A few years ago, I came across a book by Anton Chekhov in a second hand stall in Ferrara, Italy.
The book was on sale for a song and I promptly bought it even though at that time I had no idea what "Sakhalin Island" was about and had never heard of it. I knew something about Chekhov and that was enough.
Well, needless to say that the travelogue of Chekhov visiting the remote detention island of Sakhalin - somewhere between Russia and Japan - became one of my favourite books pretty soon.
True, the great Russian playwright and writer was shown a mock-up of that huge chunk of frozen land thus grasping only a fragment of the terrible conditions convicts lived in. Nevertheless, "Sakhalin Island" was an eye-opener for me. The author thanks to his literary and medical background, but also because of his qualities as a caring and sympathetic human being brought me there among the settlers of Sakhalin in the Tsarist forefather of the Stalinist archipelago of "working camps".
From then on, I read Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn and Herling as well as Anne Applebaum's masterful Gulag becoming more and more familiar with the gruesome Soviet equivalent of dreadful Nazi concentration camps.
Now, let's leave Sakhalin behind flying to another and bigger island, Australia.
Down Under. Oz, Terra Incognita. The land of plenty. You name it.
You know where it lies.
You know we're talking about a massive island which is actually a continent on its own.
You know they speak English there (although some Englishman might object they actually don't).
You know they drive on the left side of the road.
You know about kangaroos, koalas and - perhaps - even of wombats and platypuses.
You know the king of all sports: Australian rules Football. And if you don't, that's entirely your fault and you deserve to watch some cricket sticking to you Crocodile Dundee on VHS.
Well the thing is, it's all a coincidence. No, not the Aussie football and its sleeveless gladiators in itself, but actually this whole country of Australia as we now know it. Yessir, just a coincidence.
With just a little twist of history, Australia could have been something completely different for the joy and despair of former Python and current documentary maker Michael Palin.
Consider this, if the random Spanish navigator, Portuguese explorer or Dutch merchant had had better instruments for calculating their longitude, Australia would have had very few chances of becoming the less tempting British colony from the end of 18th century to a good half of the following one.
In fact, well before the first Briton set foot on the Australian continent, a few other Europeans had already done it even though none of them understood the extent of their discovery. Documents show how Dutch vessels reached the coasts of Northern Australia 164 years before James Cook and his Endeavour dropped anchor in Botany Bay, south of modern day Sydney.
With peculiar pragmatism and lack of imagination (scurvy and homesickness must have played a role in the choice), Dutch gentlemen of fortune named that stretch of hostile land New Holland and that was pretty much all they did. The northern Australian soil looked sterile enough and even less welcoming with the visitors were the local aborigines who put the Europeans back on their ship by means of arrows and spears.
Two thousand miles southwards, the Dutchmen were the first to put on the maps a triangle-shaped island they christened as Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). There was a whole continent between New Holland and Van Diemen's Land, but no Dutch seafaring vessel stumbled upon it.
Ahead of the Dutchmen, Spanish and Portuguese navigators looked for a Terra Australis, but always missed it for an inch or two and, if they ever landed on its shores, failed to bring tidings to the eager courts of Madrid and Lisbon.
You see? Coincidences. Luck and fate were with the Britons.
On 29 April 1770, captain James Cook "discovered" Australia a good 50,000 years after its first inhabitants moved to the continent coming from Asia.
The funny thing is that this discovery was a serendipity or rather an accident. As Robert Hughes makes clear, Cook had no intention of discovering an entire new continent. What the British navigator and his crew wanted to do was actually going back to England as quickly as possible after their long journey around New Zealand and Tahiti. And so it happened that the Endeavour and her crew came across the eastern coast of Australia by mere chance looking for a shortcut back home.
Cook and his men followed the discoverers' protocol. They claimed those lands for the Crown of England. They put a flagpole with its customary Union Jack on the sandy shore. They meticolously named every bay, cove and promontory around them. They picked up a few local specimens to show in London. They waved at the reluctant Aborigines by shooting a gun. Then, they left. The land beyond Botany Bay looked far too vast to explore thoroughly and on the spot, so the Endeavour came back into the open sea.
Now, another funny thing is that in London nobody could care less about this new land of Australia. All the interest of the public was for the fierce Maori warriors and the spectacular natural scenery of New Zealand as well as for the tropical bliss of Tahiti with its sophisticated rituals and its sensual beautiful women (Paul Gauguin would have understood that completely).
Even the kangaroo Cook somehow managed to bring back to England didn't excite the British scientists who found it vaguely similar to a hare. Call them stupid now.
The reason why eleven English ships came back to Australia eighteen years after (18!) Cook's landing is very simple: England wanted to get rid of hundreds of petty criminals who overcrowded its gaols. And what better place to send these thieves, forgers and good for nothings (no prostitutes, but plenty of rapers) than a distant dustbin like Australia? And so the story went on.
I want (or better need) to cut it short now.
This book is extraordinary. To my knowledge there is not a single aspect of the whole early Australian epic that the recently gone Robert Hughes - an Aussie himself - forgot to cover in "The Fatal Shore".
From the age of explorations to the bad conditions of Georgian England which led to the decision of sending convicts overseas. From the first meetings with Aborigines to their sad fate and, quite often, careless extermination. From fascinating early descriptions of wild Australia plants and animals to the harsh and primitive life spent by the convicts and their keepers in Sydney, Norfolk island and Van Diemen's Land. From the appalling way women were treated in the new colony to the crazy attempts of those who tried to escape from Australia ending up dead in the bushland or caught by the seas. And much much more.
"The Fatal Shore" is a gem of a book and a captivating account of approximately a century of Australian history which nobody talks much about nowadays.
The documents, letters, stories you will find here are second to nothing else. And Robert Hughes shows an unbelievable talent in keeping everything accessible and at the same incredibly rich, meaningful and multi-layered. This is history telling at its greatest and if you're Australian, visited Oz or are planning to go Down Under make sure to add this book up to your Lonely Planet or Rough guide.