Book review – Sven Lindqvist – “Terra Nullius”


Oh dear – at almost the last hurdle, I’ve fallen behind my plan! We both had our booster Covid vaccinations yesterday at our GP surgery, and although we’ve not been too bad and it was worth it, of course, we did have some side effects that led to me sleeping in and drifting around rather than keeping focused on reviewing this book this morning and finishing reading two more to review tomorrow! Anyway, this is my second book read for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. I bought it from Oxfam Books in September, spotting it was about Australia and immediately putting it in the pile to buy. So this one comes in for NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge as well as AusReading Month!

Sven Lindqvist, translated by Sarah Death – “Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land”

(8 September 2021)

If one of us can, everyone can. On that basis, it turns out that whole villages can produce superb works of art which win them acclaim from teh world and raise them out of misery and dependence. (p. 202)

So I need to mention first of all that this is an outsider’s reading of an outsider’s translated book about their experience travelling in Australia and learning of the country’s history, particularly around its interactions with the original Aboriginal peoples*. In the early 2000s, Lindqvist paid a long visit to Australia from his native Sweden, researching the history of the places he visited and seeking out sites relating to the many atrocities he discovered had been meted out to the Aboriginal peoples who already lived there. The title and subtitle are ironic: it was because the British settlers who went there and claimed the land stated that it was no one’s land that they were able to claim it, when, of course, it was land inhabited for centuries [edit: as Bill reminds me, millennia] by people to whom it was hospitable, fruitful, sustainable and religiously significant.

Lindqvist details horrendous event after horrendous event, from people being turned off their land to forced migrations (It “doesn’t matter” because they’re “nomads”; never mind the significance a certain land has to a group), being studied to back up spurious psychological theories, being moved out of the way for nuclear testing even after a test ban treaty had been signed, having mixed-heritage children forcibly removed from them to be taken away and “saved”, and being plied with alcohol then slammed for using it. He draws an interesting parallel with the treatment of more recent immigrants to Australia than the British; refugees being herded into camps and kept in inhumane conditions.

He does also celebrate the cleverness of some Aboriginal peoples in their manipulation of their coverage and discussion, and also some sympathetic Europeans who try to help and/or make amends. And later in the book he very much celebrates the way Aboriginal peoples artists, especially women, have flourished and taken their place in worldwide art markets, celebrating also their very different attitude towards artistic talent and individual exceptionalism, and the way that recent radio and television media have helped to preserve and spread cultural artifacts such as sand pictures and songs. He also celebrates the recent movements around Indigenous peoples across the whole world joining together for conferences, solidarity and campaigning.

There is travelogue in here, places stayed and people met, and some good geology. A chronology in the back of the book sets the events in order and lists which chapters they fall in, as the chapters are not in strict chronological order themselves as he travels around, delving into history. Of course a pretty hard book to read, Lindqvist shares his horror without going over the top, I felt and does bring out positives where he can. The emotional impact taught me a lot more about what I sort of half-knew intellectually, and I’m glad I read the book.

* I sought support from Brona on how to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia and she pointed me to some resources to help me decide. I have used Aboriginal people because Lindqvist travels around the whole country and discusses a wide range of different peoples, but no Torres Strait Islanders, as far as I was aware.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 19/85 – 66 to go! I read it for Nonfiction November and AusReading Month! Interestingly, for AusReading Month, I’ve managed to read one book by Australians set in Iceland and one book by a Swede set in Australia!

Book review – Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason – “Saga Land”


I’m excited to have read my first of two books for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. It took her spotting this one on my TBR shelf and letting me know that it was by one Australian by birth and one by residence for me to realise I had more than one book for this challenge this year!

It also comes under NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge (in fact, it’s one of the older books on my main TBR) so all good. Certainly not a novella, though, at a hefty (but very readable) 447 pages plus 50 illustrative plates.

I bought this book as part of my 2020 Book Token Extravaganza – arrival post here and post about the Extravaganza here (I have now read or am reading 6 out of the 7 books purchased, with the final one to read this month).

Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason – “Saga Land: The Island of Stories at the Edge of the World”

(15 July 2020)

Audun and the Polar Bear is a small, finely wrought fable, but it holds many of the qualities of the great Icelandic sagas: the tale is told tersely, and contains real historical figures. The main character’s honour is central to the story, and Audun quietly holds to it, at the risk of great suffering to himself. Also typical of the sagas is the beautiful strangeness of the tale. (p. xxv)

Fidler and Gislason met when they did a radio programme together in Australia and then ended up chatting about Iceland and the sagas for ages afterwards. This book is a lovely mix of travelogue and saga retellings as they share the story of their obsession with the sagas and their two trips to Iceland, one in the summer, one in the winter, along with Kari’s interesting personal story of searching for his heritage.

Kari was born as the result of an affair between his Australian mother and Icelandic father – his father already had a family and forbade Kari’s presence to be made known. Eventually, Kari did speak up, and he met his father and bonded with his siblings (he’s written his own book about all this, which I might have succumbed and bought within moments of seeing it mentioned in this book …). Part of his father’s small legacy to him was being told that he was a direct descendant of Snorri Sturluson, the great chieftain, lawgiver and saga writer / collector, and a lot of the book a) retells Snorri’s story and b) tells the story of Kari’s slow attempt to find out if this is true – because the population of Iceland is so small, there’s a database of everyone’s genealogy going back to mediaeval times, however Kari wasn’t linked properly to his father originally.

The travelogue is excellently done, the two authors tell alternate chapters, which works really well, often looking at the same episode from both their viewpoints. In the summer, they travel to Thingvellir and the farmlands of Hliðarendi (oddly enough, they don’t visit the petrol station of the same name, which thrilled me when I was there in 2014!), then to the western dales and the fjords of the northwest. In the winter, they fill in Snorri’s areas as well as experiencing Reykjavik in the endless night. The saga retellings and the story of Snorri are really well done – accessible and modern enough to engage, but correct enough to please the expert or other obsessive. They also don’t retell WHOLE sagas, either bits of them or a sort of summary of the main points, unless they are really short, which makes the book less uneven than it sounds. There were some new-to-me sagas, and the meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev and the chess contest between Spassky and Fischer are also told in this style, which was a nice touch.

I got very excited when I saw Gunnar’s farm’s name on a service station in 2014

The writers are decent, emotionally literate family men who have a special fondness and affinity with the sometimes dark and blood-soaked sagas of a different age and place. Their love for the topic really shines through, as does their friendship. This is a really special and lovely book, and one I will no doubt ready again. Heartily recommended, whether you know the sagas and Iceland or not.

There are pictures printed straight onto the page throughout the book and a set of colour plates, also on the standard paper, at the front and back. It was lovely to see places I’ve been and photographed (e.g. Snorri’s hot pot) and, along with watching Alexander Armstrong’s TV series on Iceland, made me desperate to get back there for a fifth time.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 11/85 – 74 to go – and it was part of Nonfiction November and AusReading Month!