Melbourne or the bush: rural Australia in Italo-Australian narrative writing

Gaetano Rando
University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia


Most Italians who came to Australia after 1947 ultimately settled in urban areas. Among the very few who have written creatively about their experiences even fewer have displayed interest in themes related to the bush and the outback. However five narrative writers – Giovanni Andreoni, Giuseppe Abiuso, Emilio Gabbrielli, Ennio Monese and Franko Leoni – have written about non-urban Australia.
        Giovanni Andreoni's novel Martin Pescatore[King Fisher]1is the story of a young middle-class Italian bank employee who, tired of the restricting and claustrophobic aspects of life in Italy, emigrates to Australia in search of a new and liberating experience, finding an existentialist raison d'etre in a spiritual relationship with the Australian bush, a Rousseau-like idealization which is also found in Raffaello Carboni's Italian works2(Rando 1991, pp. 75-77).
        Fochi(1983, p. 46) claims that in the first part of the novel, which is set mainly in Rome, the urban background produces a sense of incommunicability, alienation and schizophrenia. Rather than schizophrenia there is a strong sense of claustrophobia. Martin feels «shut in» by a routine existence limited by life at home with his younger sister and widowed mother, his secure but humdrum and subservient job at the bank, the occasional outings with friends, and is often driven to drink in an attempt to blot out his anguish. Although Martin has all the attributes necessary for success he feels that his is an unsatisfying and frustrating life and that he is unable to form any real relationships. The only meaningful relationship was with his father, a «strong» and «real» man who used to take him hunting. In a manner vaguely reminiscent of Ayn Rand's characters, Martin argues that European social conventions stifle the individual making it impossible to establish a direct rapport with nature. He longs for a new country where «the life of a man depends on his ability to conquer the whims of nature» (Andreoni, 1967, p. 69) and, despite the dismay and disbelief of family and friends, decides to emigrate to Australia.
        Upon arrival in Melbourne the distance which separates him from his mother, the mundane concern with his economic future and the realization that Melbourne, too, is an imprisoning city give rise to feelings of fear and isolation. He moves to Tasmania, «a beautiful but somewhat savage isle» (Andreoni, 1967, pp. 95), and it is there that Martin comes into contact with the bush. He joins a group of logging contractors, a life of hard living and dangerous work driving large laden trucks along steep and narrow forest tracks. The solidarity necessary for survival imposes an unwritten law that no one should drive in such a manner as to endanger the others. A tall strong Polish driver continually transgresses the law and the others wreck his truck and give him a beating, much to Martin's consternation and dismay at the ruthlessness and determination of his fellow workers. At the end of the season he leaves and takes up a more bourgeois type of employment as a language teacher at the Christian Brothers College, Prospect.
        While the relationship between man in his social context the group of workers and nature is seen in terms of man's struggle to survive in a hostile environment, the rapport between the individual Martin and nature is presented in quite different terms. In rejecting the pioneers' elemental code Martin rejects the conflictual confrontation with nature. His search for a meaningful rapport with nature, which is also seen as an essential element to the eventual resolution of the question of the meaning of life, takes a different direction. (Fochi, 1983, p. 46) claims that the only example of description in the novel is to be found in the passage about Whitmore Wood. It is not the only one since in the «European» chapters there are very brief impressionistic descriptions and, after his arrival in Australia, there are impressionistic descriptions of the Australian setting – for example, the description of Launceston (p. 93), Martin's reflections on contemplating the green hills and the sea (p. 99) and that of the forest as a living entity in which a primeval and continual struggle for survival takes place (p. 102).
        Whitmore (pp. 128-29), however, is certainly the longest and one of the very few naturalistic descriptions in the novel. It marks the beginning of Martin's personal rapport with nature. He sees the bush for the first time with «European» eyes but it is also a place cut off from the outside world, a place of proving and initiation, since it is here, after six months of weekend effort, that Martin proves himself by killing the big black rabbit whose cunning had defeated all the other hunters. This «victory» marks Martin's entry into the primeval natural cycle while the weekend hunting forays are in contrast to the weekday world and his society-oriented work as a teacher. At end of the school year Martin decides to visit the West Australian desert rather than go back to Europe to see family and friends. In some of the briefer descriptions of the bush there is an interaction between the setting and the protagonist who becomes part of nature. This occurs after Martin begins to delve into Aboriginal culture by reading their myths. The first one is read when Martin begins work with the loggers. Maira the wind is angered by his friend Bibba's request that he see his face and turns into a storm causing Bibba to seek refuge in a hole in the ground and become a sand mouse. The story both parallels and contrasts with the following episode which describes the punishment meted out to the Polish truck driver. Martin's reaction to the violence is to seek a mystical union with nature, thus isolating himself from man/society. Perhaps it is an attempt by Andreoni to conceptualize the Aboriginal dreamtime. Certainly there is a timeless quality about the relationship with the bush, time and wind being the all-powerful elements which paradoxically create and destroy in a natural pattern which is both eternal and cyclic. Man in his intellectual and social development has distanced himself from living nature to a non-life and it is only by going back to the bush that he can find renewal.
        The theme of the bush and the outback is also central to the short stories in Andreoni (1978). This collection, together with Cenere (Andreoni, 1982), is the subject of a brief but interesting paper by Helen Andreoni3which argues that in giving literary expression to the experience of the Italian immigrant in Australia Andreoni presents the complexities of the Italian Australian community and in effect counteracts Australian-perceived stereotypes of the Italian immigrant, an element which is also found in other Italian Australian writers. The paper, however, does not point out that Andreoni substantially deals with the experience of the Italian immigrant in the rural setting.
        With respect to Martin Pescatore the concept of the bush appears to be different. The brief but poetical story Australia (Andreoni, 1978, pp. 66-68) explores a changed metaphysical relationship with the bush and the desert, alien places which refuse to reveal the secrets of their vast emptiness to the immigrant. They reject him yet paradoxically hold him prisoner, thwarting his thoughts of return to his native land. Gone is the mystical communion, the oneness with nature, the bush as a place to learn to love, to regain one's humanity.4At a societal level the bush is a place where man reverts to his primeval bestiality as in Jimmy Smit' (Andreoni, 1978, pp. 15-23) which relates the hunting and wanton shooting of a suspected murderer probably Aboriginal by the good white WASP people of a small country town.
        The bush also contains insidious dangers for those who work in it and is a place of struggle for survival both against nature and against men who transgress the solidarity of their fellows. Its delicate ecosystem has been destroyed by the white WASP man in the extraction of mineral and other riches leaving in his wake rotting carcasses, flies, stench, Aboriginals who are no longer human Australia Felix, (Andreoni, 1978, pp. 69-76).
The bush can also be the last bastion of Australian conservatism where class distinctions are quite marked. No subscriber to the Australian myth of egalitarianism, Andreoni presents the New England WASP graziers La giornataccia di Montefiore [A Hard Day for Montefiore] – (Andreoni, 1978, pp. 50-57) as jealous guards of privilege and tradition who exclude all those outside their caste, especially if they are of non Anglo-Saxon origin. Consequently Italian farmers are relegated to the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder, engaging in back breaking work for very little material or spiritual satisfaction La Farma [The Farm] and Tabacco, (Andreoni, 1978, pp. 28-33, 82-90). In Cenere this theme is developed through the argument that it is the WASP dominated economic and political system which exploits the immigrant farmer, thus shattering the expectations which had caused him to leave his native land.
        Although Giuseppe Abiuso's main interest as a creative writer lies in community and socially related themes, the bush and the outback are featured in some of his works. The short novel Diary of an Italian Australian School Boy (Abiuso, 1984, pp. 100-160) concludes with central character Mario Carlesani planning to drop out of Fitzroy state secondary school and to go to look for work in the Northern Territory, the last genuine Australian frontier where he will join class mate Geoffrey's big brother in the top end's «silent nightsall surrounded by those white ghost gums» (Abiuso, 1984, p. 160). Mario chooses this method of continuing his investigation of the Australian spirit, a search both initiated and inspired by his sometimes Paul Hogan-like reflections on the nature of being Australian: The real Australians are those blokes who hide in the big bush country waiting in the sweltering heat for a bushfire to start so they can put it out in a couple of minutes. The real Australians sit near the Murrumbidgee, killing a few blow flies, waiting for the river to flood, so they can put up banks of sugar bags full of sand, and control the flood and save all the crops of the man on the land. (Abiuso, 1984, p. 128). And the migrant man on the land is the subject of Abiuso's play L'Amaro della canna [Bitter Cane] set in the North Queensland cane fields, which depicts the cane cutters' and the farmers' struggle against nature as well as the economic struggle among the various interests in the sugar industry.
        Three brief short stories, Cuore d'Australia (Abiuso et al., 1979, pp. 151-57), relate the experiences of Giovanni Binetti, Merv and Michael white Australians and Jack an old Aboriginal chief in the Northern Territory, a place known to few Italian immigrants but which the title itself suggests is the «true heart» of Australia. In this Abiuso seems to pick up where the Diary left off, although the characters and the situation are quite different. The men are partners in the illegal supply of opium to the Aborigines of Alice Springs and of Aboriginal women to the white miners east of Alice Springs. However when Michael beats Bombah, Jack's cousin, causing his death, Jack feels called by the ancestral spirits of the Arunta to defend the honour of his tribe and raise it from the degradation caused by the white men. He stalks the other three in the black of the night but since he has only two spears he has to make a choice and kills Michael and Merv. Giovanni is spared because he can speak the Aborigines' language, and had accompanied Jack on walkabout inthe MacDonnell ranges. In fact while Merv loathes the Territory and the Aborigines and Michael is there only for the money, Giovanni has developed a rapport with the land. His dual Italian Australian nature, a sort of split personality, is in a sense placated by the vast emptiness of the outback to the point that he may never be able to go back to live in the Southern cities.
        A first-person account of a strange, mysterious and threatening experience in the outback is narrated in a short story by Emilio Gabbrielli «Incident at Ayers Rock» (Rando, 1988, pp. 196-210). Rosa B., the Australian-born daughter of Italian immigrants who works as a secretary with a Melbourne engineering firm goes on a first time visit to Ayers Rock. Fatigue and heat are already taking their toll when during the journey from Alice Springs the driver decides to pick up an odd-looking, malodorous and taciturn hitchhiker who appears in the middle of the desert and sits in the seat next to Rosa much to her chagrin. The next day, when Rosa climbs the rock, the heat, her tiredness, the effort and tension of climbing up the slippery surface of the monolith, cause her to sit and rest for over an hour at the top in a state of drowsiness. There, as if in a dream, she sees the strange hitchhiker slowly pass by her, suddenly lose his footing and catapult out into space. She descends the Rock in a state of hysteria, tells the others and, although they search at the base of the rock where the stranger should have fallen, there is no trace of him. The others think Rosa may have experienced an hallucination caused by the intense heat and Rosa herself is unsure whether what she thought she saw really happened but as the months go by these thoughts become obsessive and lead to recurrent nightmares for which she decides to seek psychiatric help.
        Somewhat reminiscent of Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock,5the story is a minutely related account of the protagonist's ambiguous relationship to the alien environment of the outback. For the majority of immigrants and their children Australia is the cities of the coastal areas. They have little or no knowledge of the interior, apart from knowing that it exists, no interest in relation to its environment. More than on description Gabbrielli concentrates on the protagonist's physical and psychological reactions to her outback experience. Rosa's adventure gets off to a bad start because of the fatigue, the heat and the appearance of the mysterious yet repugnant stranger, a symbol of the wanderer in the outback. Her most intense and positive appreciation of the environment occurs in the few passages where she is able to view the monolith and the surrounding landscape alone. Whereas her admiration of Mt Connor, viewed while travelling in the minibus, is a matter of few words, her contemplation of the colour and majesty of the Rock at dawn, seen so many times in photographs and postcards yet so unexpectedly different in its reality, is a more intense experience. The Rock produces mixed feelings in the protagonist: awe and a sense of magic at its colour and majesty, at the complex processes of nature which have constructed the monolith, at its delicate ecosystem. The presence of man represented by the ramshackle moteland the tourist complex under construction, is felt to be a profanatory element. However, the Rock also generates feelings of fear and apprehension, of some hidden and unspecified menace in the vast surrounding emptiness, the steep climb and its smooth slippery surface with the ever-present threat of sending the unwary tourist hurtling to his death.6It is these later feelings which become predominant and is an implication that the the hitchhiker's fall is in part willed by the protagonist, because of her hatred for the stranger, a «dreaming» which is made to happen through the magical aura which pervades the Rock. The resultant effect is Rosa's rejection of the Rock and hence the outback.
        Although most Italian immigrants have settled in urban areas and consequently have had no direct experience of the bush or the desert, many, at least initially, were employed in farming and construction projects in the country and sometimes in remote areas. Even the many who settled immediately in urban areas have had a fleeting contact with the bush during their stay at Bonegilla in the first months after arrival. When immigrants speak about their experiences at Bonegilla they invariably mention as well as the terrible food the bleakness and desolation of this God-forsaken place near Albury-Wodonga. Bonegilla and the surrounding countryside provide the setting for Ennio Monese's short story «Essere Australiano» [To Be Australian] (Abiuso et al., 1979, pp. 156-67) which relates the experiences of a group of seven young men who have been in Australia for a month. Desperate to get out of the camp and start earning money they decide to consider a proposal by Mr Lockward, a local landowner of German origin who wants them to clear forest land in order to cultivate tomatoes. The view from Bonegilla is, however, certainly not one to encourage optimism for what lies ahead and they reject the proposal when Lockward takes the group to look at the land since the atmosphere in the bush is dank and menacing with signs of an approaching storm, certainly different from the type of bush they were used to back in Italy.
        Only one member of the group, Giacomo, has a further experience in the bush. When he is punched and insulted by a «typical» country town ocker at Wodongahe is helped by the Aboriginal Tolo who takes him back to the Lockward property where he is living temporarily in a makeshift hut. While nature vents its fury over the head of the injured Giacomo who had already been soaked by the rain, the two men get to know each other. Tolo is a nomad hunter who seems to have formed a constructive compromise, retaining a meaningful relationship with the bush, between the traditional life-style of the aboriginal and the presence of the white man. However Giacomo seems to learn nothing from the experience since when Tolo asks him why he came to Australia and whether he likes the country Giacomo's reply «one comes to Australia... to find one's humanity» – (Abiuso et al., 1979, pp. 166), vaguely reminiscent of Andreoni's Martin Pescatore, makes Tolo smile meaningfully.
        Judging by the conclusion «essere australiano» seems to consist of a choice between Melbourne or the bush with an unequivocal preference for the former. A conclusion which is diametrically opposed to that of Andreoni. Most of the characters vote with their feet by departing immediately for Melbourne, and Bebe's suicide provides a tragic ending for one of the group. Unlike Andreoni and Abiuso, there is in Monese no admiration for Australian nature which is described through European referents.
        A more positive conclusion, for Australia if not for the protagonist, is presented in Franko Leoni's «La memorabile biografia di Carlo di Priamo, vignaio da Poggibonsi» [The memorabile biography of Carlo di Priamo, winemaker from Poggibonsi] (Rando, 1983, pp. 232-38). It is the whimsical and well told tale of an Italian revolutionary who, during a clandestine visit to London, falls foul of British law and is transported to Australia in 1842. During the voyage out he is befriended by Dr Lindeman and is consequently assigned to the good doctor on arrival to the colony. The two settle on a farm in the Huntervalley and Carlo decides to make an Australian Chianti. He eventually gives the doctor the recipe for making the wine and leaves him to enjoy the financial benefits, settling in Botany Bay. The story presents the theme of Italian farming success in Australia although it does constitute a departure from historical reality since German immigrants, not Italians were the founders of the Australian wine industry.
        As the Brisbane-Sydney express slowly traverses the Hunter Valley, a stranger obviously Italian enters the compartment and tells the story to the bored and heat-stricken passengers, offering them a drink of cool Lindemans white.The initial part of the story describes quite graphically the heat and the deafening chorus of the cicadas. As in Gabbrielli's story the heat provides a blurring of the distinction between reality and fantasy and it is in this atmosphere that the mysterious stranger begins to tell his story, overcoming even the resistance of one of the passengers, a truck driver, who is convinced that the contribution of Italian immigrants to the development of Australia is insignificant. When he finishes the stranger leaves as abruptly as he had come but this interlude has brought about a change in that the passengers are able to view the countryside through which the train is passing with a new and deeper meaning.
        By comparison to the above works written by Italian immigrants to Australia, the outback is presented as a key element of a universal order in the narrative of Stanislao Nievo, one of Italy's leading contemporary narrative writers and the only one to have dealt with these themes.7
        In the short story Il tempo del sogno [Dreamtime] (Nievo, 1994), the protagonist, Santino, a Sicilian who has emigrated to Western Australia and was taught to converse with volcanos by his Aboriginal wife, undertakes a journey to the Bungle Bungle hills in the Kimberly desert which constitute a contact point with the world beyond the material one. The purpose of the journey is to contact his recently dead wife, Wandina, with the help of Kuneg Oondon, a friend who speaks with the dead and has promised to be his interpreter. More than on physical description Nievo concentrates on the magic nature of the place and its people since they provide a key to one of the great mysteries of life and a connecting link with worlds beyond apparent reality. The Aborigines are a people without volcanos, but they come from that time, they read the wind, write with sand, listen to the mountains, they fit in everywhere since they have kept in touch with the earth. The Bungle Bungle hills have the ability of being able to travel over the ground, propelled by a magnetic force that moves them all together on a surface no one has ever seen.These unique properties make them ambassadors of the Dreamtime, a place of origin for some creatures where men and nature speak to each other. Through their fascinating hypnotic dance the hills tell Santino that he is to travel to Mt Etna in Sicily where he will be able to meet Wandina for one more time.
        The outback thus provides a vital link in Santino's quest for communication with his dead wife which is also a quest for an ideal state where barriers do not exist and all beings can talk freely to each other. It is the hypothes is of an utopian state related to a post-scientific context and achieved not by the use of technical means but through the warm flux that pulses in the heart of all creation. Even the Bungle Bungle hills in the Australian desert and Mt Etna, the Italian volcano have this ability since «beyond the... geological data something more alive, something bigger and more important, exalted him. It was to do with the childhood of the world, a time common to all creatures when men, animals and things talked to each other, whispering in secret moments to those who listen» (Nievo, 1994, pp. 406).
        The Northern New South Wales bush provides the setting for some of the chapters of Le Isole del paradiso [Islands of Paradise] (Nievo, 1987). The first part of the novel is set in Melanesia in the 1880s and relates the ill-fated attempt to found the colony of Nouvelle France at Port Breton in New Ireland which brought to Australia the immigrants who were to found the rural settlement of New Italy in 1882. Although only a few chapters are set in this country, Australia is an important element in the novel since it is the Australian bush which provides the immigrants with a second chance, allowing them to achieve their dream which was that of establishing farms of their own and enabling them to shake off that state of dissatisfaction which had led them to leave their native land in an attempt to seek elsewhere the resolution to the questions of life and destiny.
        Nievo's postmodern vision of the Australian bush and outback as a place of spiritual discovery and renewal is unique among Italian writers although some parallels can be found in Andreoni. Abiuso, on the other hand, considers the bush and the outback as depositaries of Australianness and it is there that the immigrant must direct his search for a sense of belonging to the new land. For Gabbrielli and Monese the bush and outback are places which instil fear in the individual leading him/her to seek refuge in the urban environment. Leoni's fanciful story of the founding of the Australian wine industry is the only one to parallel the real life experience of Italian farming success in Australia in places such as North Queensland and the Riverina which have constituted a highly visible aspect of the history of Italian immigration to this country. Despite these examples few Italian Australian writers have written about the bush and the outback. Perhaps this is due to the lack of direct experience most writers have had with this environment or perhaps because they do not consider such material worthy of the narrative art.


1Andreoni is also one of the few Italian Australian writers to be included in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature which emphasises how in Martin Pescatore erroneously translated as «Martin Fisherman» the West literary development» Wilde et al., 1985, pp. 26-27. Fochi, 1983, considers Martin Pescatore a complex and dynamic narrative which has parallels with the way in which Western Australian narrative fosters «a deep awareness of the landscape, its individuality and strange influence on the people» (Fochi, 1983, pp. 469) as well as with writers such as Randolph Stow and A D Hope. However she does not develop her argument and, while it is possible to accept her claim in relation to the awareness of the relationship with the land, the parallels with Stow and Hope are unsubstantiated and seem far-fetched.

2See Gilburnia, Carboni, 1993 and Carboni, 1855, p. 9.

3Helen Anreoni, «From Giovanni to Gio: fighting the stereotype» in Poole et al, 1985, pp. 168-70.

4These aspects, however, are retained in Andreoni's poetic writings and symbiosis between the bush mystique, the hunt and native culture is presented in one of the short stories in the collection «Totara» (Andreoni 1978, pp. 7-40) which, however, is set in New Zealand.

5However in the preface Gabbrielli suggests that there are parallels with Camus' L'Etranger and Pasolini's Teorema as well.

6This sense of the city dweller who feels threatened by the vast majestic grandeur of the bush and the outback is also found in contemporary Anglo-Australian writing. See, for example, Michael Wilding, «I am Monarch of All I Survey» in Don Anderson, ed., Transgressions Australian Writing Now, Ringwood [Vic.], Penguin, 1986, pp. 157-64.

7Italian fiction works set in Australia have been few and far between: Il Continente misterioso, 1903, by Emilio Salgari is a Kipling-like adventure yarn about three white men who bravely conquer the dangers of the Australian outback, complete with hostile natives, in the successful accomplishment of a mission; In Australia con mio nonno, 1947, by Luigi Santucci is a fanciful tale of the strange animals and even stranger cannibals who inhabit the Australian jungle; Filippo Sacchi's La Casa in Oceania, 1932, is a story of Italian immigrants in the North Queensland sugar belt and presents some striking descriptions of the environment. Of these three writers only Sacchi had actually visited Australia.


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Carboni, Raffaello, The Eureka Stockade. The Consequence of some Pirates wanting on Quarterdeck a Rebellion, Melbourne, J. P. Atkinson & Co. 1855.

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Nievo, Stanislao. Le Isole del paradiso, Milan, Mondadori, 1987.

«Dreamtime»,[translated from the Italian by Gaetano Rando] in Manfred Jurgensen ed., Riding Out New Writing from Around the World, Brisbane, Outrider/Phoenix Publications, 1994, pp. 403-20 [original text published in Stanislao Nievo, Il Tempo del sogno, Milan, Mondadori, 1993, pp. 147-75].

Poole, Millicent E, De Lacey, Philip, Randhana, Bikkar, S., eds.,Australia in Transition: culture and life possibilities, Sydney, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

Rando, Gaetano, Italian writers in Australia: essays and texts, Department of European Languages, University of Wollongong, 1983.

Italo-Australian prose in the 80s, Department of Languages, University of Wollongong, 1988.

«L'esperienza australiana di Raffaello Carboni» in Romano Ugolini, ed., Italia-Australia 1788-1988, Atti del Convegno di Studio, Roma, Castel S. Angelo, 23-27 maggio 1988, Roma, Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1988, pp. 59-79.

Wilde, William H., Hooton, Joy , Andrews, Barry, The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1985. 


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