The Track to Bralgu

No work of literature is written in a social or moral vacuum. Even the work of writers who claim to espouse an “art for art’s sake” aesthetic are necessarily part of the social and historical climate in which they are created. This is true of every level of literary endeavor, from the most sublime to the most prosaic and hackneyed. Shakespeare’s plays are as much a part of the Elizabethan social and moral climate as the novels of both Harold Robbins and Alexander Solzhenitsyn are of our own chaotic time, in which men and women are unsure of values and are searching for beliefs to replace those so recently discarded. The question inevitably arises of whether it is possible, or even desirable, for the reader to judge a particular work of literature exclusively as a moral or social experience, any more than as an exclusively aesthetic one. Can these three aspects of the artistic effort be divided into separate and distinct facets, or must they be considered as parts of the whole, and be judged only in the complete context of the work of art? This issue is very much at the root of any valuation of this unique collection of stories by B. Wongar.

These stories ask to be considered as moral documents, proclaiming man’s inhumanity to man. On a more blunt level, they are also social indictments exposing political and social injustice. At the same time, however, they also are extraordinary works of art, examples of a strange and powerful aesthetic vision, and it would be unfortunate if the raw beauty of the language and technique were overlooked because of the controversial subject matter. Some serious-minded critics might be justified in saying that, in the light of the moral injustices portrayed in these tales, such aesthetic considerations are irrelevant and petty. But these stories are not slices of life or documentary movies of social crimes; they are works of art and sophistication, and demand to be considered as such.

It is because these stories are the work of a master craftsman that they are able to produce such a moving effect on the reader. Out of the stark and harsh landscape of the Australian island and out of the pain and despair of a subservient race, the author has forged these brief but brilliantly wrought visions of the life of his people. For, although the particulars are real and grim, the truth of the vision goes beyond these particulars to the universal. So, although much of the interest of these tales lies in the detailed social and moral exposés which form their subject matter, their significance cannot be limited to that level.

Only an Australian aborigine could have written stories so rich in the knowledge and lore of aborigine life, and only a great human sensibility could have produced the works of art that these stories are. The tales comprise a haunting lament for the vanishing traditional life of the aborigine people, but they might represent the tragedy of lost values and abandoned customs anywhere. For the sad truth is that the story which B. Wongar (a pseudonym necessary for political reasons) tells in this volume has been told repeatedly in different forms throughout history. As Alan Paton points out in his Foreword, lust for land drove Europeans around the world, sweeping across two American continents, across much of Asia and most of Africa. First European armies, then traders and missionaries and explorers, then the fortune-seekers and settlers, used their superior technical means to subdue the “native” populations of the other continents. The Spaniards moved through Mexico and Peru; the British and other Northern Europeans and their American descendants conquered and murdered and humiliated the native American Indians and drove the few survivors into reservations; the British took over India, the Dutch ruled Indonesia, and all of the major European powers divided the continent of Africa, selling and using the black men as slaves. Australia, because of its geographical isolation, was late receiving the greedy attentions of the Europeans, but when...

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Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1437.

New York Times Book Review. June 25, 1978, p. 14.

Spectator. CCXLI, September 23, 1978, p. 81.

Times Literary Supplement. October 13, 1978, p. 1142.