Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2022

The Ozone Café, by Helen Hagemann

In Australia until recently, corruption was most often perceived as a problem in other countries, especially developing nations where it is not uncommon to have to supplement the official price in order to get things done.  But in 2021 Australia’s worst-ever score on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) at Transparency International highlighted the need for the Integrity Commission that was promised in the last federal election and never delivered.  It is galling to read that :

While Australia’s score has been sliding down for a decade, countries in our region, such as Papua New Guinea, have been trending up. New Zealand again comes in at equal first. (Australia’s Worst-ever Corruption Score Points to Urgent Need for National Integrity Commission, Transparency International Australia, 25th January 2022)

If interested, you can watch this short video to see how the score is calculated, but in a nutshell, it uses surveys to uncover the incidence of bribery, the diversion of public funds, and the adequate prosecution of corruption cases, and also to identify access to adequate legal frameworks, access to information, and legal protection for whistle-blowers, journalists and investigators. It does not cover tax fraud, money laundering, financial secrecy or illicit flows of money, so the score may not reflect the real incidence of corruption. In other words, it could be even worse.

My guess is that the CPI would not uncover the kind of corruption explored in Helen Hagemann’s novel, The Ozone Café which depicts local government corruption and its effect on a small business.  As I know from my own long ago experience as a director of small suburban company, small bribes to smooth the way for inspections of essential local government requirements may be common knowledge amongst those targeted, but the prey are not willing to unite against it or report it. The other businesses around us all paid up and moved on. They were all busy people, with a business to run, and an annual $20 wasn’t worth making a fuss if it meant that their landscaping and waste disposal practices wouldn’t be inspected for compliance. (Because we refused to pay the bribes, ours were indeed inspected, monthly and sometimes more often, and needless to say, ours did conform to council requirements to green the forecourt of the business!)

In Hagemann’s novel, the corruption involves a café on the beachfront in fictional Satara Bay.  The novel is structured chronologically, with three owners all of whom fall foul of local government corruption without really knowing that it was happening.

Preceded by his brother Renato during the postwar period, Vincenzo Polamo comes to Australia with ambition.  He finds the perfect beachfront position for his café and thinks he’s driven a hard bargain with the real estate agent to get it at a reasonable price. He and his brother create a beautiful building reminiscent of a ship, and to reward some kids for their help and advice, Vincenzo uses their shell collection in a mural for the courtyard.  (This turns out to be significant later in the novel.) Vincenzo soon finds that the holidaymakers and the locals would rather have hamburgers or fish and chips than the Italian cuisine he’d anticipated, but with the help of the children, Winifred, Casey and Nicolas, he resolves all that and the ‘Ozone Café’ is a success—except in the one thing that mattered to him.  His wife Maria back in Calabria refuses to join him…

A torrential storm sabotages Joe Pendlebury’s efforts with the café. Like Vincenzo, he finds that he needs family help with the amount of work involved, but his wife isn’t really on board, and when the café needs a major clean up and repairs, she’s out shopping and getting her nails done.  But #NoSpoilers worse is to come for Joe and not just because the Shire is interested in the structural integrity of the building.  And this ‘interest’ is for reasons that the reader is starting to unpack, and the characters’ suspicions are starting to mount.

Con and Dion Lasardis take over, but they’re soon embroiled in a major dispute with the Shire Office. The Ozone Café is in a prime beachfront position, and it’s in the way of development.  A court case ensues, and Vincenzo returns to safeguard the mural which has become sacred to the children for emotional reasons.  What Hagemann makes clear is how successive owners were out of their depth, and how the trust that they should have been able to rely on, was exploited.

I like fiction which explores important social issues.  Corruption—at any level—is pernicious.  It is unfair, and it weakens public faith in democracy.  Transparency doesn’t just improve accountability and political integrity, it conforms to a fundamental Australian value, the notion of a ‘fair go’.  Property in Australia is worth a great deal of money, and we’re always hearing stories about inappropriate development somehow circumventing protections for neighbours and/or the environment.  Local councils in my state can be brought before the Ombudsman, and the subsequent reports are tabled in the state parliament, but as this report shows, a rigorous paper trail is what’s needed.

“What my investigation found was poor or absent records of decision-making, poor strategic decision-making and a lack of transparency and recording of meetings with developers and council.”

Helen Hagemann shines a light on the consequences when corruption goes undetected and when citizens fail to act on their suspicions.

You can find out more about the author at her website where you can also buy The Ozone Café (and her previous novel The Last Asbestos Café).

Author: Helen Hagemann
Title: The Ozone Café
Publisher: Adelaide Books, New York, 2021
ISBN: 9781956635300
Review copy courtesy of the author.


Responses

  1. Reading about corruption makes me feel both furious and helpless. I mean don’t the “silent majority” care that the Morrison government uses billions of taxpayers dollars to advance the Liberal Party and its donors.

    Luckily I don’t run into it in my own small business (or I’m oblivious). I wouldn’t be brave enough to wave a bank note in front of Heavy Vehicle Inspector.

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    • I remember landing in Vietnam when our flight was very late and the customs/immigration people were very hostile, and wondering if we were meant to soothe them.
      Things will be better when we have an Integrity Commission, and when there’s legislation curbing political donations. Let’s hope it happens soon.

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  2. This does sound interesting Lisa – like you, I enjoy fiction that delves into issues as long as the fiction works itself too. As for corruption, the world seems riddled with it at the moment, which is a great shame…

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    • Well, yes, from what I see at The Guardian, the UK government leaves a lot to be desired…

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  3. I just quickly Googled this on my phone Lisa, and apparently she visited a cafe this is based on at Ettalong years ago. I lived at Ettalong briefly and I certainly remember the kind of cafe/milk bar she mentions where you could comfortably sit and drink a milkshake in your swimming costume and towel and thongs…

    The corruption here is dreadful, real estate here now worth a bomb – a certain [LH edit] politician is no friend of mine, hailing from here as he does – sorry but I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could kick him…(feel free to delete this if needed!).

    Your experience sounds disappointing but not surprising, sadly.

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    • *chuckle* Just a minor bit of editing in case of (a-hem) sensitivities!

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      • (grin), fair enough! Probably shouldn’t have put it in myself, but upcoming federal elections are making me a bit ansty!!!
        Our library has this on order – I have no many books on my To Read list I may never get to the end of them all…

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        • Don’t apologise, I know exactly where you’re coming from and it’s only the risk of legal action that made me do the edit.
          I just can’t wait for the election to be over, I’m tired of it already and the campaign hasn’t even started yet.

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  4. “I like fiction which explores important social issues.” Yes, I do too … it’s tricky to find the line between didacticism and being too subtle but I can cope if the issue is important enough.

    Things are so depressing here at the moment and that report says it all, really, in terms of how low we’ve fallen.

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  5. […] next blessing, but not in disguise, has been an excellent review by Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers blog. Her insightful review & very positive covered the main theme of the book about local […]

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