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Another Melbourne

  • 27 October 2023
Cairo, Scribe/Quercus 2013 The Diplomat, Picador 2022   Sometimes things happen at exactly the right time. I was about to tackle the writing of a review of Chris Womersley’s novel The Diplomat when a bundle of cuttings arrived from a friend in Sydney. Included was a book review of the novel by writer and music critic Jack Marx, who pointed out that a reading of Cairo was a virtual necessity before a reading of The Diplomat. The latter is a sequel or a coda, as the narrator Edward Degraves is also a character in Cairo. Readers often wonder what happens to various characters after the end of a novel, and The Diplomat supplies some of the answers to readers’ questions. I had read Cairo, but I re-read it, following Marx’s advice.

Cairo is not the Egyptian capital but a block of flats in Fitzroy, one of the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne. The block was built in the Art Deco style in 1936 and is now a listed building. In the novel the narrator, Tom, is 17 years old, and has escaped from his dull life in a country township. (Like many people, Tom had the idea that real life, whatever that might be, was being lived somewhere else.) He moves into the flat in the Cairo block that had belonged to his late Aunt Helen, and it is there that he begins to meet and mix with a bohemian set of musicians and artists, all of whom seem to want to escape the fate of being ordinary. Their fate is to be arrogant instead, and they become involved in robbery, forgery and murder.

The action of both novels hinges on a real event: the theft of a famous painting by Pablo Picasso. In 1985 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased one of the versions of ‘The Weeping Woman’ for the then record sum of $1.6 million. On 2 August 1986, thieves made off with the painting after using a particular type of screwdriver to remove the picture from the wall. Styling themselves the ‘Australian Cultural Terrorists’, the thieves made certain demands favouring funding for the arts. Seventeen days after the theft, a tip-off led to the recovery of the undamaged painting, which had been left in a locker at what was then Spencer Street Railway Station. According to Wikipedia, the theft is still an unsolved crime.

Tom discovers that ‘innocence is a condition to be both