Bill doesn’t know a lot about hate, and not a lot more about love. He thinks he hates a boss or a politician or someone at his local pub but he hasn’t seen hate turn into fire, free-floating and exploding throughout a city, and then materialising into a blistered red monster more real than any creature children imagine in night-time terrors. Moving from city to city, and village to village, blazing across a whole country, uncontrollable and annihilating…..
Hell isn’t real. The Devil is as frightening as the graffiti, or cartoon, or a man with a pitchfork, painted on toilet doors, or on children’s televisions. No, this thing we’ve been talking about for thousands of years, this farcical fire imp, doesn’t really exist. There’s nothing to fear from him, because the choices men make are all their own, even when they decide as a nation to burn everything down to the ground.
No, it’s better to think of places like Maroochydore and Mooloolaba, Noosa and Coolum. To hang on to postcards form those places. Let the words entice the mind back to the azure waters and sun-gold beaches of Moroochydore and Mooloolaba, Noosa and Coolum. (124-6)
I’ve often thought how much like big, sunstruck children Australians must have seemed to the European refugees who came here after the war – children innocent of the perversities of the human heart, preferring accepted certainties to thought, believing that the horizons within which they live are the real horizons of the world. Maroochydore and Mooloolaba, Noosa and Coolum.
No problems. There are no problems here that can’t be cleaned away. (142)
This is Australia as Jovan Brakochevich, a Serbian refugee from Bosnia in the late 90’s experiences it, and he acts out the mantra in his work as a hospital cleaner. Once he was a Professor of Yugoslav literature, and a poet, but these days all he wants is to keep his mind closed off, like a sealed jar. These days he and his wife Suzana don’t talk because they can’t: can’t talk about the two children they lost, about the descent of ordinary human beings into savagery and the travesty of Serbian history that fuelled the war. Working hard at menial jobs helps them not to think, and they take sleeping pills at night. Suzana and Jovan don’t have sex any more; with Suzana’s indifferent encouragement, Jovan is having an affair with the hospital dentist, an affair that all three see simply as a biological release.
Black Rock White City is a powerfully realistic novel but it has a surreal heart. “Dr Graffito” is at work in the hospital, leaving weird messages: I am a god of small knives… I am a devil of deep cuts; Masters of Destiny, Victims of Fate; Test to Destruction; and, carved with a scalpel into the body of a dead woman, from throat to navel, INSPIRATION. Messages appear on XRay screens, on eye-testing charts, on dishes in the canteen, on the lenses the optometrist uses. The entire floor of a restroom is painted with a grotesque array of bodies. It seems incredible that no one ever sees the graffitist, no camera captures him. But we accept it, because Dr Graffito is like a figure from folktale, expressing our own human evil, and knowing exactly how to strike at the individual’s pains and wounds. Jovan, going stolidly about his work of cleaning the graffiti away, feels himself more and more endangered by their toxic effect. For a long time he hasn’t permitted himself any philosophy other than the thought, So much of what happens shouldn’t happen. (34) But now he feels these hate-filled messages probing at the poison of his past and threatening to release it as a hatred that will flood him. And the reader feels the tension of this with him; for all the reason he has to hate, we know as well as he does that to allow himself to hate will destroy him:
a man becomes toxic, the walking wounded, more dead than alive. (143)
Jovan and Suzana are moving and attractive figures, growing in humanity as A.S. Patrić lets us into the personal history behind their stoic restraint. The blending of past and present is beautifully done, as is the very gradual development of something like a future. Patrić has something of Patrick White’s eye for the surreal characters of Australian suburbia and the desperation that often lies behind bravado and bonhomie, and a poet’s feel for the way we love and need our own language. Snatches of Jovan’s poetry occur throughout the text, not consciously remembered but running somewhere deep in his unconscious memory, their lyricism contrasting strongly with his laboured English. Late in the novel there comes to him the first poetry he’s composed since he left Sarajevo, poetry from his new home in Australia:
No stars in the sky
It’s a hard-hitting book, but there’s a wry humour in its skewering of the apparently well-intentioned blundering of Aussies confronted with migrants from a different culture. Maybe every country has its unique way of simultaneously welcoming and warning migrants. Patrić can see this from both sides; his parents emigrated from Serbia in the seventies, well before the Bosnian war, when he was one year old. I’ve only seen Australian reviews; it was published by a small publisher so it probably hasn’t attracted much international attention. It will now it’s been shortlisted for the major Miles Franklin prize. I’ll be interested to see what British, American, and of course, Serbian, readers make of it.
In a reversal of the usual, the other Miles Franklin shortlisted books are all by women:
Peggy Drew Hope Farm
Myfanwy Jones Leap
Lucy Treloar Salt Creek
Charlotte Wood The Natural Way of Things
You can read about AS.S.Patrić here: