Peter Carey - Bliss

Rating 6.0

How to Spoil a Good Plot Wittingly or Not a dissertation in form of a novel titled Bliss by Peter Carey.

Take a great idea. The apparent death and unexpected resuscitation of the main character would do.
The main character thinking that he actually died, went to Hell and that his own life after-resuscitation is just a day to day performance set up by demonic-characters impersonating his family and friends sounds perfect.

Now, this is definitely something. And if you add up that the main character writes down notes comparing the differences between the people he knew before his stroke with those he now believes are performing their roles, the plot you have it's just great with a hint of absurdity.

What Mr Author, needs first and foremost is to spoil a good plot. And that's precisely what Peter Carey does for the remaining two thirds of the book with the occasional good idea or brilliant sentence interfering with his purpose.

How he did it?
Oh well, it's actually quite easy. Just take the absurd element to an extreme level, introducing madness, manias of persecution and some deranged characters flirting with lost ambitions, homeopathy, alcohol abuse and - why not? - drugs.
Then leave behind untouched all the potentially good subplots you started at the beginning of the novel. Just focus on the madness of the main character and his clumsy need of redemption while in a psychiatric hospital led by a crew of psychopaths.

Don't forget to forget mentioning Hell again as the same quality of your prose will lead the irritated readers straight into the infernal abyss leaving them quite confused and with an unbearable urge to put the book aside.

Well done, Mr Carey. You made it!
Bliss is just ready to be read and, most likely, heavily misunderstood for a decent novel. I repeat: this book is nothing of that sort but the crafty disguise of a masterful dissertation titled How to Spoil a Good Plot. Wittingly or not.


Nick Cave - The Death of Bunny Munro

Rating 6.8

Next to a whole room dedicated to the deeds of a horse named Phar Lap - whose stuffed bulk looms over the bored pupils of a local school and the puzzled visitors from overseas - the Melbourne Museum offers a little corner to the music scene of Victoria.

Among a documentary worshipping AC/DC, posters of distant gigs and photos portraying groupies and clubgoers wearing awful trousers, pops up the kohl eyelined face of the vocalist of The Boys Next Door, a local band.
That lad with a pale pale skin and a dark dark tuft of hair is no less than Him. The frontman of The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the actor, screenplayer and author: ladies and gentlemen let me introduce you to Niiick...Caaave.

The local pupils in their green blazers may not know who Mr Cave is, but their parents and some of the visitors from overseas do.
Just like Phar Lap, the horse, Nick Cave left Melbourne long ago to pursuit a career who made him an international artist and an ambassador of Australia. Whereas Phar Lap found his death in the US (and some say he was poisoned), Nick Cave decided to settle in Brighton, UK.

It's important to know the current whereabouts of Mr Cave because The Death of Bunny Munro - his second novel - takes place in Sussex, and more precisely between Brighton and Newhaven.
Now, chances are you've been to glamorously decadent Brighton at least once in your life, but most likely not to Newhaven.

If that's the case, let me just tell you that you lost one of the dullest and most depressing towns in England. Newhaven is a built-up area of depauparated cottages, deserted flats and shut factories facing a port canal where rust and seagulls dung pile up on boats, ships and a half-sunk hydrofoil.
The reason why I know this is that you can take a ferry from Newhaven to the French city of Dieppe which I once did with a return ticket. You won't be surprised to know that even a backwater French town like Dieppe looks as vibrant and sophisticated as Paris when compared to gloomy dead Newhaven (pictured in all of its splendour above).

It's hardly surprising to learn that Bunny Munro - the marvelous anti-hero of this novel - is a familiar presence in Newhaven. In fact, it's between Rottingdean and Newhaven that Mr Munro makes most of his business of a door-to-door (but by appointment!) seller of beauty products on a perpetual sexual heat.
Bunny Munro is a lust-driven, theatrical bastard who drools over every female between 12 and 60 years old and whose ultimate purpose in life is screwing around as much as he can. A man masturbating himself thinking about the genitalia of Avril Lavigne (!) and the golden hot pants of Kylie Minogue (which is pretty ironic if you think that Nick Cave himself sang a famous duet with the petite pop star back in 1995: as shown below).

Picture a 30 something guy in an awful suit driving his yellow shit-stained Punto in the streets of Sussex with Spinning Around as a background music and howling obscenities at the local teenagers and you will have Bunny Munro.
Visualize a 9 years old kid sticking his reddish eyes into a voluminous encyclopedia sitting in the passenger's seat of the Punto and you will have Bunny Junior, the Boy of his Dad and the former apple in the eye of his Mummy.

Yes, horny Bunny Munro is a married man. And in the course of this novel, his poor wifey Libby will manage to haunt Bunny's escapades, thus paying off his infidelity. But let's say no more. The title of the novel will suggest you its ending but not how it ends.
I'd say it's worth reading what Nick Cave has to say here although it's sometimes very hard to distinguish between the dirty thoughts of Bunny Munro with his anti-social behaviors and the impression that the Australian songwriter himself is the main character of this novel.

I thought about Leonard Cohen more than once while reading this as the Canadian minstrel shares a similar - if more talented - approach to sexual perversion in his books with Mr Cave here. And I suspect that the leader of The Bad Seeds wouldn't be displeased by this analogy.
Cohen and Cave are two Don Juans who elevated the literary status of the word "vagina" with their lyrics and prose and I bet that even the most hardened feminist would close an eye or two when confronting them.

No, it's not some random formaldheyded horse by Damien Hirst, this fellow is Phar Lap - the former Melbourne glory.


Sarah Murgatroyd - The Dig Tree

Rating 8.0

It all started with a BBC documentary about what is either known as the "Dead Heart" or the "Red Heart" of Australia: an extension of mountain ranges, deserts, salt lakes and bushland stretching out for thousands of miles between Perth and Sydney (West-East) and Melbourne and Darwin (South-North).

The documentary mentioned the golden age of explorations which in the 19th century helped in mapping out inner Australia, a part of the country bigger than continental Europe. An enormous mass of land where the local Aboriginal populations lived for thousands of years but where no Australian colonists and settlers dared to venture for almost a century.
Too harsh and hostile the heart of Australia when compared to the nature and climate of the towns blossoming up along the coastline from Adelaide to Brisbane.

Then, something interesting happened: the young Aussies decided to look beyond their towns and thus begun having a look into the core of their new mysterious land. And the competition for supremacy among the states of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia led the wealthy citizens and the local governments to finance "scientific" expeditions in the heart of the continent. The funny thing is that most of the first Australian explorers were actually foreigners: Germans, Scots, Irishmen and Englishmen.

Some of these explorers genuinely thought that inner Australia could have been a promised land, with inland seas, hidden civilizations, mythological beasts, green pastures, huge forests and all sort of precious resources. Alas, Australia was not Africa and most of these adventurers had to struggle very hard to come back alive reporting about an endless and silent desert in the outback.
Some expeditions kept a low profile approach to the bushland involving a half dozen of men, horses and essential supplies under the command of clever expert explorers. Other explorations were lavish, equipped with all sorts of paraphernalia and sometimes ill-driven by swashbucklers who had no knowledge of the bush and would have been able to get lost going for a picnic.

The Dig Tree, which I bought in Brisbane, is the fascinating and nail-biting account of the most famous trip into the great Australian beyond, the Wills and Burke expedition of 1860.
An expedition led by the Barry Lyndon-esque Irish policeman - Robert O'Hara Burke - chosen by the Royal Society of Melbourne due to "his vocation to command". An expedition involving dozens of camels shipped from India with their drivers and all, tons of superflous equipment (oak tables, a boat, 270 litres of rum) and a wild bunch of adventurers with no experience at all into the wild. An expedition following a man who didn't even bother to write a diary or to leave written instructions to his subordinates but who was madly in love with a 16 year old actress he left behind in town and to whom he decided to leave all of his possessions (graciously minus the debts).

The final goal? Crossing the whole continent from south to north reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria and coming back to Melbourne bringing tidings on the possibility of exploiting natural resources and opening new trade routes. All of this disguised into the pretext of a "scientific mission".
No surprises that the whole party ended up pretty tragically with most men, camels, scientific instruments and supplies being left behind by Burke who eventually died of starvation in a place where the Aborigines lived happily and well-fed.

And even if Burke and his men never reached the shores of Carpentaria ending up engulfed by mangroves and thus giving up their goal, they became national heroes with statues, songs and paintings dedicated to their memory.
That's why the story of Wills and Burke is very well known Down Under and this book written by Sarah Murgatroyd (a British journalist who prematurely died) will probably embitter many an Australian in showing how much Burke and his party did wrong and how amateurish the whole expedition was in the first place.
One can object that it's quite easy to look at the matter in a critical way now that the red heart of Australia is no more terra incognita, but some of the mistakes and miscalculations of Mr Burke were simply too spectacular to be ignored.

Sarah Murgatroyd doesn't despise the Wills and Burke expedition in its whole, but delivers what I believe is a fair, well-documented and deft-written account of this controversial page of Australian history.
The author here is able to take you along with the explorers and manages to dig into the personal stories of William John Wills, Robert O'Hara Burke and many others of their men with an excellent background work to put the expedition in the contest of its age. Thumbs up, then!