Carmen Callil

Carmen Callil 
The Times (London)

“Peter Carey subtitles his book about Sydney “a wildly distorted account”. He was wise to warn the reader, though distorted is not the word I would choose to describe this fabulously idiosyncratic small masterpiece about that fabled Australian city. Anxious, fierce, fearsome and fretful are more accurate adjectives for Carey’s vision.

Peter Carey has lived in New York for the past ten years. Before that he lived in Sydney, where he became one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. Before that, he was born and raised in the wonderfully named town of Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne. So, in addition to being a genius, which he is, he is not a Sydneysider, but a more southern, cerebral, tortured sort of Australian, of the kind he chronicled so magnificently in his most recent novel, True History of the Kelly Gang.

Having investigated in that novel the story of Ned Kelly, the most potent of all Australian legends, Peter Carey uses his recent 30-day sojourn in Sydney to investigate another -the convicts thrown out by Britain in the 18th century, and their official masters: Sydney’s, and in many ways white Australia’s, founding fathers. Surrounding all this the Aborigines are omnipresent too, in one of the few books that manage to rail against the wrongs done to Australia’s indigenous people without being both patronising and politically correct.
White Australia has learnt everything from the Aborigines it decimated. Like them, every white Australian is raised on stories: telling stories, “yarns”, is one of the earliest Australian Bush traditions, and Carey uses this gift, which he has in abundance, to bring his Sydney alive. Not that this short book is as simple as that. Peter Carey flies into Sydney, dazed by Temazepam, determined to force his old Sydney mates to open up into his tape machine and disgorge potent truths that will illuminate “its painful and peculiar human history”. He asks these irritated friends to do this by telling stories about Earth and Air, Fire and Water, the elements he sees as defining Australia, or rather, as hovering over its citizens, ever ready to frighten them to death.

However, the Carey who returns to Australia in 2001 is coming up for 60 years of age, and his mates likewise. Carey’s Sydney friends are a stunning bunch of old hippies. Each of them has chosen ways of dealing with 21st century life in the metropolis that are fraught with anxiety, replete with memories of catastrophes past, anticipating those to come. There is Kelvinator, now a successful magnate -“He knows things about Water that I am happy to be hearing on dry land”; Sheridan, drunk, down and out in a cave in the Blue Mountains, obsessed with Aboriginal fire-stick farming, a ruined man of the Earth; Jack, the dreamer and aesthete, who designs houses with no walls, so that his element, Air, is everywhere. As for Fire, that is ubiquitous, the element which makes Sydney what it is, as does its most Earth-y construct, the Opera House, which Carey recreates as a successful reincarnation of the Royal Festival Hall, an image which sums up perfectly the aggravated relationship between Australia and its founding nation.

As his friends unbutton, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride through bushfires, southerly busters, Westerlies, storms at sea on the Sydney-Hobart boat race, and then there is Peter Carey’s own private phobia about crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. How can this operatic hysteria tell us anything about Sydney? How can so much stress be wrapped up in a small book packed with a vast amount of information? Only a magician with a vibrant sense of humour – the book is wildly funny -could reveal the terrors of late-ish middle age in an old country, while at the same time telling us everything we need to know about Sydney’s history, its harbour, its beaches, its restaurants, flora, fauna, architecture, corruption and booze.

The book is full of strange pieces of information and news, decorated with a suitably inventive map of Carey’s Sydney by the Australian graphic artist Jeff Fisher. Thirty Days in Sydney is a book about that city like none other, a magical tuck box with goodies tucked away in odd places: it’s so good it takes your breath away.” Carmen Calill

Comments are closed.

Website design by Jefferson Rabb.
Wordpress reconstruction by Website Beautiful