The Child of an Ancient People

Walkabout in Tasmania's deadly dream time

Published Date: 05 October 2003
Anouar Benmalek
The Harvill Press, £10.99

THIS novel is dedicated "To Truganini, who died on 8 May 1876, the last representative of the Aborigines of Tasmania, a people wiped off the surface of the earth by a perfect genocide: its victims forgotten, the murderers free of blame."

It takes as its starting point the destruction of a 5,000-strong aboriginal community by the British, who set up a convict settlement on Tasmania in 1803, and raises interesting questions about Tasmanian history and the nature of identity and race.

Truganini is described as the last of her people because she was a product of both an aboriginal father and mother. The 2.6% of the present Tasmanian population who describe themselves as Aborigine all have Europeans among their ancestors. But does one really have to be ‘pure-blooded’ to be a representative of a people?

Still, this is a work of fiction, concerned with putting flesh on the bare bones of history, and it does this excellently. In 1872 an Arab prince and a French beauty are deported to New Caledonia by the French government, he for his part in the Saharan tribesmen’s revolt and she for being a Communard. They escape on a ship bound for Australia where they discover an orphan, Tridarir, a fictional "last representative of the Tasmanian Aboriginal", stolen by bounty hunters as a specimen for the scientific community.

With its princes, beautiful women, orphans and a sweeping historical backdrop, this book has all the ingredients of a bodice-ripper, but this dry-eyed account of empire at the sharp end is as far removed from Cartland territory as Tasmania is from the Tuileries.

It is a brutal story which pulls no punches, and the main characters often retreat into a world of dreams to hide from the horrors of their reality. Tridadir escapes into the dreams or songlines so central to aboriginal culture, handed down from the ancestors to his parents and finally to him.

His fellow dreamers, Kader the Arab and Lislei, an Alsatian girl, have been brutalised by their prison experiences and forced into murder and prostitution in a bid to gain freedom. They also take refuge in their past. Dehumanised, they regain their self-esteem in caring for the orphan and ultimately the three exiles form a new tribe of their own. They become Harry and Elizabeth, a "white" couple settled in smalltown white Australia, along with Tridarir, who walks the songlines to keep his culture alive.

It seems that identity is not just about genetics - whether you are pure blood, or mixed blood - but who your parents are, where you were born, the culture you grew up with. Was this really a "perfect genocide"? Surely the victims are not forgotten when their blood flows on in their descendants, albeit mixed with that of the perpetrators. At any rate, Anouar Benmalek has done his bit to keep their memory alive.