Days in Sydney (London:
Bloomsbury, 2001, £9.99, 252 pages, ISBN 0747555001)—Georges-Claude
Guilbert, Université de Rouen
Peter Careys 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 availablein
the The Writer and the City series, presumablyentitled
The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris
and signed by Edmund White. In other words, you are warned. You dont
expect to find useful tips, cheap places to eat, fun places to photograph
or indispensable museum visits. Yet you dont expect to find
such uncanny narrativesin the pluraleither.
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 showsfor 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 thingalways 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 cant help wondering
if you havent seen it elsewhere before, or maybe youve
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 [
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
] 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 Id 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. Didnt figure me for a blackfellow? she said.
No, I didnt.
But we are everywhere amongst you, she sipped her beer. Reading
books, driving tow trucks.
Come on, said Sheridan, Peters cool.
Oh Im cool too, said Vicki bitterly. Im a real truck-driving,
So wheres your country, Vicki? Fix asked, his blue eyes
Shut up, said Sheridan. She doesnt have a bloody country.
It was stolen from her.
I can speak for myself, thanks, Sherry, and I do have a country,
Fix. Its up near Moree.
She was taken from her parents, explained Sherry.
But the minute you discover Im a Koori youre not going
to say, oh, what do you think of David Maloufs new novel?
Youre going to go, oh, wheres 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 whos 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,
Woollahra at two am, looking out across Kelvinators dirty
swimming pool, I was seized by a sort of existential terror which
it took a half bottle of Laphroaig to assuage.
the penultimate chapter, Peter Carey asks: How can I hope to
convey to any reader my idea of Sydney? Well, thats very
much the job of the writer, isnt 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 Heavens sake, and Sydneys crime
rate is ludicrously low), he does hold your attention from yarn to
30 Days in Sydney might indeed be an antidote to the average
Sydney guide, but I recommend Bill Brysons extremely amusing
Down Under (Doubleday, 2000) as an antidote, or rather, a complement,
to Careys book. Unashamedly commissioned, the book doesnt
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 Careys.
It makes you look forward to the next The Writer and the City volumes,
hoping the writers will be equally distinguished.