“Hopefully the worst was behind me: detox, collecting Gertrude’s ashes, London, the twenty-four-hour flight, aeroplane food, customs, sniffer dogs. All I had to do now was survive the rest of my life. Which was no small order, of course.”
This question-raising – Gertrude? detox? sniffer dogs? – opening paragraph is how readers meet 37-year-old Edward Degraves in Chris Womersley’s nihilistically funny new novel, The Diplomat.
Readers of Cairo, the author’s 2013 novel, will already have made Edward’s acquaintance. He was in the booze-and-drug-addled bohemian gang that stole Picasso’s The Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986. He is an artist, an inferior one to his wife, Gertrude, who painted a convincing forgery of the Picasso. They are fictional characters since the real crime remains unsolved.
The cover blurb is by the musician Tim Rogers, a good choice for this novel. His 2006 album with Tex Perkins, My Better Half, became the soundtrack in my head as I read.
It’s now 1991 and Gertrude is dead. She and Edward fled Australia for Europe soon after the heist and settled in London, mainly squatting, still painting, still forging, still on smack. This novel is both the story of Edward’s return – to Melbourne, to his and Gertrude’s families, to their friends – and the story of what he’s returning from. It is narrated by Edward, who claims he is off drugs but is the first to admit he is unreliable.
As with Cairo – the name of the art deco block of flats the gang hung out in – The Diplomat is a geographic title. It is a “grungy motel in Acland Street [St Kilda]” favoured by washed-up rock bands and drug dealers. The circumstance of Gertrude’s death in London is the hinge on which everything swings. “After all, what was there to say?” Edward thinks when an old friend, not knowing, asks after her. “A death like Gertrude’s was a sheer waste and that was all there was to it. No words would help.”
Edward is a self-loathing, self-destructive soul. The phrase he remembers from French lessons is l’appel du vide. The call of the void. It’s intriguing that Womersley has chosen him to tell this sequel. The result is a raw lament for what could have been, full of pain, loss, grief, regret, longing and the likelihood of doom. The others who passed through Cairo – glamorous Max and Sally, the young rural rube Tom – are mentioned in passing.
“I was terrified – of what exactly, I wasn’t sure,” Edward tells us. “Of everything, of nothing, of crying uncontrollably or not at all. I wanted to flee. I always wanted to flee.”
The Diplomat is a foreboding book. It is about the ruin of promising lives, largely due to drugs. There is a remarkable long passage where Edward uses the word “It” to sketch out the drug life. “It was Chelsea boots, dark glasses, Marlboro soft packs, Borges, Lenny Bruce, spaghetti westerns, the Beats. … It was Duras and Dickinson, Dada, Dostoevsky, Soutine and Modigliani … It was Didion’s pitiless gaze and any old thing by Nick Cave.”
And, he concludes, “a lot more besides, a whole pathetic manifesto – or web, more like it, where the smallest footfall alerted the monster to your precise whereabouts.”
This passage about “life and rejection of it” is thrillingly written, and contains hints of the sardonic humour that courses through this novel. Some of it skewers art, artists and the “very stupid’’ rich people who buy art, but that’s only part of the canvas.
Edward is dismissive of everything and everyone. Australia is a stupid country based on sport, barbecues, mining, “slaughtering the Indigenous people and sitting on a beach reading trash like The Thorn Birds”. The gentrification of inner Melbourne means “the worst sorts of people – real estate agents, corporate types who worked in marketing, Dire Straits fans” want to live there. I may not agree with any of that, but it makes me laugh.
Edward’s real nemesis is himself and here the novel is at its funniest and truest. Here he is after visiting a brothel, despising himself for it and imagining the prostitute’s other customers: “There was always someone worse than you in the world, wasn’t there? Although I was unsure whether this was cause for celebration or despair.”
There are also moments of quiet beauty, such as when Edward visits his father. He comes to realise that what he cavalierly considered the old man’s naivety may in fact have been a “gift of generosity”. And the novel as a whole is a love letter, if not to Gertrude herself then to the possibility of love between two people.
This is Womersley’s fifth novel. His 2007 debut The Low Road is an unnerving work of crime fiction. Bereft (2010), shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, is a haunting take on the Spanish flu that ravaged Australia in the wake of World War I. He went out on a limb in 2017 with City of Crows, about witchcraft in 17th-century France. It is that range, and that appetite for risk, that makes him one of Australia’s most interesting writers of fiction.
Picador, 224pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "The Diplomat, Chris Womersley".
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