Robert Hillman’s ‘Gurrumul’ – Review by Howard Goldenberg

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman  Publisher: ABC Books

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman
Publisher: ABC Books

If autobiography is the least reliable genre in fiction then the authorized Life sits at its flakiest edge. That this is not true of Hillman’s “Gurrumul” is on account of the slipperiness of the subject.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu emerges as shy, remote, elusive, cryptic, mischievous – an outer island in an archipelago of tongues. He does not so much emerge as submerge himself. Blind from birth, Gurrumul seems at times to be mute by choice. At others he makes himself perfectly clear to a whitefella, especially when working with his intimate collaborator, Michael Hohnen.

By book’s end Gurrumul remains hidden; only his music and the beauty of his features – a beauty we can enjoy and he can never perceive – speak to us.

No biographer could truly represent this life, (nor for that matter could he successfully misrepresent it). Wisely, Hillman does not attempt either. Instead he places the artist in his context. Chiefly that context is the complex of family (especially his bevy of aunties), community, land and Dreaming: in short, culture.

“Culture”, a term used promiscuously in conversations between the races, embodies meanings that are layered and expressed in dance, in music, in painting, in song, in storytelling and in land husbandry. The meanings are traditionally expressed obliquely, which is to say they are in part obscured. What Gurrumul does with these enfolded meanings appears to be a risky enterprise of his own, with calibrated departures from liturgical norms, a sort of jazz move in which he improvises within a theme and extends it beyond the limits of permitted custom.

Such a variation on a theme must be perceptible only to a tiny number of the millions who respond to Gurrumul’s music making. In this sense it is a secret, yet another, in  practice that skates ever along the outer edge of theunshareable.

When Gurrumul sings, whitefellas listen, enthralled. Literally, we are in a thrall, under a spell cast upon us by the spellbinding singer. We scarcely hear the words, we cannot parse them; and when we read their translations in Hillman’s book, the words in English are so simple as to appear banal: a profoundly false impression. And yet, and yet, we are transported. If beauty be truth, then truth is shown to us precisely as it is withheld. The subtlety of all this magic is clearly rendered in Hillman’s book.

To those who have read “My Life as a Traitor” and “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif”, Hillman’s skill in rendering an alien culture will be familiar. It is in his later work, “The Honey Thief”, that Hillman manages to capture the artist in the act of working his art, in this case the sublime art of the Afghan (Azari) storyteller.

In the present volume Hillman attempts the extremely ambitious exegesis of the utterly untranslatable term, “Dreaming.” He succeeds, in this reader’s view, brilliantly. In twenty five years and over sixty working visits to remote Aboriginal communities, I have never felt I came so close to apprehending (I doubt any whitefella will ever comprehend) the Dreaming, as in Hillman’s “Gurrumul, his life and music.”

Hillman has succeeded remarkably in penetrating the life of art and ceremony (the two amount to much the same thing) on Elcho Island. Seven years ago while I worked on Elcho ceremony was active but off limits for whitefellas. Clearly Robert Hillman won the trust of capable cultural brokers on the island, who ‘let him in’ wherever this was permissible. In return, Hillman repays trust with respect that neither fawns nor condescends. In this his text avoids the vapid tone of comments on the book’s photographs.

Which leads me to the one regret I have about the book, a quibble perhaps, but an important one. In an important sense Hillman’s publisher subverts the author’s enterprise, which is to render in words an art that is ineffable. It is the format of the handsome volume that works against the writing. You look at the book, you find the cover images arresting – and to one familiar with the singing – quite new. The book itself cannot be held in the hand and read: it is biography in a coffee table format. You open the book, you start to read and you find yourself distracted repeatedly from the text by beguiling photographs which tell their own story quite compellingly, but quite out of sync with Hillman’s theme at any point.

Better justice might have been done to both text and photos by physically separating them.

In the end the book succeeds to a remarkable degree. Importantly, it demonstrates how, as whitefellas embrace Aboriginal culture, Australia is becoming more Australian.

Hillman’s book is bound to succeed beyond these shores as Gurrumul’s audiences around the world drink deeply in their thirst for some understanding of his life and his music.

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