In a hospital somewhere in the vast southern suburbs of Melbourne, someone is writing strange graffiti. Nothing so unusual about that in a city that sometimes seems submerged in tagging, but the words on the hospital walls are portentous, threatening: “I am a god of small knives”, “winner rapes all”, “ethical cleansing”. Their unknown author is soon dubbed “Dr Graffito”.
The markings have a particular resonance for Jovan, the janitor charged with expunging them, for he had been a poet in Bosnia with a couple of collections to his name. Fleeing the country, he brought no copies with him; he supposes that none have survived the conflagration. He left the world of words, bringing his wife, Suzana, to Australia at the start of the Howard era. Here, they disappear into the whiteness of a country that doesn’t understand how blank and erased it is, even as its vapidity oppresses people such as Jovan and Suzana almost as much as the carnage they have fled. Neither traditional wogs nor Third World refugees, citizens of a country that will soon erase itself, they teeter on the edge of nothingness.
Jovan fights it via a passionate affair with the incomparably skip Tammie; Suzana finds herself turning to writing. Both find themselves turned to the past, and the war, something entirely outside modern Australian experience. As the graffiti thickens, the first deaths and suicides begin to occur, and the pace quickens. Dr Graffito may be interested in more than writing on walls.
Black Rock White City is not a thriller, but it has enough of the elements of one to forestall further revelations of a complex but expertly handled plot. Written in a style as clean and acrid as hospital-strength disinfectant, the book is Australian realist-Gothic, the genre that defines the national culture as a crushing of the human spirit. It owes a lot to Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe, but it is more exacting and with fewer characters you just want to punch.
Above all, A. S. Patrić’s debut novel is a Melbourne book, of the wide southern sprawl and the coast of old seaside townlets drawn into the maw of the city, and for those familiar with the landscape, Black Rock’s strange modernist clock tower will loom like a portent over all the action. It is very good; it may be a classic. Re-reading will make that clearer. But then, it is a book that will need to be re-read, in order to be able to say one has read it at all. XS
Transit Lounge, 248pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 11, 2015 as "A. S. Patrić, Black Rock White City".
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