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)