Black Rock White City has been getting good reviews, and of course is now on the 2016 MF shortlist, so I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. In fact, it was purchased and on my TBR shelf months ago but teacher son had already read the book I gave him for xmas (Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem which I enjoyed and he didn’t) so I gave him my BRWC and only recently bought myself another copy. I haven’t read anything else of Patric’s and was expecting something along the lines of Tsiolkas’ Loaded. My mistake. This is a mature book – in the sense that it is a grownups book about grownups’ problems and a welcome contribution, as was Loaded, to the literature of what we no longer call New Australians, though I’m not sure why not – it’s probably not the ‘New’ but I guess we’re not so free these days with ‘Australian’.
The protagonists – Jovan, pronounced “Yo-vahn”, and Suzana, we’re not told how to pronounce Suzana, perhaps it’s phonetic – between whose viewpoints we switch, are a couple, ethnic Serbians, refugees from Bosnia, from the civil war Radovan Karadzic and his (Serbian) Army of Republika Srpska instituted against the forces of the majority Muslim government (Wiki).
I’ve missed a lot of accents over the letters in these Serbian names, but what am I to do – I’m writing in English. Sue (Whispering Gums) and Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) discuss this, how to put them in, in the Comments after Lisa’s review (here), but I’m not sure I agree with them. Patric, on the other hand, gets a great deal of mileage out of Australian’s failures to accommodate ‘difficult’ names:
Many of the hospital’s employees speak to Jovan as though his slow, thick words are a result of brain damage. When attempting to pronounce his name they become retarded themselves – ‘Jo … Ja … Joh-von. Ah, fuck it, we’ll call you Joe.’
“What is hard to speak Yo-vahn? The sounds all in English,” he says …
Suzana who is fluent in English, later thinks Jovan’s own difficulties with the language – he is after all fluent in a number of others – may be a form of protest.
Jovan and Suzana had been academics at the university in Sarajevo, had escaped the fighting only after the loss of their children and Jovan’s capture and torture, but Jovan is now a cleaner at a hospital in a bayside Melbourne suburb (hence ‘Black Rock’. ‘White City’ is Belgrade, the capital of Serbia) and Suzana is a part-time carer. Both are struggling to deal with grief, with the ongoing trauma of the loss of their former, comfortable lives, and this slightly surreal novel seeks to illustrate that.
Jovan’s trauma is being compounded by a graffiti-ist at the hospital, obviously an insider, whose messages Jovan increasingly takes personally. Jovan had been a poet in Yugoslavia “back when that was a country”, but has brought no copies of his work to Australia, thinks none might have survived the war. Gradually, lines recur to him, randomly, and are reproduced in the text without explanation.
Clean virginal snow, a disguise for the Blue Sky, in love with its floating White Angels, draped over everything below of Shambling Feet, burying all in the heavy Broken Beneath.
The graffiti too is literate, poetic and only Jovan (and hospital admin.) don’t appreciate it as art. Some of the messages are short, cryptic, The Trojan Flea, first encountered on the glass of x-ray light boxes is adopted by Tammie, Jovan’s lover, as a tattoo, on her back, where only Jovan sees it, when he takes her from behind. I am a god of small knives … I am a devil of deep cuts …, punctuated with blood, on the walls of an operating theatre is more pointed. And some are longer: A river of Waste/Just below Your skin/your Bones rot in/history’s flowing Shit sprayed red over all the ordinary sexual graffiti on a toilet door, the door of the cubicle Jovan is in, the paint still damp.
But just as Jovan begins to recall random lines of his poetry, so also he is, gradually, prompted to remember the horrors which forced them out of Bosnia.
Muslims vowed to Serbian neighbours that atrocities committed in another town wouldn’t be perpetrated here. Yet they were. Of course, that was also true the other way around. Serbs made promises of decency that they didn’t keep. Promises are part of currency, and as long as there is an ideal of social economy, then these notes can be traded on. A society can become bankrupt through various causes and all parts of the world have witnesses these collapses of moral economy
At the beginning of the novel Suzana is shutting Jovan out; making his meals, taking responsibility for the housework, while allowing him no personal contact and tacitly encouraging his energetic ‘affair’ with Tammie the hospital dentist. As she slowly emerges from the fog which has enveloped her since the loss of their children, she begins to write, resumes the activity that was once central to her intellectual life, and begins also to permit herself meaningful contact with Jovan.
At the hospital, one staff member takes the graffiti personally, catastrophically; all the staff are energised by it in different ways; Jovan seeks to obliterate it; the outside world becomes interested and a journalist begins following Jovan around, pestering him with questions. And while the tension builds in the hospital, Suzana gradually regains control of her life and her commitment to their relationship, just in time to catch Jovan out with another woman, a hospital nurse. After a long build up, the resolution comes quickly. There is a murder. Dr Graffito is uncovered.
Patric makes his point with little exaggerations: Tammie’s demand for sex, Jovan’s decrepit Ford panel van, the neighbour’s enormous dog; but also with sustained, excellent writing.This is a terrific book, a great contribution to Australian urban literature and a welcome change from the bush legend and its Anzac variations ‘Anglo’ (male) Australian writers are still bashing away at after 120 years.
A.S. Patric, Black Rock White City, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2015