Antidote to a Curse, the first novel of the Maltese–Australian James Cristina, is an ambitious debut. It is excitingly difficult to classify. It is an erotic story and an international mystery. It is a celebration of Melbourne – with references to the Stalactites Greek restaurant on Lonsdale Street and the Arts Centre spire – while also being global. It brings together prose and poetry, writing and music, dream and waking experience. It is also simultaneously a novel and an imaginative reflection of how that novel came to be written.
The novel begins with the narrator, a 30-year-old Maltese–Australian man named Silvio, hooking up with Bosnian immigrant Zlatko in a sex shop. Soon after, Silvio begins to dream – though the first dream is not announced as such – and to record those dreams in a journal. The dreams provide stylised reflections and embellishments of motifs and characters from Silvio’s life, but also from Zlatko’s life story. Soon we learn that the dreams and dream journal are Silvio’s way of working through writer’s block. If Silvio is drawn to the violent mystery of his past and to Zlatko, it is because he is drawn to the promise of material for a new novel.
It becomes clear that what we are reading is not only a story about Silvio and Zlatko but also an account of how that story has come to be imagined. In other words, the novel provides a study of the condition of an artist. Experience is constantly mediated through art. Likewise, experience is instantly converted into art. For example, observing the cooking of a rabbit stew, the narrator imagines the “kitchen transformed into a series of stills, the type you might find forming a triptych, or a celebrated series, in the Tate Modern, perhaps in the style of Francis Bacon, given the insistence of the bloodied motif, and the crudity of the imagery rendered in flat colour”. Elsewhere, experience is transposed into a classical mode. Such transformations and shifts of register lend the narrative a surreal quality.
Silvio’s escape into art is bound up with waiting for HIV test results, a reality held at bay through his fantasising, so that fiction becomes a form of dissociation, or a fantasy of control over the trauma of living. It is the antidote to a curse evoked by the title.
At times the novel can be a little too elliptical, but its narrative ambition and stylistic experimentation are refreshing. KN
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 7, 2018 as "James Cristina, Antidote to a Curse".
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