Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
Kim Manhood, Walking different paths in a rich and strange land, The Age, 2 December 2000.
... Elena Govor's My Dark Brother tells the story of a Russian family, the Illins, which migrated to Australia in 1910. Nicholas Illin, the quixotic patriarch, attempted to establish a Russian colony on the Atherton Tableland, a place for Russians fleeing the Tsar to find refuge and build a new life. He brought his family to Australia after failing in the same enterprise in South America, to which he returned after many years in Australia.
Nicholas emerges as an idealistic, erratic, rather incompetent character. He instilled in his eldest son, Leandro, a profound commitment to humanist ideals and personal integrity, which was realised in Leandro's decision to marry the Aboriginal mother of his son, and to treat as his own her three full-blood children.
He and the Ngadjon woman, Kitty Clarke, had four more children before she died in childbirth at Christmas Creek in north Queensland.
This is a big, awkward, fascinating book, unwieldly and at times cluttered with characters whose lives are peripheral to the central narrative. In her desire to cover every aspect of the lives of the Illins and their descendants the author has sacrificed narrative thread for detail, sometimes to the detriment of clarity. However, one is left with a strong impression of the strange multiple histories that make up Australian society.
It is the story of the intersections between the pioneer settlers in the wet forested tableland country, its Aboriginal population, and the ideologies and revolutions of Eastern Europe. It gives a glimpse into the prejudice, racism, pragmatism, stoicism and generosity of Australian society in the early part of the century, and the appalling inequities of the government policies towards both Aboriginal and migrant Australians.
Henri Gilbert, who walks for a wager and in no way challenges us, encounters assistance, admiration and goodwill, and passes through leaving almost without trace.
Leandro Illin stays, marries an Aboriginal woman, leaves behind a growing number of descendants of mixed Russian and Aboriginal heritage and a fund of increasingly mythologised memories. He slips into that awkward space that challenges the social conventions and bureaucratic authority of the time. He is culturally alien, opinionated, passionate, poor, beyond the pale. He occupies a clear ethical space few of us are prepared to attempt, and his story is deeply pertinent to the conflicts and challenges we face today.
Govor is so deeply engaged in her material that one feels her own seduction by its mythical properties. It is, however, a story that is rich and strange and sad, and is a significant contribution to the ever-deepening seam of cultural and historic legacies that make up contemporary Australia.