Cristina, James. Antidote to a Curse. Yarraville: Transit Lounge, 2018. $29.99. 256pp. ISBN: 978-0-925760-03-3
Dreamy fumes made me feel pliant, pleasant. He eyed me through slightly narrowed eyes. Realigning his focus, he asserted, ‘You’re Maltese.’
The reverberation was a momentary shudder from an archer who had managed to split a bow with a direct aim. I could see that the alcohol had mustered his nerve, and my mind settled on an aerial view of the rocky island. (19)
Silvio Portelli is a writer, a teacher and is waiting for the results of his HIV test. It is the ‘90s, Melbourne, and Silvio is developing a new novel born out of conversations with Zlatko, a Bosnian immigrant.
Renting a room in a house that, aside from its human occupants also houses an array of exotic birds, Silvio stalls in creating a new life after his European travels. He attends a job interview and dismisses the job instantly. He starts taking notes for his new novel, which hangs contingent on Zlatko’s piecemeal storytelling. He studies himself in the mirror as he awaits his test results. The novel is imbued with a sense of waiting, a lack of direction, a tension that prevents anything new from beginning.
But in between this concrete experience trickles, then rushes, a dream state of images and impressions that are becoming part of his novel. Characters transform, change species and names, the setting flits between Melbourne and Herzegovina, or is set in some palimpsest place that is a combination of the two. Dreams, novel notes and narrative are interwoven. Underneath it is the sense of being an outsider, of circling a community, a story, an identity, looking for a way in.
‘You’re a cat!’ she blurted, eyeing the sharp cut of his nose, his hollowed cheekbones, the otherwise manly features of his face, with astonishment.
‘No, no,’ Ludovico dropped his hands. ‘A man.’ She examined the curved and pointed incisors. He stood tall as a man and proportioned as one, but different.
‘Yes, but…’ and her words faltered. She didn’t want to appear rude. (36)
And, as Silvio looks for a way into Zlatko’s story, the reader of Antidote to a Curse spends a considerable number of pages finding a way into the novel as a whole. It is not a welcoming space. The shapeshifting story is confusing, at times distracting. Cristina’s prose alternates between holding the reader at too far or too close a distance to see anything clearly. Silvio’s narration is affected and writerly. So deeply embedded are we in the drifting mind of the creation of this story, there is no place to stand, no place from which to understand the world Cristina is evoking.
But as the pieces start to draw together, or as Silvio’s novel takes shape, the reward for reading increases. The sense of these characters, inventions, and places overlapping and weaving together develops cohesion and the reader might be forgiven for feeling a deep sense of relief. We stand on more stable ground, just as the characters start to face their own fears, pasts, nightmares and the moment for Silvio’s final test results approaches.
Having read the final page, I turn to the first chapter again, which now, miraculously, makes sense. Cristina’s evocation might have been better served with less ambiguity. The creation of a world of uncertainty, shifting perspectives and alienation is convincing without the inscrutable detail. What Cristina’s novel circles, throughout, is the question of what can be spoken and what must be suppressed. Atrocity, violence and Silvio’s own existential threat, simmer beneath the surface finding alternative means of expression—animals, mirrors, decoys, broken bones and, crucially, storytelling. In telling a story that cannot be told, the narrative falls apart. The writer is forced to find other ways. The boundaries between invention and reality, character and writer, need to be destroyed and rebuilt. Perhaps those boundaries were artificial to begin with, after all every fictional character carries a kernel of their creator. And so, Silvio is reinvented as a cat, observer and outsider, hybrid creature, living within the world of the story. Characters are pushed alongside each other, time is not linear, causality is confused. And ultimately the story is carved out of these snippets, in minute detail, rearranged and presented as a new whole, for the patient reader.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.