.

The ingenuity of the book is that Martinez is learning for himself the extent of ruin and systematic, well-organised depravity.  Such is the law of much of Mexico’s borderlands, where evidently the only people immune to narcos are not polleros, justice officials, police, migrants, migration agents — not even military personnel — but priests.  In a world where ‘gangs consider migrants as part of their long-term business plan,’ priests, we learn, do not have to pay a ‘tax’ to the cartels.  It’s not that priests are sacred. They’re just a mere exemption and have to pay their dues the old-fashioned way — to God.