Books

Luke Stegemann
Amnesia Road

Not many Australians can write like this. A former academic and editor, Luke Stegemann now lives in country Queensland, where he spends his weekends refereeing remote area boxing matches.

If it’s unusual for a cultural critic to be so comfortable in rural settings, it’s even rarer for an Australian author to know the literature and politics of Spain, where Stegemann worked for many years.

This background facilitates his investigation into historical memory. He writes beautifully about driving through south-west Queensland and musing on the brutality of the Indigenous dispossession that took place there. The story of a massacre near Cunnamulla (“Dozens – perhaps more – of local Indigenous people were murdered that day”) reminds him of the town of Paterna in eastern Spain, where he watched the excavation of an execution site from the Civil War.

“There too,” he writes, “rural landscapes hold the dead to their earthy chests – the dead of whom it is uncertain how, or even if, to speak.”

Because the fascists remained in power after World War II, honouring Franco’s civilian victims – much less recovering their corpses – could be dangerous and so the mass graves remain across the country.

The comparison between fascist Spain and colonial Australia forces an acknowledgement of the violence of white settlement. “You wanted land?” said the fascists mockingly to the rural labourers they were about to kill. “Here’s two metres – it’s yours forever.”

Stegemann points out that similar sites – the permanent resting grounds of the massacred – exist all across Australia, particularly in Queensland. “I believe I am not wrong in stating,” wrote the journalist and poet George E. Loyau in 1897, “every acre of land in these districts was won from the Aborigines by bloodshed and warfare.”

Stegemann considers what Spain’s halting attempts to acknowledge its past tell us about remembrance in Australia. In both nations, he sees the convergence of contradictory impulses: on the one hand, “the project of research, documentation and accounting for the past, which carries with it a desire for reconciliation”, and on the other “the modern need to cast around for sinners”. Where “these two currents meet and spark and separate again, as they have done for years, a third and perhaps overriding force holds sway, which is that of generalised forgetting”.

That triptych dominates the book, facilitating provocative argument about remembrance and trauma.

While Stegemann cares deeply about history, he identifies it as “hard work”, a process demanding “a dedication to mentally travel down often-obscure roads … [to] meet and talk with people, both from the present and the past, with whom we fiercely disagree”.

That onerous labour doesn’t, for understandable reasons, appeal to everyone. He cites Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s scepticism about “the damaging exercise of remembering”, noting that in rural Spain, villagers sometimes prefer to leave the dead undisturbed.

“Having those bones come to the surface will mean being drafted into the machinery of bureaucracy and the laws, and what person, operating the land well beyond sight, would have any interest in that?”

On this basis, Stegemann defends the apparent indifference of rural Queenslanders to their state’s cruel history. “People are more interested in working and eating than indulging in politics; more interested in the survival of themselves and their families in the most fundamental sense. There is no time or inclination to meditate upon the meaning of their surroundings, or the history of the land they are working, much less upon the ‘meaning’ of national history. This does not – despite, at times, the best efforts of opinion makers – make them morally inferior, or less aware of themselves as fully-engaged members of society.”

On the contrary, he says, the boxing clubs of country Australia foster more racial diversity than you’ll find in many inner-city suburbs. He warns against “racist extremists on the right and the perennially distempered on the left” who weaponise memory against a basically decent majority.

“The paths to redemption are, and will continue to be, circuitous,” he says. “There will be determined voices claiming no redemption is required, and that past injustices have no bearing on the present; others will claim that neither redemption is possible, nor forgiveness … But redemption takes place every day; at every moment, Australia moves on with its history – good, bad, or however so interpreted – and each day becomes a nation further resolved.”

Historians might query the basis of Amnesia Road’s comparison between Spain and Australia. Does a civil war fought over competing versions (fascism versus Stalinism) of modernity really illuminate the dynamics of a colonial settler state?

More importantly, Stegemann’s opposition between “hectoring political opportunists” and those “quietly digging up and burying their family dead” obscures the extent to which it’s often the descendants of victims who see remembrance as an imperative. Amnesia Road might have benefited from more direct engagement with the Indigenous people for whom historical accountability has long been a central demand. The Uluru statement, as Stegemann acknowledges, calls for a makarrata commission to supervise “truth telling about our history”, a process that surely necessitates rural white Australians – even those not inclined to cultural contemplation – engaging in some hard historical labour.

Nevertheless, even when you don’t agree with him, Stegemann presents a fiercely intelligent case, an argument emerging from his love of “the lands of south-west Queensland, both bountiful and spare, as simple and as fully complex as the world”. His book offers a stimulating take on Australian history, one with which anyone interested in reconciliation should engage. 

Jeff Sparrow

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Luke Stegemann, Amnesia Road".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow