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Sven Lindqvist, Terra Nullius: En resa genom ingens land (Terra Nullius: A Journey through No-One's Land)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2005. ISBN: 91000105996

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2005:2

English Translation: Terra Nullius, translated by Sarah Death. Granta Books, 2007. ISBN 9781862078956.

The Bonnier Group Agency produced both a fiction and a non-fiction catalogue in English for Spring 2005, and Sven Lindqvist’s new book features in both of them. Fifty years ago, in his first book Ett förslag (A Suggestion), he proposed a new genre of “factual fiction”, within which he has been working ever since. In Terra nullius we again encounter his intriguing blend of travel writing, history, and personal indignation about man’s inhumanity to man. As in Exterminate All the Brutes (to which the author considers his new book a sequel) and A History of Bombing, there is an implicit denunciation of the European white man’s bullying, colonial past. But facts are related in Lindqvist’s characteristic, calmly paced, consciously laconic tone. What makes his books personal is the framework narrative: his observations during a journey experienced at first hand. He is highly knowledgeable about the geology, geography, history, flora and fauna of each destination he selects, yet also poetic in descriptions of the beauty and grandeur of the landscape. His skill lies in incorporating impressive amounts of research into his books without destroying their sparsely lyrical style. In Terra Nullius Lindqvist turns his spotlight on the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, cataloguing the shocking treatment meted out to them by white settlers over the centuries, and the discrimination they still suffer today. The title means “no-one’s land”, a legal term conveniently exploited by the European settlers, who chose to assume that this vast land mass belonged to nobody and was there for the taking. Lindqvist, almost always the observer rather than the interlocutor of the local people, is struck by the collective amnesia of the modern Australians about this aspect of their country’s past; he is passed from office to office in search of information about the important Aboriginal sites he wishes to visit. This may be because there are some truly appalling abuses catalogued here, such as the rounding up of Aborigine women for transportation to the chillingly named “Isle of the Dead” for inappropriate and often fatal syphilis treatment; and the extensive forced separation of “half-blood” children from their families to be brought up and “civilized”. The most powerless members of society were at the mercy of misguided ethnographers; roughly trained police officers, “just doing their duty” even if it included rape; and ambitious officials sworn to eradicate the “inferior” natives. But, Lindqvist wonders, can we hold people to account for acting in accordance with the beliefs and practices of their age? The same pattern was being repeated in countries all over the world, he reminds us. The question of the inheritability of national guilt (including Norway’s sense of betrayal by Sweden in World War Two, and Sweden’s treatment of its Sami minority) exercises him throughout the book, and he concludes that nation states of today must each find their own way to do what they can to try to make amends. As in Bench Press, published in English in 2003, the author’s dreams figure as arresting breaks in the largely documentary tone. Some, like the one about the polar bears giving a party, seem weirdly tangential and random, when one might have expected more resonance with Lindqvist’s Australian journey, or even with what he tells us about the Aborigines’ “Dreamtime” or “The Dreaming”: the time of their ancestors who created the world and are still alive in sacred places. There is no disappointment at all, however, in the memorable descriptions of the bush and desert. Lindqvist revels in the dramatic, sometimes barren scenery, as the colours and shapes of the place overwhelm him: “Australia is striped. My whole field of vision is filled with lines. Left by water that once ran there? Or did the wind draw them in the sand? Grooves. Scratches. Clawmarks. Like those torn by the inland ice into the flat rock surfaces of Sweden. All in the same direction. In this magnificent monotony, it looks just as if an army of pastry wheels has advanced across thinly-rolled, light red, biscuit dough.”

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