Elena Govor My Dark Brother



'Elena Govor 'My Dark Brother'' Australian Book Review Dec/Jan (2000)

Elena Govor My Dark Brother: The Story Of The Illins, A Russian-Aboriginal Family

Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2000

384 pages, paperback with illustrations and index

IBSN 0 86840 594 9

Twenty years ago, Meanjin editor Jim Davidson hosted a seminar about the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry titled ‘St Petersburg or Tinsel Town’. At the time, it seemed clear cultural choice—the intellectual life of the south versus the hedonism of the north. However, on this side of the 21st century the aspiration to Slavic intensity seems more at home in the deep north than in the mild south. It was Brisbane, not Melbourne, that produced the wanna-be Dostoevsky Helen Darville. Now Elena Govor’s My Dark Brother presents us with a Tolstoy of the Atherton Tableland.

Govor’s subject is the restless family of Nicholas Illin. A man of the late 19th century, Illin poured his impatient socialism into titles like Songs of the Earth and In a New Land. Scorned by contemporaries such as Leo Tolstoy, Illin took his family to Patagonia in 1897. Deprived of land by a corrupt Argentinean regime, the Illins then moved to Australia, which advertised itself as a land of ‘justice and abundant fertile land’. With a few other Russian settlers, the Nicholas acquired uncleared bush in a corner of the Atherton Tablelands subsequently known as Little Siberia. After the Russian Revolution, with the threat of internment and despair at their harsh life in Queensland, Nicholas took his two youngest children back to Latin America, where they hoped to start up a colony of Russian refugees in the virgin lands of Honduras.

The elder brother Leandro had taken in a single mother, Kitty Clark, of the local Ngadjon people. When her family was threatened with deportation to Palm Island, Leandro formalised their relationship in a marriage. The paternalist state government then prohibited Leandro and Kitty leaving the country with their mixed family. The Russian husband was left to stay in Queensland where he battled against both natural and cultural hazards, including catastrophic floods and deep-rooted racism. Leandro became a tireless critic for social justice: his social agitation ranged from migrant rights to local municipal matters, such as provision of water fountains and cinemas in Ingham. Today, his children are active in Aboriginal rights—Govor credits his son-in-law with inspiring Eddie Mabo to take up land rights.

The tale of the Illins is so rich in Tolstoyan allusion that you could be forgiven for suspecting its authorship to be another case of literary false pretences. Actually, it is—but a more interesting one than Darville’s conceit. I can testify that Elena Govor does actually exist—I met Elena and her husband Vladimir Kabo soon after their arrival in Australia, when they were gazing with wonder at the gum trees they had only read about in books. Since in Australia, they have both published their own books on the Russian experience in Australia—her rich account of early Russian travellers, Australia in the Russian Mirror and his spiritual journey south in The Road To Australia. Like the oriental correspondents in Montague’s Persian Letters, their conversations about our country offer an alternative truth—in this case, a truth in fiction.

Literary pretences are threaded throughout My Dark Brother. Govor transposes the wistful scene of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard to the tropical bush of central Queensland. She embroiders the scene with dramatic flourish: ‘Something tore at his heart—how was he to accept this alien world, how might he find a place for his Russian soul in it; and this ideal Russian “cherry orchard”…’ In the Illin’s peach grove, Govor depicts a Chekhovian longing for a boundless world of possibility that is finally realised on the other side of the world. At the same time, the dramatic tension is maintained when the lone Russian finds he cannot savour his freedom without the wider community of Chekhovians. Some readers may find this kind of ornament irritating—a little too much telling and not enough showing. I dealt with it by appreciating Govor’s narrative devices as true the Russian sensibility that she is depicting—two lies make a truth. I’m sure there’s a Russian proverb about that.

On its own, these grand narrative schemes may tend a little claustrophobic. Govor’s book saves us from this fate by tantalising glimpses of Russian life in the bush. During one particularly wet season the children plead with their father to stop the rain, which leads to an act of carnivalesque prayer: ‘“Let's try”, he said, and they recited in chorus in Russian: “If you want to stop the rain think of forty bald-headed men.”’ Govor’s world lets us imagine an Aussie version of the film Burnt by the Sun, revelling in the wild theatre of a Russian family table, surrounded by a stoic world of Dads and Daves. Yet, I do sometimes fear that Govor lets her fascination with this detail go too far.

No doubt, there are many other stories like the Illins in our deep north. Sixty years ago, the cultural beacon Meanjin was itself nurtured in Brisbane by Nina Christesen’s Russian faith in intellectual matters. Thankfully, with Elena Govor, we have a sensitive and tireless Dr Livingston to bring us back the novelistic treasures of that past.