AS Patrić’s ‘Atlantic Black’ and the challenges of historical fiction

By Adam Rivett
This ambitious second novel doesn’t quite live up to its Miles Franklin–winning predecessor

What exactly is the historical novel anyway? Outside of the realms of sci-fi and fantasy (plus their genre variations) it might be argued every novel is an example of historical fiction. The writer picks their moment – from the high-reportage of the novel that shows us “the way we live now” to those daft doorstops that presume to put words in the mouth of Caesar and company – and builds with the details that seem most apt. Even the most furiously experimental writing eventually comes to reside in a roughly specific moment of time.

Black Rock White City, AS Patrić’s previous novel, was a kind of historical novel twice over, occupying both a very particular moment of pre-millennium tension and, in the traumas haunting its central characters, the still unhealed wounds of the Bosnian War. Much of that novel’s power derived from this dual frame – distant enough to grant perspective, recent enough for the past to remain unresolved. In Atlantic Black (Transit Lounge; $29.99), Patrić has ventured even further into the past: a single day, in which 1938 noisily and chaotically becomes 1939. Yet in this decision some of the dilemmas of the historical form – its tics and tendencies – conspire against the writer.

The novel’s plot is effectively simple. Katerina Klova and her mother have fled Mexico and are en route to France, having left behind Katerina’s diplomat father, Audrius. Already separated from her brother, Kornél – a constant presence throughout the novel via a series of letters read by Katerina at crucial moments – she wanders the ship in a daze, encountering fellow travellers and other lost souls. As the night progresses, events grow increasingly surreal and violent, her mind constantly toggling between consideration of the present moment and memories of her loving father and émigré childhood.

Like the exiled Jovan in Black Rock White City, this is the novel of a single character, twisted and tortured by both the past and nervous anticipation of what lies ahead. As with BRWC, a deftly handled present tense voice is employed, effectively bringing what might have remained distant to a nervous, jittery life. For Jovan, the recent past and its losses weighed heaviest; for Katerina, it’s the unknown future, which, from our vantage point, can only resonate darkly. Much of the best writing in Atlantic Black operates with this duality of past and present, contemporary and historical novel, current event and memory – Katerina is a woman trying to focus on her mother and her journey, but finds herself forever pulled down by sorrow and the slowly comprehended inner life. Like many of his best stories – I’m thinking in particular of ‘Beckett & Son’ – there is an unnerving sense of serious-minded play to Patrić’s writing, a willingness to give a reader enough narrative to get things rolling without bogging them down in the over-explained. When Patrić draws us closest to Katerina’s displacement and frenzy – a long scene locked in a cabin while mounting revelry takes place outside is a highlight – the book is at its strongest. He’s also an effectively epigrammatic writer, capable of the perfect detail that captures a moment or person. (“The loneliness of travel reveals loneliness everywhere else.” “The deaf man claps loudly, twice, the way a hypnotist might wake someone from a trance.”)

At other times, however, the prose is less certain, alternating between a kind of flatly functional description and an overworked rhetoric. At times, the present tense voice lapses into shorthand screenplay mode (“There’s a light switch on the wall. When Katerina reaches for it, Blackshaw catches her wrist. Shakes his head. Nods to the waiting room apprehensively. Hiding from his patients. He’s been sleeping in the locked dispensary.”) At other times, the dialogue feels hopelessly overwritten:

But I feel the truth of the great light of God illuminating my soul in that moment when I look out across the wide waters and sunlight lifts into a radiating glory, illuminating the entire dome of the sky and constructing me a cathedral anew every morning.

In even the most fevered rapture of Jamesian refinement, the above is unimaginable as something that might credibly escape from a human mouth.

As with Black Rock White City’s judicious namechecks of Danilo Kiš and Ivo Andrić – names that not only displayed Patrić’s erudition, but contextualised his novel’s historical trauma – Atlantic Black quotes and alludes to writers as varied as Antal Szerb, Mina Loy and Edward Thomas. As before, these are names employed for more than just well-read showmanship, but this desire to frame the novel with period-specific references leads at other times to some clumsy writing.

A common problem with historical fiction is the way it forces its characters into servitude to their contemporary moment. Two short examples from the novel – far from the only two – illustrate the problem:

“A motley orchestra, thinks Katerina, liking the phrase for the sound of it more than for its meaning. It would make a good title for a Fritz Lang film.”

“She can hear them arguing about football – Matthias Sindelar’s decision not to play for Germany in the World Cup.”

The daily news is, of course, our conversational grist, and a novelist overhearing a group of people talking on, for example, a Melbourne tram, is likely at any moment to hear a discussion about Jake Lever’s defection to the Demons, or the new Star Wars film, or Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, or a million other topics, some fleetingly relevant, some likely to matter long into the future. There’s a lot to be said for thematic consistency, the kind of book that is often praised for “not a wasted sentence”, but a kind of limiting focus can also bedevil a novel – a book with no waste, where everyone exists to speak on topic or generate symbolic import. The loose baggy monsterishness of novels is in fact their salvation: they permit waste, dead ends, off-topic conversations. Patrić’s focus imprisons his characters a little – effectively at times (a ship is, after all, a kind of floating cell), less so at others.

This problem of overdetermination also affects the novel’s sense of premonition and likely doom. Patrić is too careful a novelist to overtly tilt into horror, but echoes and shadows abound – there are images of cockroaches, industrial meat grinders, people relentlessly pursued. Even simple New Year’s Eve partying carries darker forebodings (“Katerina has never seen such celebratory ferocity. There’s as much desperation as there is happiness in their welcome of 1939.”) It can at times feel like melodramatic foreshadowing.

At other times the novel’s allusions are bizarre, if not entirely misguided. At one point, as Katerina ponders the ship’s design, we get this:

“A Harlem Globetrotter could close his eyes and toss a basketball back over his shoulder into a funnel.”

Why a young woman in 1938 who’s lived the majority of her life in Europe would think of a novelty basketball team who at that point had played for only a decade, and solely in America, is beyond me.

Even more preposterous are the book’s repeated allusions in its final third to The Wizard of Oz. The reference clearly must have been an irresistible one to Patrić – a lost young woman looking to find her way home – but it’s a bungled reference. When, in a crucial conversation near the novel’s end, a character confesses to having seen the film three times in a single day, one wonders where said character parked their time machine, given that at the time the film was still almost eight months away from release.

Despite these issues and weaknesses, this is still a frequently compelling novel, from a talented and ambitious writer. The Miles Franklin win for BRWC was a justly celebrated triumph not just for Patrić but for Transit Lounge, an independent publisher responsible for much quality Australian fiction in the past decade. One less-than-perfect novel doesn’t change any of that.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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