‘Things are Cast Adrift’ : Brian Castro’s Fiction

To a diverse and intermittently bemused audience of Chinese and Australian academics, gathered in September 1994 in Guangzhou, Brian Castro confided that instead of ideas driving his novels: “as each novel appeared I discovered that words whirred out, in a rather unconscious and fortuitous arrangement of a kind of divination of the world, driven by a cognitive hunger”. The thinker and the craftsman, by this reckoning, had abdicated, and Castro's fiction was innocently presented as the spontaneous overflow of powerful thought. Or was he, as has become his practice, subtly influencing the climate of critical reception of his fiction, by offering a commentary not from within it, but from outside? In 'The Private and the Public: A Meditation on Noise', published in Island Magazine in 1991, Castro offered a surplus of interpretative insights into his work. It was as if he was parrying - by parody - academic attempts to make sense of his novels. Castro began with an autobiographical fragment, or rather followed this gnomic beginning, 'Music was a kind of devastation for everybody', with the memory of how his father listening to music was the prelude to 'domestic storm'. As a child, and later as a teacher, Castro sought to escape noise, often by sitting under his desk, but found instead that 'my hearing developed out of all proportion to my eyesight'. Comically enlarged, not diminished by this reminiscence, Castro extrapolated: 'It was not until many years later that I realised I was practising to become a writer.'

That led him to a rarely unqualified assertion - that 'writing is a paradox'. Although it aims 'to sustain that imagined split between public and private ... by its very practice, it publicises the private'. Thus Freud's cases, for example, were released into literature, as Castro would explore in his third novel, Double-Wolf (1991). But in the Island essay, he turned next to Kafka, a tutelary presence in all his writing. Castro examined what he conceived as Kafka's paradoxical enterprise to absorb the coherence of the world by fragmenting himself. And he was especially drawn to a declaration that Kakfa made to his fiancee, Felice, in April 1916: 'Indeed I am a Chinese.' That is a condition which was in part his own by birth (Castro's father was descended from Portuguese-English merchants who had settled in Shanghai: on his mother's side he was Chinese-English). However Castro never construes racial inheritances programmatically or literally. He takes Kafka's Chineseness to comprise a series of negative attributes, that 'Which is not geocentric. Silent receptivity. Which is neither individual nor unique.'

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Published 1 October 1995 in Volume 17 No. 2. Subjects: Characterisation, Literary influences, Narrative techniques, Racial identity - Literary portrayal, Writer's inspiration.

Cite as: Pierce, Peter. ‘‘Things are Cast Adrift’ : Brian Castro’s Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 1995, doi: 10.20314/als.5765119863.