By Rhonda Dredge
In the novel Antidote to a Curse, the narrator meets his lover in the iconic Stalactites café in Lonsdale St.
At one point there is an argument and the window shatters in a hail of glass over the main characters.
James Cristina, the author, chose the setting for its “Open 24 hours” mood and augments this with a fictional twist.
Autofiction is an intimate genre that conjures up real places with as much alacrity as a detective novel.
You can imagine Cristina sitting here day after day with a warming shot of some spirit and a deep desire to uncover the stories his lover is unwilling to tell. The idea is old but Cristina’s approach is original.
Much of the action takes place in an X-rated cinema in Waratah Place in Chinatown where dream-like sequences are projected on super-8 into cubicles. At other times the narrator wanders the streets of the CBD looking for signs.
“I know Melbourne well, like it, and still I asked Why Elizabeth Street?” He finds meaning in tubs of Snasself yoghurt in the window of Coles. “I felt like a fisherman with a rare catch I had pried through the morning blue.”
The narrator Silvio was a teacher but now that he is in the grip of a story he can’t go back. “The fact fell like fine crystal in many winged shards just by my feet.”
Antidote to a Curse is a convincing tale set in Melbourne with flashbacks about the Bosnian war. Most of the reconstructed action, reassembled through footage, conversations and dreams, is set in a forest in the municipality of Bihac, a breakaway state close to the medieval city of Mostat.
The novel flirts with magic realism by introducing characters in unusual ways. One is caught in a net in the forest and has a claw-like hand on a broken arm. Another has a reef of poems locked in a drawer in a castle with a golden key she gives to this cat man.
The narration is so beautiful that the reader has no choice but to follow. Transit Lounge, the publishers, are known for their dedication to spare story-telling. They encouraged Cristina to write the novel after he won a Lord Mayor’s writing prize for a shorter version.
The work is not really about Melbourne or Stalactites but taps into the kind of stories that might float through the CBD.
“Despite the rigidity imposed by Hoddle’s grid, I felt myself winding along a curved path towards a core I was yet to discover. Until now, I’d felt like I was crisscrossing the same old linear roads, stamping out the same intersecting terrain along Collins, Swanston, Elizabeth and Bourke, but the centre of the story was unknown and this is what I felt attracted to.”
Cristina is obsessed by the way stories are constructed and allows this obsession to filter through. When the main character Zlatco receives a postcard from a person in Sydney he presumed was killed in the war, that city begins to reverberate as well.
Some might find the dreamlike quality off-putting and it’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the book that characters have lengthy conversations. Prior to this, only one sentence comments are allowed.
Given the topic, however, and its overly dramatic portrayal on TV cop shows, the slow release works well.
The magical quality of the medieval architecture and ways of life, now destroyed, suit the style. Cristina is adept at conjuring up footage. You could say he films with words.
The Couture to Chaos exhibition at the NGV is used as a backdrop in one scene. Filmic approaches to text tap into the contemporary zeitgeist yet they do lose something quite valuable that Cristina appears to want to purge.
Cynicism has no part in this novel nor is there much place for irony. This is truly a romance about the quest called writing and bringing the dark into the light.
By Rhonda Dredge