KARAN by B. Wongar


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Karan"" means ""soul"" in the language of Australia's aborigines, but this sad, intense novel is really about despair (""We're just grains of sand in the storm that has engulfed the desert"")--and Wongar (The Track to Bralgu; Babaru; Walg) has a protaganist who is helpless to do anything as he observes the slow killing of his people. Anawari was taken by the white man from his tribe (in a pivotal scene, he finally learns to which tribe he belongs when a stranger casually ""reads"" his chest markings). Raised by a religious order and nominally a minister, he is a computer clerk at a center devoted to ""research"" on the aborigines. Anawari discovers that this research involves genetic manipulation--genocide--at about the same time that he finds a counterpart among the bush aborigines detained at the Center--Gara, who drifted as far away as Europe before returning to tribal ways. Anawari, like Gara, chooses to turn his back on ""the white man and his mechanical toys,"" and goes back to the bush. Tragically enough, the bush is no longer there. Uranium mining and the nuclear testing of the 1950's have destroyed and poisoned the sacred places of the aborigines; even as white researchers (as a method of bringing the bush aborigines into ""civilization"") have poured poison into the few water-holes that remain after generations of unremitting drought. Entire tribes have been decimated by the nuclear tests; and Anawari meets a handful of not-so-fortunate survivors--bush people with the cancerous running sores that the Center doctors call ""The Rot."" The landscape may belong to Anawari, but it is barren and unredeemed, and--though he dreams of one--he carries no magic spell to bring the rain. In the end, he can persist as an observer only by undergoing a transformation--a more appropriate one, at any rate, than that which the white culture had required of him. At its best, Wongar's style is extraordinary in capturing the tribal viewpoint: ""The medicine man walked in kadaitja shoes. . .made. . .of emu feathers and animal fur mixed with blood; he made them oval-shaped so that the track left behind might never reveal which way the wearer had traveled. One shoe had a tiny hole in it through which a small toe might peep--for that toe had an eye--and guide the medicine man along the right path."" In the end, it is just such magical images--and not the understandably emphasized but rather labored message--that remain with the reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Dodd, Mead