Peter Carey, 30 Days in Sydney (London: Bloomsbury, 2001, £9.99, 252 pages, ISBN 0747555001)—Georges-Claude Guilbert, Université de Rouen

Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney is subtitled “a wildly distorted account”. The short blurb on the back of the dust jacket is a quote from Traveller Magazine that says “The The Writer and the City is an intimate, idiosyncratic new series… it comes as a refreshing antidote to the average city guide”. You learn on the back flap that another book is available—in the The Writer and the City series, presumably—entitled The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris and signed by Edmund White. In other words, you are warned. You don’t expect to find useful tips, cheap places to eat, fun places to photograph or indispensable museum visits. Yet you don’t expect to find such uncanny narratives—in the plural—either.

In chapter two, Peter Carey cautions the reader: what he means to do is ask his Sydney friends for “stories of Earth and Air and Fire and Water”. He lives in New York, of course, and you quickly suspect that the crux of the book is the confrontation of the New Yorker with his old Sydneysider self. You also suppose that one of the points which will be made is that although a metropolis, Sydney has remained much closer to nature than New York. Carey is not, however, actually from Sydney, although he did spend a number of years there. Apparently he was born in Bacchus Marsh and lived in Melbourne for decades. So he is twice removed from his subject, as it were, and it shows—for the enjoyment of the reader. Copious helpings of literary distance never do anyone any harm.

Basically what the author does is encourage his friends and his friends’ friends to confide in him and reminisce at length (a fire, a boating experience, a motorcycle theft, that sort of thing—always having to do with the four elements). Those tales end up weaving a sort of Sydney tapestry that the reader who is familiar with the city may or may not recognize. Carey throws in the odd bit of History here and there, for good measure. At times he indulges in similes that are just barely this side of embarrassing, such as:

History is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.

This is certainly very true, especially when it comes to the Aboriginal genocide, but when you read the sentence, you can’t help wondering if you haven’t seen it elsewhere before, or maybe you’ve heard it in class all those years ago. The Aboriginal genocide, incidentally, is not actually over, if you are to believe statistics (drugs, alcohol, murder, disease, suicide, you name it). In that context Carey offers tremendous, terrible passages of this sort:

We heard him say we were comrades with the Turks today […]. Our prime minister could embrace and forgive the people who killed our beloved sons and fathers, and so he should, but he could not, would not, apologise to the Aboriginal people for 200 years of murder and abuse. The battle against the Turks, he said in Gallipoli, was our history, our tradition. The war against the Aboriginals, he had already said […] had happened long ago. The battle had made us; the war that won the continent was best forgotten.

Carey does mention the Opera House, of course, and digresses about architecture, the way you do when you find yourself outside such a stupendous construction. He discusses the bridge, and various inevitable sights, but I, for one, although we seem to mix with the same sort of people, did not feel this was the same Sydney I’d repeatedly stayed in, notably at exactly the same time as Carey, except perhaps when reading about the pre-Olympics construction sites (yawn). He does address the Aboriginal issue though, in an interesting, not blandly PC way, particularly through an episode when a woman has not been identified as a Koori:

I turned, suddenly, to look at Vicki and she caught me and held my gaze. Didn’t figure me for a blackfellow? she said.
No, I didn’t.
But we are everywhere amongst you, she sipped her beer. Reading books, driving tow trucks.
Come on, said Sheridan, Peter’s cool.
Oh I’m cool too, said Vicki bitterly. I’m a real truck-driving, post-modernist Koori.
So where’s your country, Vicki? Fix asked, his blue eyes sparkling.
Shut up, said Sheridan. She doesn’t have a bloody country. It was stolen from her.
I can speak for myself, thanks, Sherry, and I do have a country, Fix. It’s up near Moree.
She was taken from her parents, explained Sherry.
But the minute you discover I’m a Koori you’re not going to say, oh, what do you think of David Malouf’s new novel? You’re going to go, oh, where’s your country, as if you knew what that meant.

What many a reader might find insufferable in 30 Days in Sydney is the total absence of quotation marks. This systematic coquetterie forces the less lazy to read just about every paragraph twice, to make sure who’s talking / writing, and leaves the lazy or busy reader unsure at the best of times, confused at intervals. But however tiresome, this does not spoil the pleasure. There are, after all, gems like:

In Woollahra at two am, looking out across Kelvinator’s dirty swimming pool, I was seized by a sort of existential terror which it took a half bottle of Laphroaig to assuage.

In the penultimate chapter, Peter Carey asks: “How can I hope to convey to any reader my idea of Sydney?” Well, that’s very much the job of the writer, isn’t it? He may not have succeeded entirely, but the attempt was worth it. If he bewilders at times with things like “the easy tolerance of crime and corruption” (he lives in New York, for Heaven’s sake, and Sydney’s crime rate is ludicrously low), he does hold your attention from yarn to yarn.

30 Days in Sydney might indeed be an antidote to the average Sydney guide, but I recommend Bill Bryson’s extremely amusing Down Under (Doubleday, 2000) as an antidote, or rather, a complement, to Carey’s book. Unashamedly commissioned, the book doesn’t come anywhere near such masterpieces as Booker Prize winner Oscar and Lucinda (1988) or Illywhacker (1985), but that is beside the point, naturally. And the style is still unmistakeably Carey’s. It makes you look forward to the next The Writer and the City volumes, hoping the writers will be equally distinguished.