Alex Miller: Why I wrote Landscape of Farewell

1 Miller Alex smlLandscape of Farewell is a celebration of friendship between two men of my own generation.  The novel speaks of the shadow of the past they have each lived with in silence for the whole of their lives.  It is the story of how their friendship empowers them to penetrate that silence and to give it a voice.

I first heard the story of the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre when I was a boy of sixteen and was newly arrived in Australia from England.  I was working in outback Queensland as a stockman on Goathlands Station in the beautiful valley of Coona Creek, south of the Central Highlands town of Springsure, not far from Cullin-la-Ringo Station, where the massacre of nineteen white settlers by the local Aborigines took place on a lovely summer morning in 1861.  Over the years since then I often wondered how I might write the story of that massacre without setting it in an historical reconstruction of the times in which it took place, when European pioneers were first penetrating that country with their vast flocks of sheep and dispossessing the local Indigenous people of their traditional homelands, which until that time they had enjoyed without challenge.

My inclination has always been to write of my own times, or at least the times of my family and friends.  The idea of writing about Cullin-la-Ringo, however, continued to pester me.  When I was in Hamburg in the autumn of 2004 at the invitation of the Gesellschaft für Australienstudien, I met and became friends with Dr Anita Heiss, one of Australia's foremost Indigenous writers and intellectuals.  Anita was teaching Indigenous Studies at UTS at the time and told me of her admiration for my novel Journey to the Stone Country, a story also set in North Queensland, and which dealt with a profound reconciliation of the past that had been effected by two friends of mine, one a Queensland Murri and the other a descendant of one of the white settlers who had dispossessed the Aborigines of their country in the 1860s.  These two people were, of course, familiar with the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, the white woman's father even having owned for a time a section of the original run on which the massacre took place.  I told Anita about this web of connections and she encouraged me to write about it.  Although I'm certain Anita was unaware of it, I felt that her enthusiasm was a green light to my desire to write this book.  So it was in Hamburg that I first began to imaginatively piece the story together.

In Hamburg I also met and made friends with a number of German academics, most of whom were young people of my children's generation, but a few of whom, especially the professors, were of my own generation, men and women born just before the war as I was and who had lived through it and could remember it.  I was able to speak openly with the young academics about the conflict in Australia between the European settlers and the Indigenous people and its unresolved legacy of shame, guilt, denial and dispossession in our contemporary society.

These young Germans were also keen to talk to me about their feelings about the Nazi regime, which their grandparents and parents had lived through.  To a person, they told me their own parents - people of my age - had never been able to question their fathers about the role they had played in the war.  It was, they said, too hideous and too distressing and was a subject that was avoided.  For these young people, however, the Nazi period was obviously a source of enormous curiosity.  Their anxiety was to know the whole truth of their own family's participation in those events.  Many had not yet begun to question their own parents, who, they assured me, still suffered from a terrible sense of guilt and shame by association with the horrifying deeds of their parents' generation.  Those one or two who had begun to question their fathers spoke to me with emotion about the conversations they'd had.  My own father fought with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in Northern France against the last desperate divisions of the SS, who defended themselves to the bitter end around the city of Caen.  My father was wounded, physically and emotionally by those events, and our lives were changed by them for ever.  I felt a direct sense of association, and even of a kinship, with the parents of these young people.

When I tried to talk about their fathers' involvement in the war to Germans of my own age - the sons of those who fought for the Third Riech - I found them reluctant and I got very little response.  When I pressed them, a few even began to argue a kind of wild, nervous and anxious historical defence of what had happened.  I realised that the reactions of the two generations to the war were deeply divided, and I began to see, too, that the depth of silence in Germany about the Nazi period among my own generation was akin to the depth of our silence in Australia about the stolen generations.

I have listened to intelligent and well-informed Australians of great moral probity make the claim that they did not know about the stolen generations until the publication in April 1997 of Bringing Them Home, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.  When we consider the vast army of lawyers, government officials, legislators, administrators, and the families and acquaintances of all those thousands of people involved in the active policy of stealing Aboriginal children from their parents over a period of seventy years, indeed until well into the sixties, it makes the claim, "I didn't know about it" implausible.

Deep silence of this kind is a psychic and cultural phenomenon common to the experience of many individuals and countries.  It is a feeling that we don't know about something when the evidence for it has been all around us.  To be in denial in this way about historical and family trauma is a well-known psychological condition among the perpetrators of the trauma and their victims.  There was an incident in my own childhood about which we, as a family, never spoke, and when I had tried to get my father to talk to me about it when he was an old man he wept and could not speak.  So I knew about deep silence and the way we use it to cover our sins.  And I knew how it can warp and disfigure lives.  I knew how difficult it is for us to say,  I knew and yet I did nothing, and how much easier it is for us to say,  I didn't know.

I was sitting one afternoon reading in my vast, half-empty room in the hotel in Schluterstrasse in Hamburg, looking out of the enormous bay window at the horse chestnut trees, which were just turning towards autumn, conkers littering the footpath, when I began to think about the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre and how its historical relationship to my Murri friends in Queensland was of a similar order, but a further generation removed, to the relationship of Germans of my own generation and the events of the Second World War.

I am one of those who believes the holocaust to be unique, and that there are no comparisons to it in history.  The holocaust is not my sacred ground and I was never going to write about it.  It was not the inspiration for this book, but nevertheless it always stood behind me, as it stands behind my generation and the generation of my parents, a great dark mass that will remain with us until the end.  The shock of the holocaust still poses for us the biggest question about the nature of humanity and ourselves, and we know there will never be an answer to this question that will ever satisfy us.  There is nothing we can compare to the holocaust that will make either moral or emotional sense to us.  The holocaust is so terrible it reaches way beyond us and within us and we will never be rid of it.  We will always doubt the goodness of humanity and the worthiness of the human project because of it.  I speak for myself and for my own generation.  Referring to Landscape of Farewell, when Hilary McPhee writes,  "Massacre is the blockage in the Australian imagination, in our sense of ourselves in this place  . . ."  what I hear is,  "Massacre is the blockage in the human imagination, in our sense of ourselves in this place."

My fiction of the retired German professor of history, Max Otto, writing his own fictional account of the massacre at Cullin-la-Ringo is a celebration of my real life experience of writing my first published short story, Comrade Pawel. From 1968 to 1973 I lived alone on 1,500 acres in the Araluen Valley in New South Wales.  My closest friend at that time was Max Blatt.  Max was older than I, a highly educated and deeply humane man, he was a German Jew from Upper Silesia who had barely survived torture by the Nazis.  The promise of his youth and his loved one were destroyed by the Nazis and he had eventually made his way to Australia via Shanghai.

When I was living on the farm, Max used to visit me regularly from Melbourne and we would smoke our cigarettes and sit by the open fire and talk far into the nights.  At weekends friends often came down from Canberra and joined us - journalists, academics and, in those days, out of office labour politicians.  We would sit around the big old table in the kitchen and drink red wine and eat salami and discuss the issues of the day.  After one of these evenings, during which the discussion had been about anti-semitism, and when the guests had all driven back to Canberra, Max and I were sitting alone in front of the fire having a final cup of tea before turning in.  Max had said little during the earlier discussion.  He turned to me now and said,  "Would you like to know what anti-Semitism is?"  He then told me, in a few sentences, the story of how a Polish comrade had first saved his life then turned on him for being a Jew.

Earlier that weekend Max had finished reading a draft of a novel I was writing and, on finishing it, had thrown it down on the table in disgust with,  "Why don't you write about something you love!"  I loved Max and I recognised the enormous value in the truth of what he had said to me as a writer.  That night I wrote my imaginary re-enactment of the story he had told me about the comrade who had first saved him then betrayed him just because he was a Jew.  I called the story Comrade Pawel.  In the morning I gave it to him to read.  He read, as he always read - as he listened to music - without saying a word and without giving away his feelings in his expression, which remained impassive.  When he finished he looked at me and I saw that he was moved.  He said,  "You could have been there."  It was the moment when I first began to believe I could write and from that moment on I have always written about what I love.  When Dougald says to Max Otto after he has read Max's fiction, Massacre,  "You could have been there,"  it is for me the expression of one of the most important moments in my life and is a private tribute to my friend and mentor Max Blatt.

So, even there, the connection is made.  But it is a hidden connection.  A connection that works in the soul and not in the lyrics of the song.  It is surely the test of the authenticity of all serious literature, that the one who knows intimately the subject of the work feels, as he or she reads it, that the author could have been there too.

It is a great privilege, and an even greater responsibility, to have the freedom of the artist to make it up.  The result of what exactly one makes up, however, can never be gratuitous or haphazard, but must be, so I fervently believe, authentic to the moment and to the lives and experiences of our characters.  The novel is not just, or merely, entertainment, but is also responsible for reflecting with accurate insight the temper of the age in which it is written.  If the people one writes about cannot recognise themselves in one's work, then the work fails, no matter how successful it might be commercially.  All my novels have been written because I believe in the moral force of the human imagination, and am convinced that art can play its part in the conceptual work we need if we are to understand ourselves.  That is what I strive to do.  Whether I succeed or not is measured for me in the response to my work of those I write about.

For Australians of my generation some things are inescapable.  They pervade our emotions, our attitudes and the way we experience art and life.  The holocaust is one of these things, and the confusion of childhood feelings of guilt and shame that we associate with it will never leave us.  Another is the terrible price Australian Indigenous people have been required to pay for the prosperity and the opportunities enjoyed by people such as myself.  As a novelist, it is not possible for me to write as if these things are not part of my life, embedded deeply in my experience and my psyche.  I believe it to be at least part of the job of novelists to bear witness to the emotional and moral questions that haunt our lives, and to deal with the consequences for us of there being no resolution, nor any redemption, from questions such as the ones I have mentioned here.

So I write about what I love.  But as my friend Max Blatt first taught me all those years ago with his story of his comrade Pawel, human love can be a terrible thing as well as something of infinite beauty.  I am not a polemicist, but write of the intimate in our lives.  It would shame me to remain silent, however, about those questions that make me doubt my faith in the decency of humanity and the civilising project in which we like to believe ourselves to be involved, a belief that encourages in us the dangerous and comforting illusion that we have made moral progress, and which encourages us to believe the lie of those who say,  It can never happen again.


Books by Alex Miller


Published: September 2020

An astonishing, moving tribute to Alex's friend, Max Blatt, that is at once a meditation on memory itself, on friendship and a reminder to the reader that history belongs to humanity.

The Passage of Love

Published: September 2019

Critically acclaimed, two-time winner of the Miles Franklin award, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and numerous other literary awards, Miller's new work is an exquisitely personal novel of love and creativity.

The Simplest Words

Published: October 2016

A selection of short pieces - both fiction and non-fiction - from one of Australia's greatest literary treasures...

Coal Creek

Published: July 2014

The new novel from Australia's highly acclaimed literary treasure is an extraordinarily powerful exploration of tragedy, betrayal, the true nature of friendship and the beauty of lasting love.

Autumn Laing

Published: March 2014

Autumn Laing has long outlived the legendary circle of artists she cultivated in the 1930s. Now 'old and skeleton gaunt', she reflects on her tumultuous relationship with the abundantly talented Pat Donlon and the effect it had on her husband, on Pat's wife and the body of work which launched Pat's career. A brilliantly alive and insistently energetic story of love, loyalty and creativity.

Watching the Climbers on the Mountain

Published: July 2012

Anger, jealousy, madness and revenge - a powerful novel of relationships set on a remote far north Queensland cattle station.


Published: January 2012

Seeking shelter in a Parisian cafe from a sudden rainstorm, John Patterner meets the exotic Sabiha and his carefully mapped life changes forever. Alex Miller's brilliantly realised, multi-award winning novel tells the deeply moving story of their lives together, and of how each came undone by desire. Now in paperback.

Landscape of Farewell

Published: November 2008

'Is it history that tells us who we are? Or is it the story we tell ourselves . that defines who we are?' (The Australian) A profound and moving story about the land, the past, exile and acceptance from the award-winning author of Journey to the Stone Country.

Prochownik's Dream

Published: September 2006

From the award-winning author of Conditions of Faith and Journey to the Stone Country, Alex Miller's new novel reveals the inner life of an artist, torn between his obsession with his art and his love of his wife and daughter.

Tivington Nott

Published: November 2005

An extraordinarily compressed powerhouse of a novel, at once wholly original, gripping and mysterious. While The Tivington Nott is only Alex Miller's second novel, it has all the hallmarks of this two-times Miles Franklin winner.

The Ancestor Game

Published: September 2003

The best-selling, 1993 Miles Franklin Award-winning novel from one of Australia's foremost literary writers.

The Sitters

Published: September 2003

A sensuously written, peculiarly Australian novel about the relationship between a painter and his subject.

Journey to the Stone Country

Published: September 2003

Winner of the 2003 Miles Franklin Award. A superbly compelling work of betrayals, compassion, secrets and reconciliation.

Conditions of Faith

Published: April 2001

An amazing book; a compulsively readable story composed by an award-winning author of brilliant, subtle, compassionate and intelligent language.