ow can I
hope to convey to any reader my idea of Sydney?'' asks the novelist
Peter Carey near the end of ''30 Days in Sydney,'' his ''wildly
distorted'' account of a visit to the city he once called home. ''I
have seen nothing to equal it in the way of landlocked scenery, in
the particular relationship between the races, in the easy tolerance
of crime and corruption, in the familiar mingling you can witness on
the footpath outside Bar Coluzzi any morning, where you may find
judges and writers and the euphemistically labeled 'colorful racing
identities' all bunched happily together in the sunshine.''
In this passage, Carey echoes the words of an earlier Sydney
chronicler, Anthony Trollope (''I despair of being able to convey to
any reader my own idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbor''). But two
more dissimilar perspectives can hardly be imagined. Whereas
Trollope, in his 1873 travelogue ''Australia and New Zealand,'' was
free to adopt the complacent attitude of an imperial tourist, Carey
-- being Australian by birth, being modern, being Peter Carey -- is
burdened with a more conflicted sensibility. His frank and restless
book percolates with ambivalence, evincing a complicated attitude
toward everything from the language used by Australian airline
employees to the oddly genial attitude of Sydney's bike thieves. His
view of this paradoxical city -- where the past is ''both celebrated
and denied'' -- comes filtered through a tangled self-consciousness
that his Victorian predecessor would have found entirely foreign.
Carey (the author, most recently, of the novels ''Jack Maggs''
and ''True History of the Kelly Gang'') also distinguishes himself
from Trollope in having a greater repertory of narrative strategies
at his disposal, and his book unfolds in many forms -- through
arguments, dreams, anecdotes and tirades. Many of these originate
with Carey's local friends, a lively, foulmouthed crew whose
conversation is marked by a refreshing intolerance of cant and
sentimentality. At first glance, they may strike readers as a
familiar collection of erstwhile bohemians who now find themselves
numbering, with one or two exceptions, among the dreaded
middle-class elite. But while their American boomer equivalents have
mostly said farewell to bongs and all-night debauches, these former
hippies and dole bludgers don't seem to have let midlife
respectability quash their taste for wild behavior.
Carey arrives in Sydney with a plan to collect from these friends
their stories of ''Earth and Air and Fire and Water'' -- the natural
elements that dominate this sea-washed, mountain-fringed city. And,
with a little coaxing, his mates cooperate, feeding him tales of
boating disasters in gale-force winds, raging wildfires and plunges
into 2,000-foot canyons, all of which evoke the casual heroism and
frontier-style self-sacrifice of the Common Bloke down under.
But as interesting as these stories are, they are delivered
prefabricated, with well-meaning agendas attached. More revealing
are the spontaneous arguments that flare up in the course of Carey's
visit. ''Look, you're all so critical of everything,'' says one
friend, now a high-placed government functionary, to a group of
squatters bemoaning the commercial development of the city. ''You
look down at Darling Harbor and say, oh, how awful. How unaesthetic.
But you tell me . . . why are you living here? I'll tell you why.
This is a fabulous view. It's a sensational place. . . . It's a
city, mate, and it's exciting.''
Some of the book's most revealing arguments occur in Carey's own
head. A few days into his trip, he internalizes the taunting
narrative voice of the novel he's reading -- Flann O'Brien's ''Third
Policeman'' -- and it proves a sly opponent in debating the more
controversial elements of Australia's past. Were Sydney's aboriginal
inhabitants, for instance, really pristine ''children of nature,''
as depicted in the romantic imagination of many Australians, or were
they just as wasteful in their way as the Europeans who brutally
displaced them? Was William Bligh, as governor of the convict
colony, the absolute villain of traditional lore, or should he be
given credit for having the courage to resist the entrenched forces
of crime and cronyism? And what of the corrupt figure of John
Macarthur, the Rum Rebellion leader who subsequently acted as
Sydney's mob boss, dominating the commercial and political life of
the city by controlling its rum supply? Carey and his demon have
their disagreements on this score:
''Wait a minute,'' the voice objects. ''Is this the same
Macarthur who is called the father of the Australian wool
''The very same man.''
''And is wool not the business that made the colony feasible?
Should you not acknowledge him in some way? . . . Should you not
have a monument to him at least?''
But ''30 Days in Sydney'' ranges too freely to linger on Socratic
dialogues concerning the moral ambiguities of Australian history.
Much of the book is overtly celebratory. And Carey is quick to point
out that Sydney's checkered past is responsible for many of the
qualities he admires in the city's character: ''Much of what
'Sydney' means was set in the difficult early years. . . . In these
years you can look for the explanation of our persistent
egalitarianism, our complicated relationship with authority, our
belief that the government should care for us. The fact that
soldiers and convicts starved together forged us in a kind of fire,
and in this -- no matter what cruel sign our city was born under --
we were fortunate indeed.''
In the end, Carey's idea of gathering illustrative stories about
the four elements proves inadequate to the task of explaining
Sydney's complexities, and he leaves Australia with his mixed
feelings intact. Certainly his friends remain suspicious of his
intentions. ''I know what you're going to do with this . . . book,''
says one. ''You're going to tell everyone how bent we are.'' Well,
yes, Carey does let fly at the excesses he finds. But over all he is
remarkably fair to the city he left years ago, acknowledging that
the forces that shaped it have produced both monstrosities (the
Central Business District) and triumphs (the Opera House). And it's
not as if an attempt to whitewash Sydney's past could be successful
in any case. ''History,'' as Carey writes, ''is like a bloodstain
that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take
possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.''
Gary Krist's most recent book is a novel, ''Chaos