A meditative and wholly engaging novel, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell is the story of knowledge and understanding – of oneself, of the past, of the land, of ageing and of friendship.
Recently widowed, German academic Max Otto is looking to end his own life: his valedictory public lecture to be followed by a deadly mix of pills and alcohol in his Hamburg apartment. Only he had not foreseen the presence of Professor Vita McLelland – a feisty visiting Indigenous Australian academic from Sydney. She challenges Max and his less than impressive final words.
Unexpectedly, through an unplanned post-lecture discussion, a level of understanding between them evolves, resulting in an invitation to speak at a conference in Sydney a few months later. Vita also wants Max to spend time with her uncle, Dougald, at his home in the bush.
A deep, understated friendship evolves between Max and Dougald. In simple, rustic surrounds, the two settle into a life of easy domesticity with few words and long periods of silence. But Dougald also draws Max into his own history – and in particular that of Gnapun, his grandfather, a fabled warrior. As we are told the story of Gnapun leading a group of men into massacring Christian settlers a century earlier, so Max finds himself reflecting on his father and the never-asked question of his role in the Second World War.
Memories of his childhood come to the surface – an absent father, the one-legged uncle to whom he was sent off to help on the farm with the advent of the war – providing a suspended sense of time as Miller weaves us between the present and both men’s past. And, as with Max’s uncle, desperate for his nephew to understand “It is the soil of our fathers,” his uncle would rage, shaking his fist at him. “This soil is us! … We are this soil.”, so Dougald talks of the high country where the Old People dwell in the rocks, the soil, the trees of nature. Yet Dougald celebrates that past, whereas Max has long buried it. It is in the writing of Dougald’s story that Max recognises we are all “members of this same murdering species”.
Landscape of Farewell is a haunting novel full of incident yet simultaneously meditative. The two old men move at their own pace, yet still cover a great deal. A large part of the novel may well find Max feeding the hens or goat but then the two octogenarians also clamber steep isolated escarpments in Dougald’s home country, his first visit for decades. It is this journey into country that provides both men their resolution of reconciliation and redemption. Dougald may pass on to join the Old People, but Max is now free, back in Hamburg, to venture into ‘the darkness of his family’s silence.”
Alex Miller’s eighth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award but he lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We Have Taken. Miller has won the Miles Franklin on two separate occasions – in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.