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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Black Rock White City, A.S. Patrić

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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. Patrić, 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.

Patrić 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. Patrić, Black Rock White City, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2015