THE backpackers and tourists don’t see the ghosts that haunt Victoria Street, seduced by Sydney’s faux spring into cruising its avenued elegance. And why should they? It’s 30 years since bloody melees marked long-running resistance by Kings Cross residents, unionists and students to developers, their standover men and the strongarm cops in the middle. And nearly 30 years since crusading heiress Juanita Nielson was kidnapped outside her home there, and almost certainly murdered.
That history, however, is all too vivid to the man sitting across the café table from me and quietly sipping a pineapple and ginger juice. He lived in the area and knew well the endemic corruption in the NSW police force then, the alliances with gangsters and ruthless disregard for interference. And he wrote about it pseudonymously in a left-wing newspaper. And then felt compelled to leave town hurriedly in the late 70s for self-exile overseas when his cover was blown and a contract apparently taken out on his life.
Now 57, Peter Robb is again a Cross local, returning a decade ago to a one-room flat he describes as “a hovel (with) a mountain of books” and which he keeps intensely private. As he does details of his own life - questions there are urbanely deflected into anecdotal dead-ends. Privacy is his right, of course, but such reticence is rare in someone whose occupation usually requires some exposure via playing the publicity game. Because Robb is now a best-selling author whose latest work, A Death in Brazil, will be published on Monday.
Enigmatic exposure hasn’t harmed him in the past, though, and is unlikely to hinder him now – his first two books, Midnight in Sicily and M, won Victorian Premier’s awards and significant sales here and overseas; M also shared the National Biography Award. And the new one should be as well received if novelist Peter Carey’s endorsement is any guide: “I’ve just been reading A Death in Brazil,” he told The Australian’s Emma-Kate Symons recently, “he’s a seriously good writer, thrilling to me.”
Robb is certainly serious when we meet, if not noticeably thrilled about the exercise. He’s fresh from the shower, nervous and wary. And even though it’s mid-morning, he has an air of after-hours dissolution about him – in another era he would be at home in a Panama hat and white suit lolling outside Singapore’s Raffles, say, sipping gin slings and waxing eloquent in his educated bass. Today though he is casual in open-necked shirt, green sports coat and jeans. A tall man generously covered, he has a sweeping forehead, greyish eyes that see everything yet skitter from engagement, and greying hair that curls endearingly over his collar – there’s a strange familiarity about him and it’s several minutes before I realise what has been disturbing me: his tonsorial look is very Roald Dahl while his eyes and brow are pure Rob Drewe. In a strange way these physical reflections are apt, given that Robb writes with the former’s mischievous indifference to the rules and the latter’s elegant insight.
He’s somewhat apprehensive, he opens apprehensively, about how readers will receive A Death in Brazil – the subject is so distant from the Australian experience. Still, he hadn’t thought anyone would want to read about Sicily either. And from this reader’s viewpoint, his worries are groundless. Subtitled “a book of omissions” and blurbed as a “collage of travel, history, culture and personal reminiscence’’, Brazil’s 372 pages work their own osmotic charm. It’s a multi-layered book, sensuous and invigorating, which wears its deep research with ease, is peopled by a complex of characters and seems never to shirk the truth.
The subtitle is severally ironic, not least because of “the great deal” he was “obliged to cut” from his original manuscript. And the title is a gleeful misdirection - hardly anyone in the book gets out alive, not surprising given the country’s ruthless colonisation history. Besides, he says, “Brazil today is still the great country of the hired killer – it’s notoriously a place where people have their business rivals eliminated and ex-lovers murdered. Life is very, very cheap there.”
Robb has specialised in living where life is cheap. Never a tourist, he has inhabited the neighbourhoods of the desperate and desperately poor by preference and necessity, surviving precariously on whatever he could earn from teaching English. He’s a loner who becomes a partial participant while remaining an observer. And he prefers to study history’s entrails over its air-brushed spin.
For someone so private, he can be revealing in print. So we read that in his Copacabana flat, he has a carving knife thrust against his throat by a volatile son of the streets after an assignation turns ugly – murderous intent is diverted only by a kiss, “a very charged and prolonged kiss’’. He worries over his character failings yet revels in his anti-heroic tendencies. He extols the libido-restoring power of certain oysters, personally tested; he has conscience qualms about being the only one in his local café who can afford a local crayfish delicacy but orders it anyway and scoffs it down in front of the clientele. He alternates high-art analysis of literature and art with an unabashed curiosity about the OTT soap operas that rule Brazilian emotions. He has a sensualist’s eye for the beauties of landscape, people and food (his enthusiasm for the latter includes feasting on organic local dishes prepared in dubious conditions) yet is acutely aware of the depradations around him. He always sides with the politically powerless yet appreciates the scheming of their oppressors. In short, he is a writer of many colours who imbues his canvas with rainbowed radiances.
SO just who is this man Robb? As Lady Drysdale, a Robb family friend, told journalist Nikki Barrowclough some years ago, “He has beautiful manners but he is rather mysterious; one half of him is noble scholar, the other half is … I don’t know what.” What we do know is that he was a Toorak-based, Melbourne Grammar boy until at 10 he moved with his four brothers and a sister to Wellington, where his chemical engineer father was sent to head ICI New Zealand. His time across the Tasman was not a highlight – he spent, he said once, “my formative years there but they were not formative’’. And they made him play rugby, a pastime he despised. Soon after completing his MA at Victoria University, he fled “home” to Melbourne. He was 20 and ostensibly doing post-graduate study but found it impossible to settle. That was partly the anti-war, be-yourself late 60s culture, partly his own confusion over what he wanted to do. He spent more time with his horse (even though “it turned out not to be feasible to have a horse in the backyard of a Parkville terrace house”) than he did in study.
In 1971 he took himself and his last $400 to England for what became a three-year sojourn. In London, he taught at a slum school and worked as a nightclub bouncer. He taught English in France, mingling with South American exiles and Trotskyists in Paris, and in Finland won university tenure in the English philology department after answering a Times Literary Supplement advertisement. It was the best job he’s ever had, he says (the five months’ annual leave with pay was especially attractive), yet he resigned after some academic infighting. Most tellingly, he made his first trip to Italy.
In Sydney in 1974, as a radical Trotskyist he became involved with Aboriginal issues, the East Timor solidarity movement and teaching English to migrants. And while teaching English to prisoners at Sydney’s Long Bay jail, he began to write as Ross Edwards for the Trotskyist newspaper he was editing. His prisoner pupils fed him impeccable information on police activities, he wrote about them, the police became incensed. When his confidence was betrayed and he was called as a witness in a court case, he came under intense police scrutiny. He received threats, was followed, and beaten up. So he left Australia to settle in Naples, where – inevitably - he become exposed to corruption …
“When you left Sydney,” I mention by way of turning talk to the entrenched dishonesty he has witnessed on three continents, “because of perceived threats on your life …”
“How do you know that?” he interrupts abruptly, eying me as if I were an ASIO agent.
“You’ve talked about it in previous interviews,” I say, “and written about it …”
“That may possibly be true,” he responds. “By that point, I now think, I doubt anything would have happened but you get affected by things don’t you? You start to feel very uncomfortable, and in many diffuse ways then Sydney was a very unpleasant place. Violence seemed to come out of nowhere – I was attacked in Kings Cross and had my nose broken, and I began to wonder whether it was connected. It probably wasn’t, but the general atmosphere was scary.” James Elroy, he asides, “is very good on paranoia, don’t you think? What particularly horrified me about Sydney in the ’70s is … when the guardians of order and decency are themselves the crooks - that’s spooky. In Italy the creepiness came from the politicians being the bedfellows of gangsters; the police may in some places be corrupt and unattractive but they are not a sinister force. Brazil though is scary at a level of apparently random violence, and the police are frightening – they’re the hired killers.”
So why a book about Brazil? “The banal answer would be that it’s an important country, about the same as Indonesia in terms of population, about the same as Australia in terms of area and singularly neglected by the rest of the world. Brazil is also incredibly beautiful … and there’s something about Rio (he says with no trace of irony) … it’s as if the Blue Mountains were right in Sydney’s dress circle, crowding the harbour, and then there’s these extraordinary egg-shaped rock monoliths and on top of that, lush tropical vegetation.”
On a deeper level, he continues, “I’ve always been interested in Mediterranean societies and civilisations.” The main attraction, he expands, is “they’re not Anglo-Saxon – people who live in Anglophone societies can be appallingly Anglo-centric. I’ve always wanted to fight my way out of that. And in many ways Mediterranean civilisations are superior – perhaps not in political organisation but on the level of their artistic and intellectual production, and the human level …” This appeal started “with observing Italian migrants in Melbourne in the 50s (Australian society then was so mean and bleak and the Italians seemed so much more alive)”, was reinforced in Naples and extended by Brazil, where one-third of the population has Italian antecedence.
He first visited Brazil in 1982 at a time when Southern Italy was “getting very unpleasant, for information about which I refer you to Midnight in Sicily”. His trip was also impelled by economics. “In Italy I couldn’t earn anything for several months and with the economic boom at that time, everything got very expensive. My income, modest and precarious to start with, didn’t go up correspondingly. It made sense to catch a cheap flight to Brazil and live there for three months – there was no loss of earnings involved and I could live far more cheaply in Brazil …”
That theory worked, and then Brazil worked its charms on him. He returned again and again. “If you add all the months together, it would now be several years of living there.’’
Still, I suggest, his book is not likely to make him top of Brazilian tourism pops. “(Publisher Michael) Duffy said something similar,’’ he laughs. “But lots of people went to Sicily after reading my book and had a lovely time. It’s possible the same might happen here. Brazil is at a very interesting point now … last year’s election of Lula as president means something has irrevocably changed.’’
Robb has his heroes, of whom Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, elected president of Brazil at his fourth attempt in 2002, is one. “Last year, of course, everyone’s attention was directed towards the Middle East for quite good reasons, and this extraordinary event in Brazil was unnoticed. But this is someone whose career began as a lowly union delegate on the factory floor – and he and his Workers Party against immense and corrupt opposition won such popular backing that they overturned 500 years of aristocratic control. He’s nothing if not a consummate negotiator, a master of the possible - there will be inevitable compromises and failures but I have great confidence.”
Lula, though, is almost the absent hero in the book. “I was conscious of Stendahl’s dictum that politics in a novel is like a pistol shot at a concert,’’ he responds, “and I didn’t want to write a book that would be ephemeral.” More manifest a presence is Vava, to whom the book is dedicated, the worldly-wise owner of Robb’s “local’’ Rio restaurant. “He had no notion he was informing me but there was just something about his interest in people and his involvement in the society … It’s all filtered through me and my experience of course and it’s possible I’ve imputed too much.’’
By 1992, southern Italy had become untenable and Robb was toying with the idea of disappearing into Brazil permanently. “I didn’t particularly want to return to Australia to be honest, but I did, and have been here ever since.” His return was unexpectedly propitious. He wandered in “off the street” to write several articles on Italian corruption for The Independent Monthly under Duffy’s editorship. A couple of years later Duffy started his publishing house, commissioned two pulp novels from Robb then “bullied’’ him into writing a book on Italy. He had no idea what he would write about, he says, but the end result was pleasing. Then came a grungy mystery novel “for the money” and M.
After “the Caravaggio thing’’, he wanted to write about the art world “because I’d come into contact with this extraordinary milieu … but it’s a very nasty world, much scarier than the mafia because people are so much more civilised. People still get pushed out of hotel windows, but in a much more elegant way.” Certain individuals became very hostile when they began to intuit what he had in mind, “so I put it aside and focused on Brazil.” Which wasn’t scary in any way? “Not compared to the art world, although I did feel nervous about a couple of people I was investigating because they had a great deal to hide and a great deal to lose. And on the evidence they were not particularly scrupulous about protecting their interests.’’
His ambition was high: he wanted to do “this all-embracing thing’’, which became impossibly unwieldy. “I’m not an historian, not a political writer, not an economist - I try to work by suggestion, to interest people by the telling detail. When I feel my mind is working well, I feel I have a whole universe inside this skull of different things orbiting around each other and nothing is still and nothing is independent. I want to duplicate that effect in a book. And it’s what I like in the rest of my life, a breadth of interest. Being able to move from the detail to the larger picture, from the present to the past and back, and see those connections.’’
Is it galling, I ask, given his repudiation of Australia, that here he is, a resident now for ten years and counting. “As you get older, you start to appreciate things you didn’t when you were young. I very much appreciate that I can work here. And everything works here ... you can enjoy life feeling that so many elements of survival are taken care of, which is how society ought to be.
“When I was talking about the strengths of Mediterranean life, I need to be honest – you can’t just take the things you like and retreat when confronted by the drawbacks. You’ve also got to look at the long, historic failure to offer any kind of social structure that people can actually live in. The questions are always complex: the bane of western civilisations is that people do very little on their own initiative. The precariousnes and difficulties of life in these other countries are what energises individuals.’’
Besides, he gestures around the harbourside park to which we have moved, “it’s an extraordinarily privileged life people live there, and you don’t need to be so well off to enjoy it. In the last 20 years, life for most people living in Australian cities has got noticeably better; most other places in the world it’s got noticeably worse.’’
And yet he still lives in a one-bedroom place … “Yeeesss’’, he drawls, then pauses. “I suppose in Sydney that doesn’t sound good, does it? And the real problem is, it no longer suits me, mainly because I’m being squeezed out by the books. If I had a New York-style loft,” he smiles, I’d be perfectly happy.’’
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
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