A.S. Patrić’s fifth book, Black Rock White City, is not your typical immigrant novel. Its married protagonists, Jovan and Suzana Brakočević, are academics from the former Yugoslavia. She is a would-be novelist, he a former poet – the couple were displaced to Melbourne at the end of the last millennium by the ravaging Bosnian war. Obliged to take menial work in their new home city, Suzana now cleans houses in the affluent bayside suburbs, while hulking Jovan works as a hospital janitor. Theirs is a marriage shaken by trauma and grief. To manage, Suzana turns to literature while Jovan mollifies his libido with a married dentist – a measure he takes with Suzana’s consent.
So far, so gritty Oz-lit realist. Yet unusually for a novel of such literary makings Black Rock White City is propelled by a thriller element. Disturbing graffiti has been appearing within controlled areas of the hospital where Jovan works: the graffitist must be an employee. The crimes escalate quickly and shockingly. As in the case of Jack the Ripper, the precision of one especially ghastly defacement – think scalpel, dead flesh – suggests the involvement of a surgeon’s hand. It’s an ambitious juxtaposition: war, grief, ethnic displacement and marital distress against what might be the fixings for a season of Wallander. Remarkably, Patrić makes it cohere, maintaining throughout the impeccable craftsmanship and philosophical complexity that characterise the very best fiction.
Patrić is currently teaching creative writing at the University of Melbourne. Speaking with KYD via email, he discussed his love of ‘the Russians’, his filial connection to the great Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić, and his ongoing desire to foster intimacy between author and reader.
KYD: You were born in Serbia: your parents relocated to Melbourne when you were still very young. You’ve written a novel which centres on Serbian escapees of the Bosnian war. Are you concerned that people may construe Black Rock White City as being somehow autobiographical – your parents’ story, perhaps? Even though the timelines don’t at all coincide?
ASP: Serbia is prehistory for me – I was a little over a year old when we settled in Melbourne. My parents immigrated in the early seventies and I met refugees from the Bosnian war in the late nineties. I could understand the language and culture yet the new influx of people arriving here on the shockwaves of the Balkan wars came with untold pain and my parents had arrived with fresh hope. Black Rock White City is a Melbourne novel and I’d worry if readers picked it up expecting a story about Bosnia. The social realist aspect of the book will appeal to some readers. Yet there’s a romance in the book, also a thriller, and I hope readers will respond to those elements. Literature and the redemption it offers those who pour their souls into poems or stories might appeal to others, but yes, I think any writer would be concerned by the prospect of a novel being reduced to tabloid impressions.
The thriller component you mention is substantial: it’s a grisly, propulsive mystery. Yet there’s no doubt the novel is a heavyweight literary statement. You won the Ned Kelly Award in 2011 for your short story ‘Hemisphere Travel Guides: Las Vegas for Vegans’, while your crime inflected ‘Memories of Jane Doe’ was a standout of Spineless Wonders’ anthology, The Great Unknown. Why do the crime or thriller templates entice you?
The saints in my household, when I was a child, weren’t religious figures – a hushed reverential tone was reserved for names like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Growing up, I read a lot of American sci-fi but it was only when I got around to reading the Russians that I felt words cut through to my soul. They are rightfully known as literary heavyweights but their books weren’t ringed in by genre. Anna Karenina is a romance. War and Peace is driven as much by love as war. Crime and Punishment is a crime masterpiece. The Brothers Karamazov is another. So to answer your question, there’s nothing that entices me about the crime/thriller templates. I still feel religious about literature, and when it comes to my writing, those same household saints continue to define what a book can be.
And what of Ivo Andrić, someone who may be unfamiliar to Australian readers? He’s Suzana’s favourite writer and, to extend to your metaphor, could be said to be the patron saint of Black Rock White City.
There are a great many brilliant writers in the history of literature who are largely forgotten now, their books all the more precious to those who discover the works of genius left behind. Ivo Andrić won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 so he can’t entirely crumble away into oblivion. His masterpiece The Bridge on the Drina endures. I have a first edition hardback from 1959 – a present from Australian friends which I found on the shelves of my parents, unread, since it was a translation and they didn’t read English. My father often saw Ivo Andrić when the great writer went for his daily walks in Belgrade. So yes, a patron saint for Black Rock White City. A poet and prose writer from Bosnia who wrote his major novels while living in a Belgrade apartment, refusing to flee even during the WWII bombings, first from the Luftwaffe, and then Allied air forces. Andrić’s novels are remarkable for their elegance and humanity, but for me, the gift is the soul that radiates through the pages – one that is able to take the worst the world has to offer and not be disfigured or destroyed.
You mention the ‘soul’ of Andrić’s novels, a term you don’t often hear used sincerely these days. Something I love about this novel is its lack of stylistic cynicism – its willingness to probe its character’s experiences, minds and hearts without the protective padding of irony.
The writers I love best bring so much depth of feeling and thought, such a weight of experience, ‘mind’ feels like a paltry word to describe what I find in the pages of their books. A novel can have a transfigurative effect on a reader. It can entertain even as it grants a deeper sense of being. I can’t help but use a word like ‘soul’ to describe the resonance I feel when reading such books. In regard to cynicism, it’s a fundamental aspect of the modern condition and I think there’s a great deal of it in Black Rock White City. My main character Jovan Brakočević is a cleaner in a hospital assailed by the most brutal and insidious graffiti, in which even a cadaver can be used for a carved message. The cynicism is extreme and Jovan finds himself unwillingly pulled into a one-sided dialogue as he cleans these messages from hospital surgeries and examination rooms. Since he’s so wounded a man, Jovan’s survival depends on finding effective responses. Lying to himself becomes impossible and all he has left is sincerity.
Certainly there’s cynicism in the narrative content; I’m referring to the lack of irony in your prose. While the book is not without levity, at no point is your prose itself playful. It can be beautiful, even experimental. But it is bracingly, unremittingly sincere. Is it fair for me to say that, as far as the aesthetic of Black Rock White City goes, you’re one of David Foster Wallace’s steadfastly un-ironic ‘weird … anti-rebels … who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions … with reverence and conviction’? [See Foster Wallace’s essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’]
It seems to me that Foster Wallace’s dualism of rebels and non-rebels is an erudite rehash of the art versus entertainment argument, but I’ve got to say, I find it reductive. I’ve written short stories that would fit in with his rebels and other pieces with his non-rebels. Short stories in both my collections that have been playful, ironic, etc, and others that have been more traditional. It depends on the nature of the story yet I’m always hoping to embody elements of Foster Wallace’s rebels and his non-rebels in my work. Cohesion is always crucial and a writer aims for a consistent tone for a particular piece of writing. Black Rock White City has always been a tragedy.
Your comment about Jovan being so wounded as to be left only with sincerity brings to mind a passage by Karl Ove Knausgaard – another deeply wounded man. In My Struggle Volume 2: A Man in Love he writes: ‘Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous … Wherever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories … It was a crisis, I felt it in every fibre of my body … because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant.’ In certain literary quarters, Knausgaard’s discomfit about the work of outright fiction (as opposed to the novel anchored in stated autobiographical experience) seems to be echoed; Rachel Cusk recently expressed similar views while promoting her novel Outline. Why might this splinter cell of today’s novelists be distancing themselves from the mode that gave them their calling?
Memoirists are nothing new in literature. One of my favourites is Michel de Montaigne from 16th century France. The Knausgaard quote appears an attack on fiction but I suspect that it’s more a defensive move since writing that is so closely autobiographical (especially when the subject has done so little in his life that is remarkable or has dramatic value in its own right) resembles keeping a journal. As trivial as sharing a diary publicly. There’s many a blog that serves the same function. Knausgaard is a very talented writer and his seven volume exploration of self is a significant literary work. In another time he might have been called a philosopher as Montaigne was. Rachel Cusk has been pilloried for writing in the same vein. Patriarchal values mean she is afforded less license by some critics. To respond to the quote though, I’d say that Knausgaard is expressing a flat world notion of reality. Reality has oceanic dimension and is always in flux and our perceptions are limited not only by our senses but by the bubble of the ego itself, not to mention experience, cultural and social placement – and it only becomes more complex the more we consider reality. Fiction exists because we understand the essential plasticity of reality and that even grotesque distortions (‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ – The Metamorphosis, Kafka) can be the only means we have of approaching a particular truth. Artifice, to use fabricated characters in fabricated plots, is simply a mode of communication. The most significant thing to my mind is not some philosophical process of identifying an aspect of reality, moving into the proximity of a truth, but the actual experience of truth which great literature offers the reader. Jane Smiley once wrote ‘To read a book is an act of humanity. It’s an act of connection… accessing the mind of another human being in a way that combines freedom with intimacy. This is a rare thing.’ There’s that same desire for a writer as well, a hunger for connection and an intimacy deeper than self, a fervent wish to dissolve into humanity.
A.S. Patrić’s novel Black Rock White City is published by Transit Lounge Publishing.