With that extended conflict known as the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001) now over for more than a decade, we are starting to see books written about them. I’ve reviewed two on this blog to date, Aminatta Forna’s novel The hired man (2013) (my review) on the Croatian War of Independence, and Olivera Simić’s memoir Surviving peace (2014) (my review) on the Bosnian War. AS Patrić’s Miles Franklin Award winning novel, Black rock white city, (2016), which also draws from the Bosnian War, now makes three.
Like The hired man, Black rock white city explores the aftermath of war, but unlike Forna’s book, which is set within the war-torn country, Patrić’s book is set in Australia, and tells of refugees, Jovan and his wife Suzana. The novel starts about four years after their arrival and, although both were academics in Sarajevo, they, like so many refugees, work in their new country as cleaners and carers. It soon becomes clear that they have not recovered from their war experience. Gradually, over the course of the book, Patrić reveals the horrors of their experience. We learn that, like so many who suddenly find their country at war, they had to face that awful question, “should I stay or should I go”. As it turned out, they stayed too long, and Jovan feels he failed his wife by not going early. When we meet them, their relationship is stressed, and they seem unable to provide each other the love and emotional support they so badly need. It’s excruciating to read, because it’s so real, so believable.
I found this book particularly enlightening because I worked with a woman who was damaged by this war. Like Patrić’s two protagonists, she was Bosnian Serb, but unlike them she left early. However, the impact on her of this forced loss of her country, her culture, was immense.
But, I digress … back to the book. It opens with hospital cleaner Jovan cleaning graffiti in an examination room. We soon discover that the hospital is experiencing a bout of graffiti-writing, and that Jovan is the graffiti cleaning expert. No-one knows who is creating the graffiti, which becomes increasingly bizarre. It appears on all sorts of surfaces (such as a corpse’s back, a menu blackboard, the optometrists’ charts) and comprises a variety of seemingly random, though often pointed, words and phrases (such as “The/Trojan/Flea”, “Obliteration”, “Dog Eat Dog” and “Masters of Destiny Victims of Fate”), which Jovan starts to read as messages to him. The graffiti artist is dubbed Dr Graffito. This storyline gives the book the patina of a mystery or even, perhaps, a thriller.
However, while the graffiti provides a plot-line for the novel, the main narrative concerns Jovan and Suzana, their relationship with each other and with other people, including a lover (for Jovan, because Suzana, in her pain, has withdrawn sex), work colleagues, friends and neighbours. Underpinning this narrative is the ongoing trauma of war. Jovan, for example, is frequently dogged by “the black crow”. He “feels as though he uses a rail for a pillow – always listening to the vague rumblings of oncoming annihilation”. Once, Suzana remembers, he could
turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if painful. It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia … He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did.
There is poetry in his head though – including a mantra that gets him through his days: “Maroochydore and Mooloolaba, Noosa and Coolum”. Language – the loss of his own, his inability (or is it refusal?) to speak proper English, not to mention the disturbing graffiti – functions as a metaphor for his sense of displacement.
Meanwhile, Suzana, notes Jovan,
is spending more of her time scribbling into her notebooks. The only place safe for her in the time since Bosnia, was somewhere buried underground. Coming to the surface isn’t going to be easy.
Patrić crafts the story skilfully. It’s a debut novel, but Patrić has published two short story collections and is a teacher of creative writing. It shows. The story is told third person, initially from Jovan’s perspective, but later Suzana’s is alternated with his, which fleshes out our understanding of Suzana, while keeping the perspective tightly focused on their experience. The plot unfolds stealthily, as we shift between two questions: will the graffiti artist be discovered, and can Jovan and Suzana pull through? By the end, the strands come together – so cleverly, so shockingly. And then there’s the sure, controlled writing. The pacing, the wordplay and touches of humour, the imagery, the dialogue, and the changing rhythms, make it delicious to read, even while the content confronts and distresses.
Late in the novel, Suzana suggests to Jovan that Dr Graffito is “putting his pain into someone else”, and that seeing his “madness in someone else might make it feel more bearable”. I don’t want to spoil the novel, but Suzana seems to be right, until the end where Dr Graffito’s actions force a confrontation that bring it all to a head.
What is Patrić’s motive for writing this? Early in the novel, Jovan finds one of the many notes Suzana loves to leave around, a quote from her favourite author, Nobel-prize winner, Ivo Andrić:
You should not be afraid of human beings. I am not, only of what is inhuman in them.
Jovan, on the other hand, says that “so much of what happens, shouldn’t happen”. These two ideas form the crux of the book. We have a cast of human beings, who are all real, all flawed in some way. They muddle on, some better than others, some needing a bit of “moral flossing”, some a bit of “ethical cleansing” (and what a clever wordplay that is, keeping war’s horrors close to our minds.) We see what happens, during and after war, when people let hate get the better of themselves and release the “inhuman” within, thereby wreaking what “shouldn’t happen” on others. This is a big book, for all its mere 250 pages, because it tackles the fundamental question of how are we imperfect humans to live alongside each other.
Fiction, Suzana says, is writing for the soul. If that is so, Black rock white city is one soul-full book – and a worthy winner of the Miles Franklin.
Black rock white city
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2015