Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2015.
A.S. Patric’s Black Rock White City is set in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in 1999 and tells a story not particularly common in Australian fiction — that of European migrants setting up a new life for themselves in a foreign land. In this case those migrants are Yugoslavian refugees who fled the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s.
The story largely revolves around married Serbian couple, Jovan and Suzan Brakochevich, whose two young children died in a UN refugee camp en route to Australia. Five years on they are still grappling with the loss and their marriage is on shaky ground.
Running parallel with this story is another: at the bayside hospital where Jovan works, an anonymous person is scrawling graffiti (on one occasion in blood on the walls of the operating theatre), vandalising property and carrying out sick stunts (filling a water cooler with human fat, for instance). Over time, the deeds and messages become increasingly gruesome and targeted, with devastating results. But who is carrying out these horrendous deeds? And for what purpose?
But this is not a crime novel, nor, indeed, a mystery with any clear-cut solution. Instead it forms an interesting backdrop for Jovan’s story, of a man who has endured unspeakable horrors in his homeland confronted, once again, by the worst that humanity can throw at him. Even in the safe refuge of a peaceful country and an institution that supposedly heals the sick, he witnesses yet more trauma. And, once again, he simply gets on with his life.
Strangers in a strange land
The story is very much what it is like to be a migrant, one whose first language is not English, and the compromises that need to be made in order to survive in an unfamiliar culture. Jovan, for instance, was once a professor of literature at Belgrade University and a renowned poet, but now he’s a janitor who is often mocked for his poor grasp of English. (He speaks Russian and German, too, languages that are not useful in Australia.) He has given up on that side of his life; even though he still thinks in poetry, he has no desire to write it or read it.
Jovan is an articulate man and he wants to speak to his wife. What stops him time and again isn’t the pain, it’s a feeling that talking makes it trivial. Not that it makes it real—it makes it small. The reality is clear from when they open their eyes to when they close them, perforating even that boundary almost every night. The death of their two children isn’t the erasure of two beings. It is the loss of God and the skies, it is the loss of the past and the future, of all their small-voiced words and their hearts. The only possible response is suicide. To survive they have found a way to live without response.
Suzana is also working a manual job — as a carer for a disabled woman in Black Rock, a well-to-do bayside suburb (hence the title of the book — the White City is supposedly a direct translation of “Belgrade”), but she, too, was once a writer. She’s now more passionate about words and language than her husband and has devoted a lot of time to studying English (by watching TV and reading), softening her accent and writing in her new language. She’s distressed that Jovan no longer shares a love of words with her:
She knows that Jovan used to be able to turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if pitiful. It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia. And it still takes her breath away, an actual gasp of air at the top of her lungs, when she thinks how crucial poetry used to be to him. How Jovan used to wake in the mornings with poetry emerging in rhapsodies. How it used to drive him, his body slumping over a bedside table and writing with eyes that couldn’t open from sleep, and with a drowsy hand, poetry that cut through all the usual bullshit poetry was, the usual mediocrity, and opened up new ways of feeling, seeing, understanding and being. And now nothing. He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did.
Black Rock White City is also very much about the attitudes of others to refugees, even though so many characters in this novel — from the Brakochevich’s neighbours to the people they work with — are all migrants or the children of migrants. One of Jovan’s colleagues, a janitor with Greek heritage, is dumbfounded that Jovan, a tall, well-built man, is a refugee:
“When you think refugee, you think black, brown or Asian. Skinny and small, because there’s never been a lot of food. But look at you. Raised by basketballers. Smiling like a fucking wood duck.”
Character versus plot
Interestingly, this is A.S. Patrić’s first novel. He’s an accomplished short story writer and can certainly write vivid, confident prose. His depiction of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs is pitch-perfect and he expertly captures the melancholia and purposeless drifting of suburban lives. But the overall narrative felt slightly uneven to me, because even though the malevolent hospital crimes thread is drawn together neatly at the end, it peters out somewhere near the middle. It’s almost as if Patrić couldn’t work out whether to write a character-driven novel or a plot-driven one — and the character-driven one won out.
However, as a novel about migration and displacement and of coming to terms with the horror of war long after the fact, it is extraordinarily good. There’s a moral force to the writing, which I loved, and despite the trauma of Jovan and Suzana’s lives, both in the past and in the present, it’s not without hope. These are people who are adjusting to a new reality, who still have dreams, who still need to make sense of the every day, who still carry pain but are learning to live with it. It’s a bold story.
Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
This is my 34th book for #ReadingAustralia2016
UPDATE: Congratulations to A.S. Patrić: Black Rock White City was named winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award a little over an hour after I posted this review.