Saturday, 12 July 2008

Venero Armanno's Candle Life (2006) is another excellent Australian meditation on the 20th century, and joins others released this century by local nonfiction and fiction writers.

It's also a good exemplum of the new cross-modal writing: half romantic comedy and half suspense thriller. It begins in a rational fantasy that any Australian could 'relate to'.

Nevertheless, the narrator - a young man (fictive index of potential) - has no name.

Names feature in the back-cover blurb. This smart piece of writing leads us to believe we will get a tour of the catacombs. But while the age-old structures are used extensively in the novel, they are never the main event.

Armanno is too clever. What we get for most of the book is a pleasant picture of Paris - city of more than just lights for Australians of all eras - that gains allure from the background hum of death.

Two women die, one by accident the other by brutality. Three women if we count Frau Neumann, who comes alive in the closing pages as an emblem of Europe's malaise. And as in Christos Tsiolkas' 2005 Dead Europe, blame is not so easily laid at one family's door.

In Paris, clubbers' gyrations merge anachronistically with gangs of Brown Shirts pouring onto Berlin streets on Kristallnacht, 1938.

Frau Neumann is Armanno's muse. It is her death at the hands of a teenager with a gun, named Schwab, that strikes a peal for universals.

But to get here we need the past - Yukiko - and the future - Emilie - to surround the small hard core of the book: the potential inherent in the narrator. And while he stumbles about in the catacombs, we remember not only the ultrasound Emilie has planned but also Yukiko's predilection for astral bodies.

Everyone will abandon the narrator, except the dancing kids on the streets of one of the seedier quarters of Paris. Everyone except the author but - and Armanno reminds us in a passage starting on p 328 - the author, too, must eventually abandon us.

How does he do this reminding with such effect? Why do we feel frustrated, toward the end of the book? Is this frustration a method of Armanno's to highlight both the ubiquity of storytelling and the pleasure a good story gives us (takes us "out of ourselves")?

The long backward digression on Sonny Lee's past life is the kernel of the book. The sense of suspense the reader feels at this point is close to one of desperation. Why are we back in Lee's childhood when what we really want is to escape from the catacombs and live life with Emilie?

It was Lee, furthermore, who left the narrator alone in the catacombs. And the stories Armanno gives us here are, what's more, something we've heard before, from Baldwin and, more recently, from Morrison. We don't want this American stuff - we're in Paris!

Why here?

Why does the author do this to us? But on p 331 we know. It's a type of kindness he performs. Armanno is preparing us for the final dissolution: the dissolution of the story.

I want to go back to the surface of the world and live with real people - but, when I try to imagine what my life might be like up there, it makes no sense.

Armanno prepares us in Lee's heartless dismissal of the narrator in the dark, cramped caves he inhabits. We are with him, too - endlessly confused and entrapped - surrounded by mud, disoriented.

I follow him [Schwab], overwhelmed by relief at finally being able to see where I'm going. Now I know what these catacombs are really like. Their complexity says I would never have found a way out.

When I first read this, I thought Armanno had written, instead, "grief". Which would also make some kind of sense.

If Nazi Germany is a pointer to the future, and a way out of the current impasse, then Sonny Lee is the guardian angel. Even though he leaves the narrator in the tunnels alone, the black man Lee is the one who understands him best.

You lost a great love and you're trying to embrace a new one. No. It doesn't work so easily. You forget you're a writer. The good and simple life can never be for you. You want to experience as many stories as possible, don't you, no matter how dark and treacherous? Don't tell me it isn't so.

So the black American leads us into the labyrinth but the ex-Nazi youth leaguer leads us out. Both live on the streets. Both look like bums.

Both have a story and in Armanno's clever hands (the front-cover kicker says he "writes with such intensity, his words detonate off the page"), both will be heard.

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