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Gerald Murnane: The Plains

This is another first-class novel by Murnane. He essentially takes an existing country – Australia – and reimagines its history or, at least, a history of a large part of it. He has created this large region of Australia, essentially the geographical centre part, away from the coast, and created what amounts almost to a new country called The Plains. The country seems to be run something like a combination of the old Texas cattle barons and the European feudal lords. The book could perhaps be described as a fable.

The unnamed narrator has come from Melbourne (the only place to be named in the book). He is making a film and wants to do something that, apparently, no-one else has done before and that is to film a part of the film in The Plains, particularly ending with a view of the Plains and with a shot of one of the daughters of the barons against a background of the Plains. He goes to an unnamed town on the edge of The Plains where the plainsmen tend to come and talk and drink and he goes into one of the enormous bars. I chose a group that seemed to include intellectuals and custodians of the history and lore of the district. I judged from their dress and bearing that they were not sheepmen or cattlemen, although they might have spent much of their time out of doors.. The first thing he notices about them is what had sometimes been described as the arrogance of the plainsmen was no more than their reluctance to recognise any common ground between themselves and others. Indeed, the plainsmen had become unusually observant, discriminating, and receptive to gradual revelations of meaning. In other words, contrary to what others might think, there is not a uniform plainsman, though the descriptions that we receive of them later do not indicate a wide difference between them.

We learn a little of their history, such as explorers coming in from the coastal areas and gradually settling the area. How did they make their money? It is not clear, though the quote above indicates that sheep and cattle, as is indeed the case in Australia, seem to be the source. However, it is also apparent that the main barons are fabulously wealthy. We learn that there was a conflict between various groups, particularly the Horizonites and the Haremen, whose names amazingly come from artistic sources. We also learn that there was a rumour that the plainsmen had even thought of seceding from Australia or even invading the rest of the country, but the rumour was never substantiated.

Every so often the barons come into town (there appear to be seven of them but it is not clear whether that is just on the one particular occasion reported or always the case; we do learn that there are many recluses in the Plains). When they do, they meet in a large room and spend two-three days eating, drinking and talking together. On this occasion a hoard of people (they all seem to be young men) hang around waiting to be summoned to the main room, where they try to sell things to the barons. The main things they try to sell are emblems/coats of arms and religion. They are almost always unsuccessful but sometimes manage to persuade one of the barons to change his coat of arms, based on some unique feature that he has – a rare bird or plant only found on his land, for example. Our narrator is waiting his turn, in order to make his film.

Eventually, he is called in. He is initially ignored. The men are drinking and there are various discussions going on, on such subjects as the ideal woman, the birds found in the Plains and the history of the exploration of the region. Eventually they hear him out but do not seem enthusiastic, despite the opportunity to be shown in film and for their daughter (they all seem to have one daughter) to appear in the film. His argument is that he claims that film was the one art form that could satisfy the contradictory impulses of the plainsman. However, one man, who is lying on a stretcher, appoints him Director of Film Projects. (This view on film is interesting, given Murnane’s condemnation of film in his later A Million Windows. However, it is also clear that, as the narrator comes to realise, you can never capture the real image of either a person or a landscape with film. The narrator struggles with this realisation for a long time.)

He sets out for his patron’s house, a remote house but a massive palace with endless vistas and a huge library, full of literary treasures, in particular a massive collection of books relating to The Plains. Indeed, there seems to be a huge industry producing such books on a huge variety of aspects of the Plains and our narrator’s patron has to have them all. The library is described in some detail over the next ten years that the narrator stays there and brings to mind Borges’ famous quote I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.

As well as the library, where the narrator stays there is also the view which, unusually for the area, shows some low-lying hills. Inevitably, the narrator not only admires the view but admires the daughter of his patron admiring the view. Indeed, it is her frequent looking at the view that colours his view on film, as he realises what she sees is never going to be what he sees. In other words,we all react differently to similar views. Despite his almost voyeuristic approach, it seems that he never speaks to the daughter. Similarly, the patron’s wife (not much older than the narrator) is often in the library when he is there but he never speaks to her there, though he does have mild erotic fantasies about her. Interestingly what we (and other Australians) would called novels are filed in the philosophy section of the library – on the plains they make up a well-respected branch of moral philosophy. The authors concern themselves with what they call, for convenience, the soul of the plainsman.

I found this to be a thoroughly original work and one that cannot help but impress the reader. While the main theme is the idea that the image is important but it is different for different people and cannot be captured on film, the story of this community that seems utterly remote from everyone else – people rarely travel out of it or to it – but yet is based on a very real part of a very real country, with intellectual pursuits to the fore (something we do not alway associate with Australia and Australians)is superbly well told by Murnane and helps confirm him as one of the foremost Australian writers.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Nostrilla Press