This promised to be an exciting and fertile conjunction of author and subject matter. Sven Lindqvist, author of A History of Bombing and Exterminate the Brutes, is a highly experienced and serious writer and the savage alien landscape and brutal colonialist history of Australia has lately proved a hugely fertile source of inspiration to artists and film-makers, most notably in the 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence, and in last year’s fetid, blood-soaked Australian Western The Proposition.

Cover of Terra Nullius by Sven LundqvistBut although Terra Nullius offers a starkly critical historical travelogue of Australia that seeks to expose its continuing barbaric treatment of its aboriginal people, as well as its more recently adopted barbaric treatment towards refugees and asylum seekers, the book is utterly flawed.

Lindqvist could hardly have had a stronger central thesis. “[T]he extermination of the aborigines produced the no-man’s-land which, according to the doctrine of terra nullius, gave the white settlers the rights to the land,” he contends, and goes on to insist that, since it was initially defined by systematic procedures of genocide, Australia still remains marked by mechanisms of institutionalised racism. An auspicious start. But that is all we get.

Lindqvist refuses to explain anything, indeed, refuses to conduct any argument at all. Instead he prefers to tell human interest stories, recount his dreams and, on several occasions, inform his readers as to what he had for lunch. These interludes are punctuated by repeated assertions of his depthless moral disgust, delivered in a series of curt, angry, monosyllabic sentences, bunched together like balled fists of rage. These quickly have a desensitising effect and eventually leave one feeling cold and battered. Indeed, in certain respects, this book resembles a punishment beating.

What cause does Lindqvist believe he is pursuing? He summarises his strategy in his seventh and final chapter. “[M]any white Australians... see themselves as peaceful and law-abiding settlers who have brought the blessings of civilisation to the indigenous inhabitants of Australia. They are understandably reluctant to let historical research rob them of this beautiful picture and substitute a history of mass killing, land-theft, rape, kidnapping, and other outrages.”

This, then, is a kind of colonialist portrait of Dorian Gray in which Lindqvist is continually insisting upon the obscene historical truth in the teeth of the mendacious official ideology. “I want Australians to feel comfortable and relaxed about their history,” Prime Minister John Howard once noted, in the throes of his 1996 election campaign, and Lindqvist would like to see this inanity spat back in his face. “Their method is denial,” he asserts.

“I’d had my share of the booty. So I had to take my share of the responsibility, too.” This maxim, derived from a childhood chiding delivered by a Norwegian grandmother, and repeated several times through this book, seems to constitute Lindqvist’s fundamental moral position. But he never substantiates what he means by it, and eventually one begins to suspect that he himself does not know.

It is all very well to irately hector your reader, as Lindqvist does throughout Terra Nullius, with a repeated refrain of taking responsibility, but in the absence of any ­concrete proposals about exactly how to begin to do this, the ­sentiment simply expresses a piety, and ultimately comes to feel hollow and false.

The fundamental problem with Terra Nullius, the one from which all its other problems derive, is stylistic. It tries to be too many different things at the same time. It pulls in too many directions at once. On the one hand, it understands itself as a travelogue, refusing to explain, refusing to offer a rational critique, and thus cheerfully abdicates all claims to real political seriousness. On the other hand, it tries to be a political history, and thus wants be taken extremely seriously, and so swerves into rhetoric, a domineering tone and a sarcastic manner, in a vain effort to achieve this on the cheap. The overall effect is unhappy, and at several points grotesque – most notably the passage where Lindqvist takes a series of ill-tempered pot-shots at the Western philosophical canon, and the numerous moments throughout where he swerves into staggeringly glib Neo-Orientalist fantasy. For all of Lindqvist’s high moral purpose, this book is frankly disastrous. ■

Terra Nullius is published by Granta