Black Rock White City is an interesting, complex little book. Bold, compassionate, oddly cold. Jovan and Suzana have escaped the horrors of Sarajevo by finding refuge in Australia. In Melbourne their lives are nothing like the academia and poetry they left behind: they are both cleaners. One hot summer, a mysterious graffiti artist strikes the hospital where Jovan works leaving distressing, almost prophetic messages which become increasingly violent. And so , A. S. Patrić has set up a mystery, a modern history, a very personal story of a relationship.
The graffiti messages are written in the fat left over from the hospital’s liposuction surgeries; carved into cadavers; secreted into the optometrist’s eye charts. Manevolent in focus, with an illogical amount of effort to leave such cryptic words. Everyone’s talking about it. The artist, the vandal, is dubbed Dr Graffitio due to the access that they seem to have to every hidden corner of the hospital and the secrets he is revealing. But in the end, it’s not what Dr Graffito says but what his messages cause others to do that matters. This is how Jovan and Suzana’s history is revealed, how the triggers lying just underneath the surface of any civilised society are tripped.
“Which is to say, two thousand years of social evolution and generations of civilisation is a layer as thin across the psyche as the skin on boiled milk.”
These words come from Jovan the former poet, and after what he and Suzana have seen in Serbia, he would know. Slowly, it is revealed what they have gone through, why they left, and what they left behind. It is a trickling of information, brutal in its simplicity of something. A lifelong echo of horror understood in a single sentence. Now we get it.
It makes the book distressing, elliptical. Just as you think the fullness of their trauma is going to be revealed the narrative turns away to another point. A summer so hot the clothes dry hard onto the line, missing the serious winters of Europe, an empty house echoing an empty life, the peaceful mindlessness of a cleaning job after the mind has already seen so much.
But as well as sad, it is also wry. Little lines that help you see your town, or your language, or your home in a different way:
“In English she notices things, as when Glen Coultas asked her to hang on a tick – she knows it refers to the ticking of a clock. Yet in English, she sees the words. The parasite that lives on blood, and hanging onto that insect with its full pouch is holding onto a moment with thumb and forefinger, in a pincer grip. Hold onto a tick. You can’t get it back but perhaps you can smear it black and red between the pages of a book.”
But there is an abiding tragic experience behind both Jovan and Suzana, despite how they carry the load differently. Dr Graffitio’s messages seem increasingly targeted at Jovan, the world flares up around him, and he feels the same darkness that pushed up against him in Sarajevo coming back around the edges of his vision.
I felt compelled, alienated, displaced while reading; which is just like the lead characters in a way. I don’t know what the end result is with this book for me. I suppose that is just like life, just like dealing with a trauma; no neat conclusion, no happy resolution, just a need to keep going. Which makes Black Rock White City a rather wise book, a small little piece of art, perfectly crafted.