‘Between the Motion and the Act—Nuclear Literature After Maralinga’
Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012 Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2013.
Edited by Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni
The characters in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) endure their terminal distraction on the coast of Victoria—awaiting radioactive fallout from a war in the northern hemisphere. It is 1963, and all human life seems certain to have been extinguished above the equator. Ocean currents convey life’s terminus down through Cairns, Townsville, and inevitably to Sydney and Melbourne. With their backs to death, the book’s cast composes an equable and restrained exit: fishing, sailing, drinking, driving, gardening. The beach—that infirm zone in which so much escapism, eroticism and boundary-crossing takes place in Australian literature— symbolises not transformation or release in the novel, but futility and stasis.
Despite the resourcefulness of Shute’s characters, their creative and willful intractability, the novel’s foremost preoccupation is with failures of the imagination. Characters find themselves incapable of envisaging the unpeopled continents, or a future in which they will die unobserved. That no histories will be written about their demise, and no films will be made witnessing the abandoned geographies, is an anathema that they cannot reconcile. (Even as Hollywood took to the novel, and to Melbourne, in the Stanley Kramer directed version of 1959; and in 2000, David Williamson’s screenplay of On the Beach appeared on television with Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward in the starring roles). In the novel, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation produces an encyclopedia made entirely of glass and inters it at the peak of Mount Kosciusko for no readers’ eyes to come. The National Gallery exhibits paintings in which the thermonuclear destruction is depicted, but the characters deem the images “phoney.” “No one knows [what the world] looks like now, excepting God.” On the Beach is—as so many apocalypses are—about the end of documentation, as much as the end of time. The unraveling of representation into an ineffable, nameless plane that persists after us is, in the book, an even more unspeakable prospect than our collective extinction.
To attempt to tell a story about the Australian nuclear imagination is to engage with texts birthed blind. Official reports redacted, hospital records lost or destroyed, warning signs written in a foreign language, neutralising military encryptions. The first mainland atomic tests, conducted by British authorities, took place in rangelands at Emu Field near Woomera, South Australia, in 1953. From 1955 to 1963 seven major trials of weapons varying between one and 27 kilotons were conducted at Maralinga—along with hundreds of minor experiments that tested the ability of nuclear weapons to withstand fire or non-atomic explosions, and piloted the development of low-yield, miniature bombs (called “handy” or “pocket A-bombs” in the newspapers of the time). Subsequent attempts to rehabilitate the land throughout the mid-1990s entailed skimming off the topsoil and vitrifying it, a process whereby noxious debris is mixed with sugar and calcinated at a high heat until it solidifies, glossy and black.
Servicemen were sent out in gumboots, wearing suits made either of rubber, wool, or cotton. Their instructions were to drive or walk, to run or crawl. Some wore gloves. Some wore masks that they unlatched, and sweat ran down their necks. They swung loose fists by their sides, sung short songs. One was called “Pining for the Mushroom Cloud.” The ground around them had turned to glass, and the earth hung in great curtains across the sky. Codes that history would record called their operations “The Kittens,” “A Loss of Balloons,” “One Tree,” “Rats” and “Vixens.” Their tools they nicknamed “water-lilies” and “featherbeds,” names sly on their tongues. How many felt dread, awe, or pride? Patrolling in formation, dressed in differently weighted fabrics. The sun seeming suddenly smaller. A dull light then, slatted, breaking out across the flat, the swales and corrugations, running through mulga, red gibber, stiff grass glinting like scissors, hot flashes on the dog fence. Hitting the edge of night. Casting shadows over other people, families—many not wearing suits, barefoot and bare-chested—who went out, uninstructed. Disoriented animals leapt about in the murk. Later, kangaroo carcasses, splayed before a fire, were discovered to be entirely yellow on the inside. The meat did not taste right.