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John Kinsella
reviewed by
Adam Aitken
paper, 234pp, isbn 978-0-9579411-7-5
15 Oct 2009 papertiger media, soi 3 gold, AUD$29.95 ; NZD$34.95

John Kinsella, photo by Tracy Ryan

John Kinsella, photo by Tracy Ryan


‘I only hope I’m not distracted by my dangerous habit of being all too many-sided, adaptable to all things, forever alien to myself and with no central core.’ — Fernando Pessoa.



In one of those strange moments of synchronicity, I had been reading John Kinsella’s Post-colonial, his new novel set in Western Australia and in particular the Cocos Islands, a coral atoll administered by the Australian government, when I came across an ABC radio interview with a reef scientist who argues that reefs actively generate new species at a faster rate than background evolution, due to their incredibly complex micro-habitats. These new species migrate out of atolls and eventually colonise other habitats.


This ecological fact is an apt metaphor for Kinsella’s approach to writing this récit, a particular hybrid of a novel/travel diary/essay. According to récits are ‘simple but deeply ironic tales in which the first-person narrator reveals the inherent moral ambiguities of life by means of seemingly innocuous reminiscences.’ An Australian writer, David, goes to the Cocos Islands to learn more about the history of its Malay speaking people, and to delve into its colonial past.


David, like the real Kinsella, has inherited his own particular haunted “dreaming”, a pastoral property in the Wheatlands of Western Australia. While David’s own father is hardly the model of a colonial tyrant, Kinsella explores settler complicity with violent colonisation of Indigenous Australia through a neat allegorical parallel between David’s Anglo-Irish family story and that of the first white owners of the Cocos.


The Cocos group was known in Australia as the territory of the eccentric Clunies-Ross family. An ABC TV series called Dynasties has commemorated the family. [1]


John Clunies-Ross was a Scottish sea captain who arrived on the Cocos Islands in 1825. With the help of imported Malay labourers he began harvesting coconuts for copra. While Clunies-Ross attempted to bring the Cocos under the control of British Malaya, his fame and notoriety lies in his ability to turn the island and its copra industry into a personal kingdom. On a visit to the island in 1836 Charles Darwin commented that the workers were considered no better than slaves. The workers were paid in a currency called the Cocos rupee that could only be redeemed at the company store. It was only in 1978 that the Australian government managed to evict the last of the Clunies-Ross descendants.


To grasp the complex nature of the Cocos Islands, its colonial history and its postcolonial present, Kinsella creates a narrative space akin to an organism trying to survive in a reef system. Like a reef, stories are built on the traces of previous stories. There are numerous opportunities for Kinsella’s avatar David, to re-create and de-colonise his soul, which is seriously unhealthy on arrival. David’s lack of identification with the usual Western tourist or expatriate white Australians on Cocos leaves him open to charges of aloofness, even arrogance. A mysterious Pessoan kind of non-person with no socially sanctioned role on the island, he is as split, geographically, culturally, and his efforts to bridge a gap between linguistic and cultural difference are riven with ethical questions about who has permission to tell whose stories.


On the one hand a Malay Muslim population lives on Home Island (HI), while a predominantly white Anglo Australian community live on West Island. Various hybrids and dissidents move and connect these communities. Kinsella uses these split geographies to advantage, as a means of analysing the writer’s complicity and resistance to closed identities that are normally the territory of the white tourist in an Asian place. As David Caddy remarks, ‘[o]ne of Kinsella’s strengths is his eagerness to be open about his various subject positions and an ability to acknowledge his own prejudices.’ [2]


Kinsella’s mission in this book and in most of his writing to deterritorialise writing itself, which also means deconstructing his own complicity with settler colonisation of Australia. Kinsella attempts to detach privilege from his own admittedly compromised speaking position, and it is no surprise that the book is about how Australians can and do deal with settler guilt and self-loathing, and as a true anarchist would, the book undermines the system that has given David land ownership.


This leads to writing of a de-rationated poetic kind, a linguistic disobedience to be found in Kinsella’s experimental lyric poetry, but re-asserted here in some notable late-Joycean prose passages. At times, the text echoes science-fiction, at others literary biography. Kinsella is not aiming to make this novel an easy read. David’s ‘raves’ and interior monologues are the site for channelling competing textual voices — Darwin, the captain of 19th century boats, the earliest settler-invader, the ship captain and slave-owner Alexander Hare (one of the original colonisers of Singapore), and even Rimbaud. The reader is left guessing whether Rimbaud really ever visited the Cocos, but then this is not meant to be a realistic historical novel (and are any of them ever realistic?)


Meanwhile, the reef’s attraction and repulsion needs explaining, and Kinsella weaves naval history, memoir, science, travel diary, and Cocos Malay oral testimony into some kind of unresolvable, but open, symphony dedicated to the liberation of this place from a closed colonial narrative of dispossession, plantation, tourism and integration through depopulation.


Like the reef itself, pounded and continually rebuilding itself, nothing and no-one is allowed a fixed or essentialised identity. One reflects that Australian identity has always been “split” between the Anglo-Celtic descendency, and its racist exclusionism of the non-white, and the settlers’ Romantic urge to go native and to learn to accommodate the knowledge and ways of the Indigenous. But ironies abound in the Cocos story: John George Clunies-Ross married a Balinese girl, which probably enabled him to import more Javanese labourers adept at harvesting coconuts. Sexual inter-marriage seems to have benefited the dynasty, and never led to the emancipation of the Malays.


There is another important irony: the Cocos Malays are themselves from elsewhere, but they are very much more connected to the Cocos through their folk-wisdom and collective memory than the Westerner could be. Alert to these ironies, Kinsella does not allow David to begin to idealise the Cocos Malays; they are as unstable and unessentialised as the rest of us. They too are negotiating a “stay-or-go” debate among themselves, with the bright lights of Perth being a favourite destination for young Cocos Islanders. Furthermore, the Cocos Islanders also have an unseemly side that leaves David compromised.


Kinsella is not having David claim a “happy hybrid” position as a saving grace. The Pessoan flexibility with identity is never a privilege, but a survival mechanism that can always be accused of opportunism or disloyalty to a community. Here is why the Malays have the permission to tell their stories and David doesn’t, at least not until he has proved himself to be a partially trusted friend of the Cocos Malay by involving himself in a smuggling trade and becoming a drug mule for example. At some point, to earn a place in a community David knows he has to commit to unethical acts, as Rimbaud did by running guns. The Cocos is an economy of secrets, and the price of revealing secrets is expulsion. David’s lack of social affiliation allows him to approach a truth unencumbered by community taboos. It is David’s secrets that are of interest and which David has permission to reveal, while those of the Cocos Islanders are always necessarily vetted by the informants (to please the researcher or to hide from foreigners deeper, more powerful knowledge that once given away can’t be recovered).



If this book is also a spy novel, nothing major is revealed and no closure is possible since the spying mission is never really defined. Certainly the story of colonialism has so many secrets that have already been revealed: men with harems, men with enslaved mistresses, the unjust slaughter of indigenous peoples, the insemination of the colonised with foreign diseases, the “integration” and subsequent erasure of indigenous culture. But it is well worth restaging these stories, as the Australian public seem to have forgotten them, as they attempt to forget the complexities of the North-west region. As if border protection and a get-tough approach to asylum seekers will somehow magically make the problem go away. As I write this, the Australian government has suspended asylum seeker refugee claims. But back to the novel: what will David do with the knowledge he has learned? This is the novel’s critical anxiety: where does fiction fit into the current state of play?


Perhaps this is impossible to answer as the potential for this book to become a major part of Australia’s literary heritage is slim, not because it is a bad book, but because it refuses to allow itself to become a book that might impress the mainstream prestige fiction awards system. But the refusal to censor himself is one of David’s/Kinsella’s stronger traits.


There are other ironies that preclude the reader turning David into a white hero who champions de-colonisation for the Brown man, as the Cocos Malays just aren’t looking to a Westerner to do this kind of liberation for them. David is puzzled that the Malays are not more militant in their opposition to the West. They did in fact vote to stay within Canberra’s administrative circle rather than join Malaysia or become independent. That said the Malays are clearly grounded on their island, and unified through Islam and a shared animism (they revere the eyeless coconut and believe in ghosts) while Westerners are interlopers. Even as the Malays see Perth as an economic opportunity, their soul is somehow tied to Cocos through semangkat. [3]


David is simply a catalyst shining a torch on how the Cocos Islanders and Westerners interact. Through a kind of informant/researcher relationship, David can learn what the Cocos Islander means to us, and a view of how they might de-colonise themselves is presented through David’s thinking. David is a farm boy who has serious addiction problems. He is a white man who doesn’t feel at home in is whiteness, and despises most of the other expats. At the same time he attempts to write a book about Cocos Island, and must befriend (and does befriend) the sceptical Malay community, some of whom dislike his propensity to drink heavily.


Of course the question that worries Kinsella is whether David’s own drive to know the Cocos culture is a kind of appropriation of the other, as if yet another evil Western spirit has arrived by plane, note book, camera, and pen in hand, to possess the ‘soul’ of a luckless islander. The novel processes such doubt by constantly undermining its own control over David’s point of view and authorship.


Another story-line deals with David’s connections with Australian Aboriginal activists who have made strategic alliances with the Cocos Malays. Kinsella cleverly avoids any simplified alliance to occur, however, between Indigenous Australians and the Malay Cocos Islanders, and the book becomes, on one level, an exploration of what strategic alliance might be possible in resisting the lure of integration with Western culture. While the western tourists look for Utopia on coral atolls, the Cocos Islanders see Perth as their escape route to a better life, though for David, Perth represents the tough drug culture he is trying to escape. The West, therefore is represented allegorically in this book, as “Perth”, a place where young Cocos Malays are going in increasing numbers to further themselves.


In a kind of supreme irony, the actual subject has already shifted here, and David’s story will always seem in some way nostalgic and belated. The Davids of this world suffer a belatedness that deflates their intended decolonialising mission.



While Post-colonial is no book-club travel book, its founding discourse is the travel book genre (a map of the Cocos functions as frontispiece), and David is a much less charming but more self-critical literary cousin of Bruce Chatwin. Like Peter Mayle’s highly successful A Year in Provence, the structure of Post-colonial can entertain the reader with a series of run-ins, disasters, cultural mis-communications, but the differences are profound. For a start Kinsella’s anti-lyricism will not convince anyone to travel to the Cocos, or inspire a move towards a warmer, gentler life. Everything conspires to destroy the bourgeois ideals of sea-changers. While Mayle inspired a generation of empty nesters to move to Provence, and a UK TV series on this very phenomenon, Kinsella provides us with no derelict house to renovate. As a form of anti-travel writing, it succeeds in the way it denies every Western fantasy or Utopian illusion that one might entertain about the Cocos. At the same time it succeeds in focussing attention on how commercial travel writing appropriates the exotic destination in order to fulfil the reader’s desire for Utopic transformation.


As with Kinsella’s whole oeuvre, Post-colonial challenges Western literature’s reliance on the unified subject, and in particular the Realist novel’s maintenance of this illusion. It is fascinating to watch Kinsella utilise his poetic to attack subjectivity’s coherence, while at the same time leaving space for its re-education (for this is a novel about David/ Kinsella’s own education sentimentale). David is not omniscient, but limited, provisional, and unreliable, and while this kind of narrator is not new, it is a fitting point of view from which to read about Australian borderlands. As Pessoa knew, writers possess more than one consciousness, and among all the personae at a writer’s disposal, there is no one consensus among them. There are only multiple consciousnesses which are local and not universal.


But Post-colonial is not simply shallow pastiche but a critical re-writing of a significant part of Australian history. While Australians have usually addressed the Cocos Islands in terms of the Clunies-Ross story, Kinsella has opened up this particular backwater of colonial history to a wider vision. While many readers of experimental fiction are now familiar with theories of intertexuality, quotation, appropriation, extirpation etc., the most pleasing quality of the novel is its intimacy and interconnectedness with its subject. And for sure, Cocos Islanders, whether in Perth or Home Island, will not fail to see themselves among its pages. It is satisfying to imagine another David, a more “together” kind, re-visiting the place in future.



[2] David Caddy

[3] Zest, spirit, enthusiasm; soul, or inspired energy. Semangkat also connotes the provincial attitude or group loyalty that ties villagers to their communal birthplace.

Adam Aitken. Photo by Pam Brown.

Adam Aitken. Photo by Pam Brown.

Adam Aitken was born in 1960 and spent his early childhood in London, Thailand and Malaysia. As well as numerous reviews, articles on poetry, and works of creative non-fiction, he is the author of four collections of poetry. Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles (2000) was shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book Award and the John Bray South Australian Writers Festival Award. He has been the recipient of an Asialink residency in Malaysia, an Australian Postgraduate Award and most recently an Australia Council Literature grant for new work on Cambodia. His most recent work includes a Doctorate in Creative Arts thesis on hybridity in Australian literature, and a new book of poems, Eighth Habitation (Giramondo Publishing). He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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