Earlier this year I read Brian Castro’s “Blindness and Rage; A Phantasmagoria – a novel in 34 cantos” and was immediately drawn into the depth and breadth of the author’s language, style and literary references. I have not reviewed this book, a review may one day be forthcoming, in part due to the Sydney Review of Books’ in-depth look at the work (you can read the views of Mark Byron here), however I have now sought out all of Brian Castro’s back catalogue of ten more fiction works and am slowly making my way through them.
“Pomeroy” is Brian Castro’s second novel, coming seven years after his Australian/Vogel Literary Award winning “Birds of Passage” (the award is for an unpublished manuscript for writers under the age of 35).
This novel blends several genres and styles, part thriller, part mystery, part romance, it shifts between first and third person, with our protagonist Jaime Pomeroy, an investigative journalist, down on his luck, either being omnisciently viewed or personally presenting his deeper concerns and feelings.
The plot follows Pomeroy as he relocates back to Hong Kong, from Australia, to investigate corruption, the backdrop of the island being handed back to Communist control is ever present, as is the censorship and dangers involved in being too investigative. Pomeroy has replaced a missing editor, a coded message on his typewriter ribbon and an unopened bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label the only remnants of his existence;
‘He got that the day he disappeared. It came in the mail,’ Frisco said, trying to appear mysterious. ‘Who knows? We get all kinds of gifts. It’s the way they do things here. The more gifts, the more compromised the journalism.’
‘Look at us,’ Guitierrez went on, ‘every one of us with a prize-winning story in his head, unable to get it down because we have a wife and children to feed, bills to pay, reputations to protect. Now and again to please Stella we nail some fish who’s swum into the wrong waters…’ (pp12-13)
Early in the novel Brian Castro is relaying the difficulty of writing the truth;
‘That’s why we’re in the prison house of language.’ (p13)
And there are numerous references delineating the reader and the writer, a masterful approach using a writer protagonist, even if he is a hack journalist down on his luck, whereby Brian Castro is debating the role of the writer with you the reader.
This murkiness becomes even more clouded when you consider Brian Castro’s migration from Hong Kong to Australia as a child. What elements of this novel are autobiographical? Are there any whatsoever?
Jaime Pomeroy has migrated to Australia, as has his Uncle Amando, leaving behind his businessman father, a man with shady dealings, lurching from one disaster to the next. The book opens with Pomeroy visiting a childhood friend Rory Harrigan, and Rory’s wife, Pomeroy’s cousin and love of his life, Estrellita.
The elements of cultural identity, hybridity, are another sub-plot at play here. Uncle Amando meeting a sad end when encountering a crocodile, the harshness of Australia, never being accepted bubbling along in background.
It was hot. After a hundred miles my motorbike broke down and I was between places in the middle of nowhere and nobody stopped. I tinkered around for two hours and found that the piston was fucked, completely out of shape, the rings snapped and splintered into chards. So I undid my bags and walk and still no-one stopped. I couldn’t believe people wouldn’t stop. (p123)
Not accepted in his adopted country, always an outsider, nothing changes when he returns to Hong Kong;
When I returned to Hong Kong it was as a tourist. That was the only way I could learn to live there again. Gone was that other place of old China, the rickshaws, the slow ramshackle docks and the cheap eatery stalls. Gone the stubby colonial buildings, the post office with its clock at the Star Ferry, the police barracks, the playing fields. The air was heavy with pollutants, the harbour water green and viscous. Buildings were taller and trees were dying. Nathan Road, once a leafy boulevard at the harbour end, was now a busy market thoroughfare. But I was glad there were still beggars, there were still tourists and there was still a greasy layer of humanity beneath the cut throat exterior. (p10)
The book is also peppered with literary references, at one stage Pomeroy and Frisco break into an apartment searching for an incriminating letter, knowing the recipient was a reader, Pomeroy finds the letter in a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, replacing it with a torn-out passage from Flaubert’s The Temptation of St Antony;
I’d like to have wings, a carapace, a rind, to breathe out smoke, wave my trunk, twist my body, divide myself up, to be inside everything, to drift away with odours, develop as plants do, flow like water, vibrate like sound, gleam like light, to curl myself up into every shape, to penetrate each atom, to get down to the depth of matter – to be matter! (p59)
Immensely readable on so many levels, as a mystery/thriller you do not know Pomeroy’s fate as the use of third and first person means this is not simply him recalling his tale, and therefore cannot meet a gruesome fate. As a commentary on writing and the role of a writer to tell the truth, the blurred lines between autobiography and fiction. As a study on cultural hybridity and displacement (note Brian Castro’s collection of essays published in 1999 is titled “Looking for Estrellita: Essays on Culture and Writing” – in “Pomeroy” the love interest is Estrellita, the protagonist’s cousin). As a novel playing literary games, with Proust, Barthes, Poe, Flaubert just a few references.
I could write about the themes of corruption, both in Hong Kong and Australia, or the themes of loss, fear of death, sexual awakening, love, and so much more. Although presented/marketed as a “thriller” this is a complex, multi-layered work.
A writer who has won numerous high-profile awards, but who seems to have flown under the radar of readers, I was moved to write this small piece to fill in a gap at Goodreads, this book has ZERO, yes ZERO reviews on that platform. A book sorely overlooked, a writer not often enough mentioned when discussions about Australian writers take shape. Dig around in second hand bookshops (this book is out of print) and see how popular fiction genres can be melded into literary works, adding in numerous sub-plots and themes. A book I will surely revisit.