The Butcherbird Stories, A.S. Patrić

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As a writer I wonder about those of us who have been removed from our places of birth, who leave language, history and ancestry to begin anew somewhere else. We become proud owners of words inherited from parents that are not our own. Our first sentences are composed within a literary history that has given us so few pages we barely exist. (Punctuated Air).

Alex Patrić is an astonishingly good writer. I loved Black Rock White City (2015), his debut, and yet (illogically!) felt betrayed by his next, Atlantic Black (2017), read the reviews but wouldn’t read the book, wanted him back here, back in Australia, Melbourne, dissecting us, himself, Anglos and reffos, with his precis, ‘removed’ prose. And now we have him, in this collection, published by Transit Lounge in hardback. I bought a copy at Christmas, but was unable to give it away, have been reading one story each night I was sufficiently awake.

The collection consists of 11 stories, unrelated (to continue a discussion I’ve been having elsewhere), from a few pages long to sixty, that reflect in different ways Patrić’s heritage as an eastern European (Bosnian Serb) man in Australia. The longest story, Among the Ruins reads as a European fairy tale, of a street-vendor of roasted nuts, bankrupted when his nut wholesaling business burnt down, now supporting himself as a subcontractor employed to play terrifying tricks on others.

Bruna Kramzer had a wife and two children, and in-laws who lived in house, for the most part harmoniously. He lied to them every day when he told them he still ran his business selling nuts … His family came to know he was moonlighting as a professional rogue. They needed Bruno’s earnings so they didn’t speak about it openly.

So you can see the writing is simple, but deceptively simple. With each step forward we learn also a little about the past, as the tricks and tricksters circle round on each other.

In another story the protagonist attempts to stop an old widower from committing suicide. I don’t agree with him. It’s not your business. Walk away. Milly argued with me, each individual has a ‘line’ beyond which some acts, by others, are immoral. Me, I have enough trouble being moral myself without forcing it on others. I divide acts by others into the categories ‘useful’ and ‘harmful’.

Patrić resumes his love affair with his adopted home city, with the bayside suburbs he obviously knows and loves. A taxi driver and his passenger –

… had reached the car park overlooking the bay. The beach ran south for two or three kilometres. Red Bluff was barely visible in the overcast haze. The steep cliffs rose thirty metres into the air all the way out to Black Rock. The bay roiled with shallow surf below them. Hundreds of boats and ships bobbled at their berths …

What are the other stories? And more to the point what do I remember of the earlier ones? Taking notes interferes with the process of reading. Taking notes is studying, not reading. And much as I would love to, I cannot bring myself to underline, let alone to desecrate with marginalia. Ah, Avulsion. I’d forgotten the swimming story. A guy doing laps spots a small shape on the bottom:

I swim up the lane, come back. I really don’t want to see it again. I’d rather it was a hallucination… The lane ropes guide me over and past the finger …

Training is addictive, once you’re in you don’t want to stop. Just follow the line, tumble, follow the line, counting laps. But be careful, especially if you’re sharing the lane, not to drift to the side, not to catch your fingers in the hard, coloured circles that make the lane ropes float.

Dead Sun, a man is in hiding, in the attic room of an old couple’s house, in seemingly the room of their dead son, a longer story, placeless, strange.

Punctuated Air, a boy grows up in working class St Albans:

I was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in a part of the city called Zemun – right at the confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava. There was one small room for the three of us to sleep in… My parents were still driven by new love and talked for months about a long journey that would take us far from our two rivers… Australia was one of the first words I heard, whispered in the darkness of that cold bedroom. A word … filled with the warmth of their love for me and their hopes for the future.

In Black Rock, White City the protagonist comes to Australia as an adult, in Punctuated Air as a child, in The Flood he’s born in Mildura (Australia). The novel, these stories, are informed by his lived experience, I don’t expect, or wish, them to be biographical.

And the title story, Butcherbird. A Melbourne man, on a resort holiday with his family, wonders if butcherbird song is no more than a ringtone, mourns a dead lover, swims late at night with a flirtatious fourteen year old, a few pages, a fragment of a life.

The best story, well my favourite, and they’re all good, is Memories of Jane Doe, the last days of a young woman, told backwards.

I’m not sure how old Patrić is, fortyish I suppose. A bio (here) lists his earlier work. I look forward to reading him well into the future.

 

A.S. Patrić, The Butcherbird Stories, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2018

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) review (here)

 

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12 thoughts on “The Butcherbird Stories, A.S. Patrić

  1. Ha! Love your idea of betrayal!!
    But yes, one of the pleasures of reading Patric is the way he writes about Melbourne. The only other author I know who can do it so well is Shane Maloney who writes those comic crime novels that satirise politics.
    I connected with Atlantic Black because I myself was a free-range child on ocean liners, and I love books that take me back into that strange world where one is absolved from routine and obligations and like Katerina in the novel you can reinvent yourself and it doesn’t matter because you’ll never see those people again. Air travel is just not the same at all…
    Thanks for the mentions:)

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    • I hadn’t thought about that connection with Atlantic Black. I wonder if Patric came out by boat, I’m guessing migration by boat ended at the end of the 60s (so I suppose the Abbott family were boat people).

      People who write about Melbourne “so well” – I would include Jane Rawson and (the late) Peter Temple. Murnane does too, though not in such an edgy way. I wonder who else – looks around shelves – ah! Chris Tsialkos.

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      • I’m just reading Murnane’s new Collected Short Fiction and am torturing myself trying to identify the south-eastern suburb he keeps referring to!
        I’m not sure when Patric came out but he’s younger than me so I suspect not. Not long after we came by ocean liner we lived in Essendon for a short while and I remember the ballyhoo when the first commercial passenger jets heralded the boom in tourism by plane. That would have been in 1962 or 1963, I think. I took a photo of the jet (a speck in the sky) with my old Kodak camera, but alas, I must have turfed the photo at some time…

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  2. This year I plan to read all five of the Mark Renton novels by Irvine Welsh. The first he wrote was Trainspotting, which became an international success, especially following the release of the movie directed by Danny Boyle. Currently, I’m on Skagboys, which is a prequel to Trainspotting. When the characters leave Edinburgh, which is where Welsh is from, I always want them to go back immediately. even if they are just in London and it’s the same characters. I definitely know what you mean about an author writing a place and it’s people well.

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    • I’ve read Trainspotting and yes Welsh’s familiarity with place and people is integral to the way the story is told. I have Glue on my shelves, if I’ve read it I don’t remember, it might be my son’s. I understand why GTL can’t review Weslh, but I would like to have known what you thought.

      I argue all the time about the importance in literature of getting place right, and that I infinitely prefer it to be felt rather than researched, but not everyone agrees with me. Very glad of your support!

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      • Research stands out like homework in a novel. I bought the second Trainspotting movie, and in an interview Ewan McGregor worries that he’s lost his ability to play Renton. McGregor left Scotland for 20 years and lived a posh life. But the more he thought about it, he realized that Renton left Scotland for London for 20 years and got healthy and fit, so it worked out okay without feeling like a celebrity was overpowering the cast.

        Are you on Goodreads, too? If you are, I can friend you on there and you can see all of my reviews. If you are not, I’d be happy to share thoughts with you via email. I became obsessed with Trainspotting the movie when I was in high school and then was assigned the book in college in a British Lit class.

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      • No. I’m not on Goodreads. My email is theaustralianlegend@gmail.com and I’d be happy to hear from you but please don’t go to any trouble. I’ve read and watched Trainspotting without paying it too much attention, but I enjoy grunge. It’s not quite my lifestyle but close enough at times to be worrying!

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    • Then you’ll either have to read it while your here or badger your local library to buy it in, don’t they prefer hardbacks? But I suppose they too depend on local distributors. If I look on A******n then they’ll badger me with ads and in any case I think I’ll only see what they’re willing to sell to Australians.

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  3. Nice seeing your review on tip of Lisa’s Bill. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts as they came!

    I’m a bit mystified by your discussion with Milly – does she think suicide is immoral so you shouldn’t walk away, or that walking away is immoral? If the first, I don’t think suicide is immoral, but I do think that if you think someone is considering it to walk away is immoral. That said, though, I’m not sure I would call someone else immoral for walking away because I don’t know the circumstances. (I have experienced suicide close to me and while I didn’t walk AWAY, I will aways regret not walking TO as much as I could or should have, that that I took reassurances at face value.)

    Oh, and I can relate to this: “I bought a copy at Christmas, but was unable to give it away”

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    • She thought – I should wait till after we’ve had dinner tonight – that the protagonist was correct to intercede. I thought he was wrong. I guess the implication of Milly’s position is that the old man’s suicide was wrong (immoral) and that therefore the protagonist had a duty to stop it.

      I certainly agree that in many attempted suicides the suicider is pleased to have been stopped.

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