Playing on white Australia's great phobia

Wednesday, June 12, 1991

Below the Line
By Eric Willmot
Hutchinson, 202 pp. $12.95
Reviewed by Robin Osborne

A novel by an Aborigine about an Indonesian invasion of Australia simply has to be interesting, especially when the author is as wellknown as this one.

(Willmot's last book was about the great Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy after whom the recently opened Koori school in Sydney was named. He is an educationist and has broadcast for the ABC.)

The extraordinary scenario is based on what must be white Australia's greatest phobia — excluding perhaps the return of Aboriginal land — and it begins deep in the jungle of Irian Jaya, the half of New Guinea that Indonesia acquired in an earlier land grab.

Enter Angela Steen, an Australian, who was captured in what has become occupied PNG and sent across the border-that-no longer-exists to a prison camp where, in the company of several PNG women, she is maltreated and finally raped by the Indonesian guards.

"I hope those bastards wind up in Perth one day", Angela says. "Their Asian hides will be nailed to a limestone wall."

Alas, as she soon discovers, a good deal of Australia has fallen under the Indonesian jack boot. A line has been drawn between Brisbane and Carnarvon. Everything to the north of it is now "South Irian", the remainder being Australia.

For reasons not made entirely clear, Angela, but not her companions, is released and placed on a ship bound for, of all places, Hawaii. There she is reunited with her husband, one of the many "Ex North of the Liners" (XNOL's) who have decided not to settle in what is left of Australia.

After cursing the US for deserting its Australian ally, and abusing her husband for cowardice in not going back to fight, Angela decides to return to what is left of home. Her native Townsville is occupied, so Sydney becomes the next best thing.

"How much of the country do we still hold?", one character asks, "What about Darwin?"

"Darwin is now called Larakia", he's told, "It is now the capital of South Irian."

Back "home", Angela learns what happened. After war between Indonesia and PNG, with Australia helping but failing to save its former "protectorate", waves of refugees headed for Australia, most of them engineered by Indonesia. Some 200,000 were later believed to have been disguised forward strike troops.

New Zealand came to Australia's aid, as did an unofficial force of Japanese volunteers. The USA made a token commitment — but then Australia isn't as important as Kuwait, is it? — and UN peace forces were placed in a continent-wide buffer zone. Later, the Line was demarcated by a deadly electric fence, a sort of up-market version of that which presently deters rabbits.

About the only positive note Angela can find is that unemployment has become a thing of the past, even if many people are working in semi-military or civil defence roles. This is now a properly planned economy, a friend tells her.

"Sounds like bloody communism", she says.

"Socialism or communism: they only really work under a totalitarian system, and with the emergency that's what we have."

Could be worse, however, as there are no taxes and no millionaires, a rapid rise in the now-abolished former having brought about the demise of the latter.

Not content with the state of affairs, Angela adopts a new identity and finds work in a Line settlement named West Kitchen, run mostly for military purposes.

After much partying with the frontier inhabitants, and in the early stages of a new love affair, she launches herself across the Line in the company of a soldier-bushman who absconds with a high-tech armoured car.

"They hit the fence and the night exploded into blue-white writhing light. They were in South Irian."

What they do there, apart from making love on the sand, is somewhat anti-climactic, despite their earlier high hopes for raiding Indonesian settlements and gleaning intelligence. In fact the invaders have pulled back to the towns, finding, as did many whites a century earlier, that the desert region is less than hospitable.

That is, unless you happen to be a Chosen One, an Aboriginal person, for, as the adventurers discover, groups are still living on the land which for millennia has nurtured their forebears. To everyone else, this dry land has become a prison without walls, and those who can flee, do.

Predictably, the ill-defined mission ends in capture for the Australians, yet Angela, the great survivor, is again released and by book's end she is back in Hawaii.

The Indonesians, however, are not back in Java and the Republic of South Irian has adopted a semblance of autonomy, with many XNOL's leaving "Australia" to live in it.

Angela's view, and on the evidence it would be hard to differ, is that "It's a shithouse world", although the last page reveals some personal good news. None for the rest of us, however.

Although an implausible scenario, it's as good a guess as any about what might happen if relations between Australia and its near neighbour break down.

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