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A Bower Bird's Guide to Australia : THE AUSTRALIANS by Ross Terrill (Simon & Schuster Inc.: $19.95; 342 pp.)

September 27, 1987|Blanche d'Alpuget | D'Alpuget is an Australian journalist and novelist whose most recent book is "Winter in Jerusalem" (Simon & Schuster)

Along with peculiarities like the kangaroo and the platypus--a creature that lays eggs, has thick fur, a duck's bill, suckles its young and can paralyze you with the venom in its hind-legs--Australia has some odd birds.

One of them is the bower bird.

The bower bird builds a nest of bright litter: flowers, cellophane, feathers, cigarette packs, leaves, bottle tops, whatever amusing fragments catch its fancy.

"The Australians," a guide to that country and its people written by one of them (now a U.S. citizen, living in exile in Boston), is a bower bird's nest of a book. Which is not to condemn "The Australians" but to suggest the spirit of this casual, showy, intelligent work.

Terril makes facts, anecdotes, conversations, insights and descriptions jostle for attention.

Part history, part remembrance of childhood-in-the-country, part journalist's shrewd impressions, part traveler's tale, "The Australians" sweeps along on its author's playful and insatiable curiosity, dragging the reader--panting a bit--into its game.

Terrill is a research associate at Harvard and is best known as a sinologist. In 1972, when the West knew little about China, his book, "800,000,000, The Real China," helped shape a favorable impression of that country. He has continued to publish books of ye shi , "wild history," as the Chinese call a genre of historiography that eschews dry, official records for the excitement of anecdote and gossip.

There are times in "The Australians" when one wishes for a more sedate approach, when the genre gets out of hand and declines from book-writing into hastily assembled and superficial tourist jottings.

For example, on Page 1, paragraph 2, there is a remark that so jarred on my ear as empty vulgarity that I stopped reading further for several weeks. (Referring to a United Airlines hostess who was being kind to a passenger, Terrill wrote, "A hostess, her face as puffy as a whore's at breakfast time . . . ," and I thought, "The Norman Mailer-clone guide to Australia? No thank you.")

But mostly, the approach works to advantage, and Terrill manages to convey a brief, intense intimacy with something large and strange and changeable. He has lived in the United States for 20 years and brings to this book the poignant and humorous perceptions of the son returning home to find his dear old mother utterly different and just the same. Thanks to Robert Hughes' "The Fatal Shore," some of the vile early history of Australia is now well-known. Terrill takes us through the 200 years of white settlement at a brisk, but not a rushed pace; his anecdotes are well-chosen; someone wanting to know enough about Australia to impress a dinner party will be well-satisfied. The book falls down when discussing the Australian shadow: how we dealt and continue to deal with the aborigines. The horror of that story is not told; instead, we are bustled from opinion to remark, the views of ignorant black-bashers given as much weight as those of higher souls.

"The Australians" recognizes then shies away from the "vague spiritual reasons" that lie at the heart of the aboriginal problem for non-aboriginal Australians: a people devoted (for 40,000 years) to a spiritual life in which the Earth, trees, rivers and stones are sacred objects, has the Earth, trees, etc. taken from them by force. Their reason for living gone, the Australian aborigines fall into drunken stupor, despairing violence and, more recently, mass suicide. Meanwhile, the white invaders begin to discover that the Earth, trees, rivers, etc. are spiritually charged. As Terrill notes, in Australia, God is in Nature. The landscape itself, beautiful and terrifying, is an image and carries the presence of the divine--and on this fulcrum the Australian soul, now inspired, now timid and resentful, balances.

By collecting everything everyone says to him--the cab driver, the prime minister, the poet, the bash-artist in the pub--Terrill has constructed an intriguing, gaudy picture of "the America of the 21st Century," one highly recommended to the traveler.

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