Thursday, 4 May 2017

Black rock white city by A S Patric

Black rock white city by A S Patrić brought all the Minervans out on a cold wet Canberra evening. We all loved it and admired the writing, the down-to-earth language and the way the author dealt with the powerful themes of war, guilt, love and hate. We were reminded of the other book we have read about the 1990s war in Yugoslavia called The hired man by Aminatta Forna which is about the Croatian experience.

The story revolves around Jovan and his wife Suzana, from Yugoslavia who witnessed the war, saw the destruction and suffered the death of their beloved children. After that great trauma they made it to Australia. Their life in Australia is in much reduced financial circumstances. They were both University teachers and writers and now they are cleaners and carers. Their marriage is still suffering because they can’t move on from their tragedy. However the ending suggests that Suzana’s love for Jovan is rekindling and despite everything there is hope. His love for her hasn’t diminished but he does have a sexual outlet.

This novel by A S Patrić is the first by this author (aged 44) who has had many short stories published and with this novel won the 2016  Miles Franklin award. As the son of Yugoslavian migrants he understands his subject well. Patrić located the cover of the paperback version of this book. It is a Rorschach picture, appearing a bit like a poppy.

Some initial comments included that it was ‘Nabakovian’, it was masterly writing, it keeps surprising the reader and it has a tension at times of a thriller or a mystery. One perceptive reaction was about Jovan’s failure to be articulate in English when he was so articulate in his native language. Another member commented on the relationships between the cleaners and the medical staff in the small hospital where Jovan works. Our medical members thought this was possible and had experienced this closeness themselves some years ago. Why is Tammie the dentist interested in Jovan? It seems purely sexual because he is attractive physically and she is lonely.

Patrić’s language is very 21st century Australian lingo.  The story contains many of life’s ordinary experiences from sex (within the first few pages) to quiet humour and mundane descriptions of hanging washing and women’s makeup, all the time keeping you entertained and wanting to read on. All the short stories and the poetry he has written have trained him to set the scene with as few words as possible, and this works so well in this novel. The variety of sentences keeps the flow and the tensions suspended. There is so much packed into a smallish book. 

Dr Graffito had become such an interesting presence in the hospital. Where previously a person could die of boredom listening to people bitch and moan about every mundane detail in their trivial lives, now there were these biting messages to make everyone jump, scratching at their Trojan Fleas. (Loc 3141, 92%).

The rough language between Suzana and her friend Jelka is a normal way of talking for some people particularly those from the Central Europe but also many Australians now.

We talked a lot about war – how the reactions by the people experiencing it are always going to be different from the people who only read about it or see it on television. In this novel Patrić emphasizes the difficulty of knowing when to leave a conflict zone – Jovan and Suzana found it very difficult to leave and regret that they didn’t leave sooner. Migrants who become Australians must all feel regret at leaving their homeland but it is more impacted when the country is dissolving as well.  Patrić has a clever way of getting the reader involved in the atmosphere of the conflict and the consequences, without actually taking you into the zone.  He also doesn’t dwell too much on any one aspect by having a number of threads working through the novel.

Wars finish but impact stays on. The couple are just hanging on in Melbourne, often close to splitting.  They are questioning everything. The trip to Queensland was supposed to help but seemed to make the situation worse. Suzana didn’t love Jovan anymore. But the jealousy she feels when she sees Tammie makes her want Jovan more. The sense of trauma and dislocation for Jovan and Suzana is pervasive through the novel. They don’t have anything to say to each other. Just small acts of kindness help them.

Guilt is another overriding theme – especially the guilt of their children’s deaths. This is all-consuming for the main characters. Then there is the guilt of the graffiti vandal in the hospital, which Jovan is continually being asked to clean away and which seems to be taking on a personal vendetta against him. One or two members suspected it was Jovan doing the graffiti at one stage. There is a plethora of possible people in the hospital as far as Jovan is concerned – it is also fascinating how Jovan keeps some of the evidence and refuses to discuss it with the journalist. The hospital officials are not looking at the words, they just wanted it gone. They do not to read any meaning into it whereas Jovan tries to understand the anger and hatred being shown.


Dr Graffito is increasing the violence in the people in the hospital. Bill kills the nurse, the Optometrist suicides and at the end Dr Graffito teases Jovan to kill him after he almost drowns Suzana.  Dr Graffito brought it upon himself. Jovan is still feeling guilty that he didn’t protect his children better so he has to look after Suzana. He has to become a hero and be the man she wants him to be. Is Dr Graffito focusing on Jovan? Is it personal? Dr Graffito is tapping into other people’s pain. (If it was a thriller fans would be disappointed!) Bill (the horrible cleaner at the hospital) wrote the words for Dr Graffito under instruction. Dr Graffito is actually a surgeon who got self-made tattoos.   

There is also guilt for Suzana – she is still suffering the trauma of the abortion she had after her affair with the University lecturer. We had a discussion about the way she handled this circumstance. One member felt that Suzana behaved very badly towards the lecturer’s family. She is a very strong character, and impulsive and has a certain ‘steeliness’. Dr Graffito is like a pain in everybody echoing the deep tragedies of the main characters. It feels very real.

It is very hard for them both to lessen the guilt. Suzana only has one friend in Melbourne, Jelka, and Jovan has the psychologist David Dickens.  They both love and hate these friends at times. They tell these friends things that they don’t say to each other. Suzana and Jovan in bed talk about love for the eyes. Their love is also about hate at times and their interwined lives.

The ending is powerful and quickly executed --  A God of small knives. A devil of deep cuts’ .  (location 3384  99%) Jovan recognizes the surgeon from the hospital and the tattoos -- …’the Trojan Flea’.  ‘Her husband… As expressionless as a god remaking the world.’ (final sentence).

The question of religion is curious. Jovan prays every night but Suzana didn’t. Unfortunately it didn’t help him resolve anything but it was a habit.

The humour is subtle compared to the intensity of the novel. Jovan’s van and the continual problems he has with it as well as his commentary on Bill, his co-worker provide a small amount of lightness in the novel.

Somone said something about ‘Moral flossing’. I am not sure what they meant but it is a brilliant phrase.   Patrić is very deft at unfolding a story.