Monday, 23 June 2014

Walkabout - James Vance Marshall


At just 120 pages, Walkabout by James Vance Marshall is a very simple story but rich in the extreme with thoughtfulness, care and exquisite descriptiveness. Written in 1959 and turned into a film by director Nic Roeg in 1971, it offers an insight into civilization, reality and life that is all too rare. On reading it, it's impossible to not picture the three characters in the book as played by the actors and actress in the film though thanks to the inspired casting this is no bad thing and actually adds to the reading experience.

It's the tale of two children - brother and sister (in the film played by Jenny Agutter and Nic Roeg's own son, Lucian) - who are the sole survivors of a plane crash in the middle of the Australian outback. They have neither food nor water and it's quickly apparent that though having survived the crash, they have little or no chance of staying alive for long in such inhospitable conditions; that is, until they come face-to-face with a naked Aboriginal boy (in the film played by David Gulpilil) who is on his walkabout. It's here and at this point that two worlds suddenly collide.

'The brother and sister are products of the highest strata of humanity's evolution. Coddled in babyhood, psycho-analysed in childhood, nourished on predigested patent foods, provided with continuous push-button entertainment, the basic realities of life were something they’d never had to face.'
The Aboriginal on the other hand 'knew what reality was. Among the secret water-holes of the Australian desert his people had lived and died, unchanged and unchanging, for twenty thousand years. They had no homes, no crops, no clothes, no possessions. Their lives were utterly uncomplicated because they were devoted to one purpose, dedicated in their entirety to the waging of one battle: the battle with death.'

The girl views the Aboriginal as an uncivilised heathen whose nakedness perturbs her and so is loathe to get too near him. Her younger brother, however, though viewing him as a 'darkie', recognises him as being their only source of water, food and help. The Aboriginal boy in the meantime views them with bemused curiosity.
Through the innocent and simple method of gestures, mime and laughter the children manage to communicate with each other and the brother and sister are led to water and provided with food but for all this they all resolutely fail to actually understand each other. This failure is brought to the fore when during a playful song and dance it suddenly dawns upon the Aboriginal that the larger of the two strange creatures is in fact a female; which in turn brings a look of sudden fear to her eyes which is then translated by the Aboriginal as her having seen the image of the Spirit of Death in his eyes.

The book explains how Australian Aboriginals are an extremely tough people who can survive extremes in both heat and cold but that they have a propensity for dying purely of auto-suggestion. 'Death, to the Aboriginal, is something that can't be fought. Those whom the Spirit wants, he takes; and it's no good kicking against the pricks.'
As confirmed by the female of the two queer creatures seeing Death in his eyes, the Aboriginal boy believes he is soon to die. The fear in her eyes, to him, could only mean this one thing. He understands, however, that if he dies then they - being such helpless creatures - will die also. He understands then that he must lead them to safety to save them from also becoming victims of the Spirit of Death. And so begins the most strangest, the most enchanted and the most important of walkabouts.

Nic Roeg is one of Britain's greatest and original film directors and his interpretation of the book is nothing less than a visionary work of art. Though he keeps to the premise of the story as written by James Vance Marshall there is sufficient deviation from it so as to make it his own. The start of the film, for example, as in how the two children end up stranded in the outback differs from that of the book as does the ending. In fact, the way Roeg ends it by showing the girl some years later seemingly safe but trapped in domesticity, casting her mind back to a moment when all three played and swam naked together in a billabong is actually far more satisfying than the book's. By depicting this memory of them all naked, at ease and at play it dispels the theme within the book of the girl's sexual fear of the Aboriginal boy, so leaving the story less weighted. The book on the other hand is full of wonderful descriptions of the animals, insects, birds and fauna of the Australian outback whilst Roeg's film is actually full of quite violent images of nature in the raw.
Both book and film, however, are uniquely beautiful and brilliant and both deserve to be recognised as classics in their own right.

John Serpico

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