Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell
The first few pages of Belomor left me feeling disoriented. They provide a brief account of the eighteenth-century Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto, which read more like a summary of a history book rather than the opening of a novel. Shortly, though, Bellotto’s story wove gently into the story of the book’s narrator, who was in Dresden, speaking to an old German professor. From there, Belomor unfolds like a series of Russian dolls – the German professor tells his own story, and another professor tells his about the time he spent in a Russian labour camp. An account of Aby Warburg, a cultural theorist and photographer from the nineteenth and twentieth century, leads back to the narrator’s own, now taking place in Darwin.
After this, I was no less disoriented, but I was extremely intrigued and remained so for the rest of the book. Most of the novel is set in the Northern Territory – across the desert, the small towns, the sea and the mountains. While there is a strong focus on Indigenous artists and art, the book sometimes felt like a bit of white male crisis, with lots of male researchers trying to find meaning in so-called ‘exotic’ cultures. However, Rothwell seems critical of this process, even as he explores what revelations may be found through it.
As Belomor wove on, the narrator took me through a series of conversations – and conversations within conversations – about art, history, writing, the world and how the self fits into it. The fact that they were being communicated through stories seemed paramount. At the heart of the book there seemed to be a question about the relevance of representation: can we exist without telling? Or is telling – is art – all we have to give meaning to experience?
Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based freelance writer