Cairo is a most interesting departure for Melbourne author Chris Womersley. In Bereft (see my review) he fashioned a bewitching novel in Australian Gothic; in Cairo he has fictionalised one of Melbourne’s most notorious art heists. I predict that the book will show up in any number of shortlists…
The central character, Tom Button – 17 years old in 1986 – is looking back as an older but wiser man, on his Year of Living Dangerously. As an adolescent, he was a misfit in Dunley, a country town which Womersley has wisely fabricated lest he rouse indignation for its characterisation as a dreary rural dump where ‘a man’s worth is measured by his ability to stake a fence or identify the number of cylinders in a car by sound alone‘ (p. 12).
The author’s character excoriates country life; he rejects his family and the future that seems mapped out for him. He fears becoming a pothead like the older brother of his mate David, and feels betrayed when David abandons the fantasy of escaping the place and takes up an apprenticeship instead.
The thought of becoming a local baker like ‘Crusty Brown or a real estate agent like my father and his second wife distressed me almost more than I could bear. (p.106)
He cannot wait to leave Dunley and a timely inheritance from an aunt to his father provides him with free lodging in inner-city Melbourne, so that he can study Arts at university. (Well, that’s the plan. And there’s a plan to write a novel too). Only too ready to be delighted by everything Melbourne has to offer a young man with pseudo-intellectual pretensions, he moves into ‘Cairo’ – a block of flats which shelters a miscellany of characters including some splendid Bohemians. These flats actually exist: they’re on Nicholson St Fitzroy and were designed by Australian modernist architect Best Overend. You can see the distinctive architecture here.
But this is no ordinary bildungsroman…
Melburnians and art-lovers alike will remember the 1986 theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery in St Kilda Rd. The painting was returned, but to this day the crime remains unsolved. Womersley plays in this novel with the concept behind this ‘kidnapping’: the Picasso thieves had called themselves The Australian Cultural Terrorists and they threatened to burn the painting unless the state government increased funding for the arts and set up an annual $25,000 ‘Picasso Ransom’ art prize to memorialise their heist in perpetuity. These were thieves who disdained ‘establishment’ art and were willing to deny the rest of us the pleasure of viewing Australia’s only Picasso, presumably because they thought their own art superior to it. There was a collective sigh of relief all over Melbourne when the painting was returned unharmed.
Anyway, for reasons Tom is too dim to discern, he is admitted into the charmed circle led by Max, an elegant would-be composer. Max has strong opinions, and even stronger contempt for conformity. He and his wife Sally play host to a Bohemian crowd from the arts community, wooing Tom with seductive all-night parties, plentiful booze, intellectual companionship and a disdain for the everyday Australia most of us live in:
‘You can’t make anything great in this country. Imagine it. Koo Wee Rup Revisited. Breakfast at Dimmey’s. The Wagga Symphony. No one allows melancholy to take root here, and you cannot make great art without melancholy. It’s as simple as that.
‘You know, in 1942 Shostakovich composed his seventh symphony: the Leningrad as it’s now known. This was during the war and three members of the orchestra who were meant to play died of starvation before the premiere.’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘All the good people leave. This country is large and unspectacular, but it’s completely and utterly dumb. Beaches and bimbos. Here they worship cricket players and jockeys. And criminals. Which is often the same thing.’ (p. 72)
From time to time the older-and-wiser Tom intrudes to maintain the tension, reminding us that Tom’s naiveté made him vulnerable to seduction:
Foremost among Max’s talents was that of making everyone he encountered feel special merely by being in his company. It was an ability to divine – like a palm reader – what people wished to hear about themselves. I did not yet know that such a gift had a more sinister property; an ability to draw forth those aspects of one’s personality best kept under lock and key. (p. 64. BTW forgive my pedantry, but that last semi colon should be a colon IMO).
Tom’s puzzled observations hint at the dark side of this charmed existence. There are intriguing conversations overheard; there is curious secrecy and there is horrific brutality to a dog. Sally makes enigmatic pronouncements about the art in the studio. Meticulously plotted to contrast Tom’s insouciance with an intriguing sense of menace, this novel moves inexorably towards his coming-of-age.
Chris Womersley’s third novel is a real treat. Highly recommended.
Update 6/10/13 Do read Janine Rizetti’s review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip as well: she rated Cairo 10/10!
Author: Chris Womersley
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing