Patrick White was the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and is one of the country’s leading novelists of the 20th Century. Voss was his fifth novel and was originally published in 1957.
It tells the story of two characters; Johann Ulrich Voss is a German who sets out with a party of men to cross the Australian Continent. Laura Trevelyan is an orphan living with her aunt and uncle, Edmund Bonner, who is one of the businessmen sponsoring Voss’ trek across Australia. The story has many themes including isolation and journey’s into the unknown.
The story is set in the 1840’s when Australia was still being colonised and was largely unexplored by westerners. For me, one of the themes of the novel is the link between the land and the people on it, for both aborigines and settlers, and how those bonds grow over time and are visible.
‘Yes,’ answered Voss, without hesitation. ‘I will cross the continent from one end to the other. I have every intention to know it with my heart. Why I am pursued by this necessity, it is no more possible for me to tell than it is for you, who have made my acquaintance only before yesterday.’
That Voss is not British reinforces the feeling that the land can be taken, that its boundaries or borders have not yet been developed, an essential aspect of colonisation.
Whilst Voss’ journey is not successful, and ultimately most of his party die, the reader is aware that Australia was ultimately conquered and explored but the price of that conquest was high. Along side this is the history of Australia as a penal colony, with a number of characters being emancipated convicts. When Laura’s servant Rose Portion is buried following the birth of her daughter, White writes:
Rather an isolated part of the cemetery had been chosen for the grave of Rose Portion, the emancipist servant, but, of course, as the conciliatory Mr Plumpton pointed out, the whole ground would in time be opened up.
The country, as well as the cemetery will be opened up by the British, and death will part of the landscape.
But the land is already occupied and death is inevitably already part of the landscape:
Once Voss and Jackie had discovered in some trees a platform of leafy saplings fastened together with strips of bark. They were still examining it when Judd and Harry caught them up. ‘These dead men,’ the native boy explained, and it was gathered that his people laid their dead upon such platforms, and would leave them there for the spirits to depart.
Perhaps by aligning death and suffering with the bond for a country White is hinting at one of the challenges in Australia’s more recent history, how to respond to the rights of indigenous people whilst recognising that after almost 250 years presence the strength of others attachment to the land.
“Well, you see, if you live and suffer long enough in a place, you do not leave it altogether. Your spirit is still there.”
“Finally, I believe I have begun to understand this great country, which we have been presumptuous enough to call ours, and with which I shall be content to grow since the day we buried Rose. For part of me has now gone into it.”
Voss is not an easy read. For me there was much confusion about the events within the middle part, and even once I had gotten through them I was unclear about exactly what had happened, but perhaps that was the intention. However, once I had reached the end I found myself going back to the middle section to re-discover what had been written and what had been said.