Brian Castro Biography
Nationality: Australian. Born: Kowloon, Hong Kong, 1950. Education: University of Sidney, M.A. 1976. Career: Teacher, Mt. Druitt High School, New South Wales, 1972-76; assistant in languages, Lycee Technique, Paris, 1976-77; French master, St. Joseph's College, Hunter's Hill, New South Wales, 1978-79; journalist, Asiaweek magazine, Hong Kong, 1983-87. Since 1989 tutor of literary studies, University of Western Sydney. Writer-in-residence, Mitchell College, New South Wales, 1985; visiting fellow, Nepean College, Kingswood, New South Wales, 1988. Since 1989 writer for All-Asia Review of Books, Hong Kong. Awards: Vogel-Australian prize, 1982, for Birds of Paradise; Australian Council of Literature Board grant, 1983, 1988; Victorian Premier's Literary Award, for Double-Wolf and After China.
Birds of Passage. Sydney and London, Allen and Unwin, 1983.
Double-Wolf. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1991.
Pomeroy. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1991.
After China. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1992.
Drift. Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Heinemann, 1994.
Stepper. Milsons Point, New South Wales, Random House Australia, 1997.
Writing Asia; and, Auto/biography: Two Lectures. Canberra, University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, 1995.
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Of Portuguese and Chinese-American parents, Brian Castro has much to do in his fiction with questions of identity and place, with the influence of the past upon the present, and with the relationship between language and experience. His first novel, Birds of Passage, concerns the history of that very much persecuted race in Australia, the Chinese. It documents—with brief, dispassionate understatement—the persecution of Castro's ancestors on the goldfields one hundred years ago and points to the rejection of their descendants today, but the purpose of the work is far from polemical. Birds of Passage is a parable about and an inquiry into the nature of identity and the relationship between past and present.
Its method is to juxtapose the narrative of Seamus O'Young, an ABC (Australian-born Chinese), and his ancestor, Lo Yun Shan, who came to Australia from Kwangtung in 1856 in search of gold. Sensitive, intelligent, but an outsider in Sydney, O'Young discovers a manuscript that Shan had left behind and from that starting point begins to retell his ancestor's story and, in effect, to reinvent it. Events 120 years apart are strikingly paralleled. An old man on the boat to Australia shares his food with Shan; we cut to Seamus being offered bread by two old men in a Sydney park. Different characters with the same name appear in the two halves. Even individual images are replicated. As he ponders and recreates the past, Seamus becomes possessed by it. He begins to age physically and to feel the return of his Chinese consciousness. Physical and psychoanalytic reasons are offered for this but are unconvincing speculations only. The truth is that Seamus seems, by the power of his imagination, to become his ancestor until finally they meet. At the end of the novel Shan returns to Kwangtung, deserted by his lover Mary Young, never to see the son he has fathered with her but in a truer sense having established a sense of continuity with the future: "He was on a different path now, in control of his destiny, and he brought with him something of the void he had experienced in Australia, the silence and the stillness that helped him to accept his microscopic role in the eternal recurrences of nature."
Birds of Passage has some of the faults one might expect in a first novel. The prose tends to become abstract or showily sententious at times, and Castro is prone to gesture at significances, to throw in names for their own sake, as with Seamus's casual meeting with Roland Barthes. But most of the time it is a tenderly written work, immensely sad without being in the least sense depressing.
Castro's second novel, Double-Wolf, is as much a tour de force as his first. Based on the celebrated case of Sergei Wespe, Freud's Wolf-Man, who experienced a childhood nightmare of wolves appearing in a tree outside his window (Freud built much of his theory of infantile sexuality based on it). It proceeds to spin a complex web of surmise and speculation involving primarily the relationship between Wespe and a fraudulent Australian-born psychoanalyst who calls himself Artie Catacomb. Castro has said in interviews that after picking up a copy of the Wolf-Man's memoirs in a second-hand bookshop he was drawn to the case, first because the Wolf-Man had always wanted to be a writer and second because Freud many years later asked Wespe to testify that what he had told him was true, a curious and uncharacteristic gesture of lack of self-confidence on the great man's part. Equally unusual, Freud lent Wespe money during the 1920s when he was destitute.
Refusing to privilege any one narrator or narrative and meticulously listing date and place, Castro cuts between Catacomb, living out his last days in destitution at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, and Wespe at various stages in his life—on his estate at Kherson, near Odessa, where he was born in 1887, in the Caucasus in 1906, Munich in 1910, and Vienna in 1972. Freud does not appear directly but is constantly a reported presence in the novel, and like much else in the novel he is often a comic one.
Strange things happened to Wespe when he was young. He watched his parents in the act of sex and saw his father crawl on all fours "and [hide] behind sofas with a wolf-mask over his face, springing up and terrifying the children, who ran screaming into the garden." He had an ecstatic sexual relationship with his sister, Anna. Two years older than himself, Anna, like his father and later like his wife, commits suicide. Wespe's response to Freud when he goes to be treated by him is an ambivalent and shifting one. Freud, it is hinted, in effect expropriates his client's writings while in turn the Wolf-Man's position as one of Freud's most celebrated cases gives him a certain status in the psychoanalytic world. It is one he adds to by becoming a successful author: "My book was a smash hit. Stayed on The New York Times best-seller list three months."
Through all this, Castro insists on the importance of play. Wespe tells us, "It was Freud who first taught me that parody comes before the paradigm, play before principle. The origin of man was a sort of partying without precedence." And again: "People have forgotten that life's a game. Play is the essence of thinking." The novel is full of jokes, puns, and wordplay ("The ego has landed"). Freud speaks like a character from the lower East side. In one of Castro's best gags, Wespe tells us, "When I got to Vienna I immediately visited Freud. He gave me an autographed copy of From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. I sold it for several hundred crowns to a fellow who came to see me. His name was Jung…." In a neat reversal of Melville's famous opening the psychiatric entrepreneur Ishmael Liebmann says, "Call me Doctor Liebmann." There is an almost promiscuous variety of allusion, from references to wolves to Little Red Riding Hood to a guesthouse in Katoomba called the Aeneas. Part of the point that Castro is making is the not vastly original one of the problematic nature of truth. Wespe says of Freud's demand by what authority he writes what he writes, "I was dumbfounded. Did he believe that pornographers rendered something called the 'truth'? … Did he really mean to say that sexuality had firmer narrations than narrative, than a patient construction of scenes?" Similarly, he insists on the truth suggested in the title that reality is comprised of binary opposites. "A wolf is always a double," says Freud. Wespe says, "The Greeks understood how to be both true and false to themselves. Savagery and civilisation. Crudity and refinement." There are seven goats for seven wolves. Double-Wolf is an elegant and witty, if not always quite convincing, tour de force.
Given Castro's evident penchant for disconnectedness and fragmentation, the use of different narratorial personas and voices, the danger to his art lies in a heterogeneity of allusion so great that it makes finally for incoherence. This tends to happen in Pomeroy, his least typical and perhaps least successful novel. It is a novel of brilliant bits that finally do not make a whole. Pomeroy is a journalist cum detective cum aspiring writer who has been jilted by his cousin and former lover, Estrellita. He accepts a job in Hong Kong working for I.D. magazine, the initials standing variously for International Detective, Identity, Investigative Dialectics, and Indecent Disclosures. Pomeroy himself calls it Income for Destitutes. As the novel opens, however, he is living in Australia and has been summoned by Rory Halligan, the man whom Estrellita abandoned for him. In three sections, alternating first-person narration with third-person report-age, the novel crosses back and forth in time and space to tell the story of Pomeroy, one that leads finally to an anticipated end ("Give a man a chance to put off his own death").
As always with Castro the novel is full of jokes (Pomeroy's esky is covered with words from Finnegans Wake, which he reads as he almost drowns; there is a also letter in gloriously mangled English from Pomeroy's aunt complaining of his sexual activities) and allusions (to Shakespeare, Forster, Barthes, Housman). The esky is full of Hunter Valley wine. The novel both pays tribute to post-modernism and parodies it. The characters speak with incongruous sophistication: "That's why we're in the prison house of language. For us … there is really nothing outside the incriminating text. Just think … the mobster as reader." Castro is fond of repeating the injunction of E. M. Forster, the epitome of old-fashioned humanism, to "only connect," but the connections here are hard to follow.
Double-Wolf won Castro the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and he followed it the next year with After China, which achieved him the same honor. Once again, he exhibits his liking for rapidly shifting perspectives. A short novel, After China has almost as many scenes, neatly spliced together, as there are pages. Characteristically, it cuts between past and present, China and Australia, and first and third person to tell the story of the relationship between a Chinese architect, You Bok Man, and an unnamed but distinguished Australian writer of short stories. We learn little about the woman, apart from one brief episode devoted to her adolescence, except that it slowly becomes apparent that she is dying of cancer. The architect, however, eventually gives us his life story, from his training in Paris, imprisonment, impotence through an accident, and final escape in Shanghai, to a brief life in New York, to his current empty existence in the hotel he himself designed on the eastern coast of Australia, which is tumbling down around him. Castro's novels are nothing if not cosmopolitan and he himself points repeatedly to the extraordinarily complex cultural and racial background from which he comes.
Graver and more personal in tone than Castro's other novels, After China is also structurally a little simpler and more straightforward; it is a meditation on writing and its relation to sexuality and the relationship of both to immortality. The tales with which the architect "seduces" the writer and that become the substance of her final book are both from his own life and from ancient Chinese history and concentrate on this notion of immortality and its connection with the will to self-annihilation. The buildings that You designs are made deliberately difficult for their occupants. "When I built it," he says of his hotel, "I wanted people to be lost in it. The guest was not to come round again with any recognition or familiarity. Movement is discovery."
Similarly, we are told, "The Bauhaus and the Aufbau had attracted him because they opposed the unification of history, nationalism, and racial identity. He broke these things down into parts. Rearranged them." Doubleness is, of course, a central motif of Castro's work and fracturing goes hand in hand with unification. Perhaps the most appropriate of the many metaphors of binding and division that Castro offers us in the novel is that of the 16th-century pornographic painter in one of his stories, Tang Yin, who devises a fan that when opened from left to right depicts a traditional Chinese landscape and from right to left discloses an erotic painting. Tang Yin becomes famous when an imperial concubine catches sight of the fan open on the illicit side and takes a fancy to it.
Drift takes now familiar themes and forms as far as they can go. It opens with a preface (reputedly written by one Thomas McGann in Tasmania in 1993) concerning the cult experimental author B. S. Johnson, who killed himself at the age of 40; it goes on to suggest that the novel itself is the last two thirds of Johnson's last projected work, a trilogy that he failed to complete. Based on a tiny passage in the only completed volume that McGann insists refers to Tasmania, McGann completes the trilogy, as Johnson had invited his readers to do, adopting the voice of the author. In addition, there are a number of other different narrative voices, including that of Johnson himself as well as Emma McGann, an aboriginal woman writing letters from Tasmania to Johnson that call him across the world.
In Castro's scenario, Bryan Stanley Johnson, or Byron Shelley Johnson, as he likes to dub himself ("he carried deep within a massive, debilitating romanticism"), journeys to Tasmania to meet the author of the letters. Slowly he becomes caught up in the predicament of the Aborigines, identifying with them, taking toxins that alter the color of his skin to the point where he becomes even blacker than the Aboriginals themselves: "Extinction. No longer white, unquestioning, biblical. No more dreams of primogeniture and ownership. No longer an author. What a relief."
Like Johnson, Castro is fond of wordplay, of allusions, and of arcane words; he loves puns, like his description of two sisters, "one grave, one acute," or the sign on McGann's Volkswagen, "-sabled driver." In everything he does he questions the simplistic notion that "writing is writing, life is life … and the former is always subordinate to the latter," which he quotes from an unsympathetic critic of Johnson. But like all of Castro's work the novel is fundamentally serious in its attempt to push his themes of estrangement and loss of identity as far as he can. From writing about being a person of Chinese origin in Australia he moves in this, his fifth novel, to the ultimate condition of exile, that of the aboriginal. The aim of the novel is best summed up in Johnson's final paradox: "What I am really doing is challenging the reader to prove his own existence as palpably as I am proving mine by the action of writing." By a combination of sheer linguistic brilliance and fundamental integrity Castro has succeeded in breaking through conventional labels such as "multicultural writer" to demonstrate the truth of his own expressed conviction: "Writing knows no boundaries. Its metaphors, its translations, are part of a migratory process, birds of passage, which wing from the subliminal to the page, leaving its signs for the reader."
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