Review: Enthralling Tale of an Intrepid Explorer

by admin on February 7, 2012

Excerpts from a review of Maclay: A Novel in the Canberra Times

Monument to Maclay in New Guinea

All biography requires imagination. It is the device which can take the writer, and thereby the reader, to places where records cannot go. But crossing the boundary from fact to fiction is a delicate task, for when taking a real person as the basis of a novel the author ought to remain true to the essence of that life. K.H. Rennie has fulfilled this obligation.

The subject of her novel, Nikolai Miklouho Maclay (a Russian ethnographer of Scottish ancestry) is well known in Russia as an intrepid explorer and champion of the Papuan people in the 1870s and 1880s. Russians assume Australians know of him too. After all, he settled in Sydney for a while and married into local society. Yet most don’t.

That was perhaps the author’s motivation for choosing the form of a novel to present a story previously recorded in her hero’s own diaries and a first-rate biography The Moon Man by Elsie May Webster, published in 1984.

The novel explores the contradictions in its hero. On the one hand he is concerned about slavery and the effects of colonisation on indigenous peoples, but Maclay is also a man of his times who sees nothing wrong in obtaining native corpses and bottling brains for later dissection. It reveals a man affected by his own myth making: his success in fending off hostile Papuans with tricks that suggested he was immortal gave him delusions of power. He envisaged himself becoming a white Papuan, a chieftain who would protect his people from colonial invaders, yet also bring them into contact with the modern world.

The ship which collects him from Papua takes him to Batavia. His sojourn in the Dutch East Indies is effectively described – you can smell the fetid drains of the coastal port and feel the welcome cool of the Botanic Gardens at Buitenzorg (Bogor). Maclay’s friendship with an English doctor, Morrison, one of those expatriates who finds himself adrift between his own culture and the seduction of Indonesian life, is a convincing study. Also delicately presented is the demise of a relationship with the daughter of the Governor-General, Sir James Loudon, a Dutchman of English descent. Here is where imagination fills in the gaps which Webster, a biographer not a novelist, had eloquently noted in her book:

“Things had fallen apart at Buitenzorg. Perhaps for reasons of love or money. Maclay was no longer an honoured guest in the Loudon household. The reason remained locked in the breasts of those concerned. From magnanimity, from embarrassment, or from deeper than ordinary hurt, neither party decried the other to the outsiders.”

Rennie chooses not to take her novel beyond the end of the romance… But then Maclay: A Novel is primarily a study of how the realities of exploration – its physical demands as well as its challenges to preconceived ideas – take their toll. We leave Maclay weakened by fever and financial difficulties, having watched his determination to impose his own aspirations and values undermine the authority he hoped to exert within native cultures.

An afterword in the book mentions the irony of Maclay’s dream of a protectorate to save the Papuans from British, German or Australian colonists. Far from achieving this aim his subsequent visits to what Maclay dubbed the Maclay coast around Astrolabe Bay gave the impression of a Russian push into New Guinea. This aroused suspicion among other colonial powers and accelerated the race to claim their bit of paradise.

The rest is history.

Francesca Beddie

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