Descriptions of the sea
Gulls wheeled and leaned against the breeze. Burly gumbooted men spruiked fresh salmon and whole-wheat pies, their voices rising over the acoustic guitar and the bustle of the heaving crowds. My weekend in Hobart was spent on or near the water. I had just finished Atlantic Black and was still freighting the haunting final scene in my mind like the weight of the sea. At the airport, my return flight was delayed. And as these things go, it started off as minutes, then half an hour had passed, and soon enough that melancholic bing-bong heralded another change in departure time: the flight was pushed back four hours.
I was staring at a vending machine when someone came and stood close by. I recognised him instantly. He stuck out his hand. “Are you Josh? I’m Alec. Looks like we’re stuck.”
A.S. Patrić totes a ukulele when he travels. That’s the first thing I noticed. The second thing I noticed was the way he carries himself. He struck me as more of an indie singer-songwriter than the author of a novel so dense with meaning and so immersive that after finishing it, I found myself staring at the shower wall imagining what it would be like to be crushed by sea water, bitten by a dog, or hack my own eye out. We decided to grab a bite together and in this way our conversation began.
The cusp of womanhood
At that age where one can concurrently feel both hubris and crippling self-consciousness, Katarina finds herself isolated on an ocean-liner dragging through the Atlantic from Mexico to Europe. Swallowed by mobs of characters, Katarina’s neurotic mother is committed to the infirmary in a catatonic state early in the novel. Katarina revels in this sudden independence and in her Patrić achieves that rare balance of creating a character both acting and acted upon, poised between agency and inevitability. Earnest in her entry to the adult world, Katarina is counterweighted by the gloomy German, Heinrich, who represents the bleak mechanics of suffering.
Patrić laughed when I asked him about the array of characters, the fortune-teller who still deserved a place amongst Parisian dandies, merchants, soldiers, and professionals. “If you put that many people in that small a space, in the middle of the sea, on the brink of war, something will happen.”
Through Patrić’s sharp and visceral prose – which those familiar with Patrić’s Miles Franklin winning debut Black Rock White City will recognise – we see how Katarina observes the world with a credulous gaze. She is the child up late on a school night, knowing it’s better to sit quietly and transgress passively than to draw attention to herself. Curious and liberated in a carnival, New Year’s atmosphere, Katarina feels eyes crawling over her like spiders. The claustrophobia of unexplained nosebleeds, an infected dog bite, and Katarina’s grotesque imaginings of her mother’s catatonic episode keep the reader perpetually uncomfortable and beguiled. Underpinning Katarina’s private tribulations is the growing shadow of war cast from Europe, and falling across those unbroken stretches of the Atlantic. This is a novel about the violence between violence. This is a book about time, oblivion and inevitability.
War now and then
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Rumoured to be said by Josef Stalin, these words may give some insight into the callous and brutal climate that lead to the great purge. In the sterile glare of cognitive psychology, this idea tends to hold scientific merit beyond anecdote. This psychic numbing is caused by biases in the brain that undermine our reason when we give weight to tragedy. Our grief tends not to adjust proportionately. Perhaps it is a self-defence mechanism, a compartmentalising that would otherwise cripple us all with grief. We cannot comprehend that much tragedy, that much suffering. It’s too abstract, too inconceivable. Patrić understands better than most the limitations of human empathy. He understands that if world leaders felt the emotional toil of World War I acutely, then the mechanisms of diplomacy and politics would have ceased the destructive engine that sent the world barrelling towards World War II. The time between major world conflicts troubles him. He wants us to ask the question: if World War II can happen so soon after World War I, then what’s stopping World War III from happening seventy-five years later? Like the flying fish seen from the deck of the RMS Aquitania that leap from the sea, not out of liberation but to flee some unseen predator, this period in history is “a desperate interval and not a liberated state.”
The text is charged with impending catastrophe, but it is only when the author refines the violence through a single character that the broader implications of war can be scrutinised and the emotional toll of human suffering endured by millions can be experienced not just intellectually, but in the gut. War is everywhere and nowhere. It’s the pianist playing a beat too slowly; it’s a man staring half a second too long; it’s the newspapers and the letters Katarina finds from her brother, and between the apocalyptic lines from the Old Testament shoved under her door. Patrić’s ideas of war are too vast to flesh out entirely in a novel of 280 pages, and so like the man who builds a boat in a bottle, he devises the tragedy of war on the microcosm of the RMS Aquitania (a boat which significantly was employed for military duty in both World Wars and passenger service after each). Patrić’s sentiment is perhaps expressed best via Heinrich: “I have heard people say war is done, war is finished for us after the great conflict…They do not understand what they are saying. We are the war. The war is us.”
As a teenager, I spent ten days on a ship where each morning twenty other teenagers and I circled the deck for fitness, learnt to tie knots and climbed up the bird’s nest while the ship rolled in the breeze off the east coast of New Zealand. I didn’t feel isolated or lonely but close to these strangers. By the third day, the sea was so rough that most of us were sick, periodically lurching to the edge of our bunks to vomit into buckets. On one of the calmer days, the captain, a squinting middle-aged man of God, hurled a cabbage into the sea while the ship tore along at full sail. After just a moment the cabbage was lost in the grey wash. “That is your head if you fall off, and that is why it is so difficult to find an overboard. Please be safe.” Patrić’s prose is so dense, so fast-paced that, just like the cabbage-head in the waves, if you look away for a beat, something is lost.
Atlantic Black demands multiple readings to strip back the layers. For me, this layering of references isn’t a conspicuous wink to the literati – it is the author writing for himself. He allows himself to become distracted by cultural icons of film and art, and he is prepared to pursue ideas to understand them himself. If you are not searching for meaning in each line, you may miss the Wizard of Oz references, or the parallels between the ‘Bristol boys’ and Burgess’s ‘Droogs’. An entire essay could be crafted unthreading the many cultural references, but suffice to say that for me this is one of those rare books where the second reading is more rewarding than the first.
We spoke almost exclusively about the book. Patrić was more curious to know what I made of characters and scenes than whether I got it. I’m a lucky sonofabitch in that way, serendipitously hustling advice and insight out of the people I admire. At times Patrić was frustratingly focused on my take and resisted ascribing his own meaning to the novel.
When they finally announced our flight was ready to board, I realised Patrić had been gently picking his ukulele the entire time we had been speaking and his eyes had floated vaguely about the room, never settling on anyone or anything very long. His mind was restless, always untethered and searching. A month has passed and I still think about the book: what happened, what I am supposed to know, what I made up, which characters would survive the dark night of war in the coming years? It’s fitting that we met in the departure lounge. Patrić handles the close of all of his stories better than any active Australian novelist I have read. I asked him about the ending and characteristically he shot back with, “Well…what do you think happened?”
If we were two characters in Atlantic Black our plane would rattle mid-flight, perhaps from turbulence, perhaps due to a blown-out engine, but the experience in that moment of uncertainty is the same regardless of whether the plane plummets or stays the course. By the time you have formed a thought about the moment, the moment is gone and in that ceaseless heartbeat of time, the thought exists and it doesn’t exist. Perhaps this is what is meant in the final pages when Katarina says, “I have found myself thinking that death is nothing but a passing thought.”
Through repetition, Patrić interrogates these pivotal moments in the characters’ lives. Some are preoccupied with the musicians on board, others with making trouble, and many with Katarina. Patrić employs David Malouf’s words in the opening of the book: “We inhabit a world of unfinished stories and echoes, the repetition of age-old horrors and miseries.” The beat of a heart, the tick of a pocket watch, the inevitable is unveiled frame by frame. We run out of moments. In this way, oblivion approaches.
Joshua Pomare is a writer and podcaster living and working in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Takahe and Mascara Literary Review among others. His debut novel In My Skull will be released by Hachette in 2018.