Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
Ken Inglis. Foreword
Elena Govor and her husband Vladimir Kabo are among Russians who have developed an intense interest in Australia and who have then come to see the land of their study and imagining. Such people are more numerous than most of us had known before Melbourne University Press published in 1997 Elena Govor's book Australia in the Russian Mirror. Govor and Kabo are also among Russians who, after experiencing life in Australia, have decided to make this country their home. Vladimir Kabo describes their odyssey in his own book, published in 1998 by Aboriginal Studies Press, The Road to Australia. Fate, will and intellect had made him the foremost scholar in the Soviet Union on the subject of Australian Aborigines. As an intellectual from a Jewish family, incarcerated in Stalin's prisons, he began to reflect on the similarities between the Gulag and early human society, and when he was released he became a member of Leningrad's Institute of Ethnography. He had to wait more than thirty years, until 1990, to fulfil his wish to see the continent whose first inhabitants occupied his mind. He was accompanied by Elena, his young wife, who (like many other Russians, she discovered) had dreamed when young of Australia, had read Vladimir's book The Origins of the Australian Aborigines at the age of fourteen, had published her own Bibliography of Australia (1710-1983) and composed the standard Russian bibliography on Oceania, and who agreed to marry him when, as a widower slightly acquainted with her, he proposed in a letter.
'What do you know about your bride-to-be?' Vladimir's sister Lyuba asked him.
'She's very fond of Australia', he replied.
'I know quite a bit about love and how people get married', said Lyuba, 'but this is the first time I've ever heard of two people forming a union on the basis of their love for Australia.'
They loved Australia at first sight, as Vladimir had loved Elena — loved, in his ecstatic words, 'green hills with the shadows of clouds scudding over them, forests of gums, translucent and filled with sunlight, the riotous gold of wattles, pebbly riverbeds in deep, shady gullies'. They even love suburban Canberra, where they have lived since 1991, and where they became Australians, proud of the citizenship certificates handed to them by smiling officials at a homely Australia Day ceremony (who also gave them each a native tree to plant in the soil of their new country), and proud of their Australian son, Ralphie.
The introduction to this book has an epigraph from E.T.A. Hoffmann: 'The most astonishing things are those that actually happen. There is nothing more surprising or improbable than real life.' These words are familiar to readers of The Road to Australia. Vladimir copied them into a diary at the age of twelve or thirteen, a diary which was to vanish in the furnaces of the Lubyanka prison, but only after the passage had stuck in the mind of an interrogator, who observed 'That's very true'.
My Dark Brother is indeed a tale full of astonishing things. As the author says, 'at times it is a historical, anthropological, or literary study; at times, a documentary novel'.
Nicholas Illin and his son Leandro had small parts in her earlier book. Nicholas is a Russian intellectual who has travelled to Queensland; Leandro does his best to persuade Australian authorities to authorise a Russian settlement in the Northern Territory, and in 1915 he becomes one of only six European men in Queensland given permission to marry an Aboriginal woman.
Now we meet the two Illins as richly presented characters, in a story that goes from the Russia of Chekhov, Turgenev and Dostoevsky to the Australia of Eddie Mabo. Yes, Eddie Mabo: it was Leandro's Aboriginal son-in-law Richard Hoolihan who awakened Mabo to the subject of land rights.
Elena Govor has found a rich treasury of sources about the Illins in three continents, which she interrogates subtly and hard. The making of the book has been a family activity. Kabo's anthropology helps Govor to bring alive the Aboriginal culture of Leandro's wife Kitty, mother of his five children, who dies young but remains vividly alive in the memory of her husband until he dies in 1946 and in the memories of their children, sensitively recorded by the author. The descendants' memories of both Aboriginal and Russian progenitors are remarkably rich. Govor tests them against documentary evidence and, as a detective historian, she is often surprised at their accuracy. She makes good use of inaccuracies also: one strength of the book is its exploration of the notion of a myth. Ralphie accompanied his mother on field-work at the age of four, and heard the myth of the Rainbow Serpent from an Aboriginal elder at the very spot where people believe the events of the myth happened.
If, like me, you are apprehensive that the term 'documentary novel' may signal that genre of historical fiction, or faction, in which the reader can never be sure whether people and events rest on historical evidence or are made up, you need not worry. When the author is speculating, she tells us so. She applies a novelist's mind to a vast range of scrupulously collected evidence, from the works of Tolstoy to immigration records in Argentina, to the Cairns Post, as well as to records of interviews with many people, young and old. The book does read like fiction. Well-documented improbabilities abound. I sometimes felt I was reading a fancifully crafted saga, crossing oceans and generations — by Peter Carey, say. I needed all the footnotes to remind me that this is not fiction at all, that it all did happen.
The author herself is a constant, unobtrusive presence in the book as she cuts cleverly between her own research and the events of one or more generations ago. She begins and ends with the present, dedicating the book to Ralphie Kabo and the young Illins, heirs to both the spirit of Russia and the Rainbow Serpent. She sees her son and his young Aboriginal friends as destined 'to build the new Australia free from racial prejudice and thus fulfil Leandro Illin's dream'. Her rendering of that dream and its human consequences is a powerful work of creative imagination, and an inspiring text for anybody who cares about reconciliation.