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Book of the Week: Christchurch, the magical city ‘where anything might happen’

Lara Strongman declares that Fiona Farrell’s novel about post-quake Christchurch is a work of art.

When everything collapses, some people behave with dignity and kindness, while others steal the gates. Fiona Farrell has an elderly Italian woman say this, or at least think it to herself, one night in bed in a sleepout crammed with a house lot of stuff on the edge of Christchurch’s red zone, as she watches a couple of shadowy figures hoist the gates from an abandoned property down the road on to the tray of their ute. The woman – Kitty, her name is, though she only appears in a brief chapter or two, a disposable character among a cast of hundreds – is a veteran both of war and of other earthquakes, over the other side of the world, and knows that anything can happen in the blink of an eye to anyone at all, and that it is the natural order of things for towns and cities to fall.

But Christchurch is a city where nothing much ever happens; a swampy and provisional place where, for most of the century chronicled in Farrell’s novel, people are born and die and grow up and get involved in crime or business or politics or art, leaving only faint traces of themselves in the houses they live in and the relationships they establish. It’s not that they lead small lives, but it’s that big things happen somewhere else. The “place of boring forever and ever”, one character describes it—although one night when he walks up and over the hill from Lyttelton with the woman he has just fallen in love with and sees the city spread out below in a “web of brilliant light”, he suddenly realises its possibilities as a place “where anything might happen”. And just over halfway through the book, on 4 September 2010, when a massive earthquake rips the fabric of the city asunder, it finally does.

Farrell’s Decline and Fall on Savage Street is a novel intended as a companion volume to her non-fiction book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, published in 2015. Both deal with the season of major earthquakes Christchurch – Farrell’s hometown, and mine – experienced in 2010-11. Each runs to 100 chapters and is constructed from a series of interconnecting narrative fragments. The pair of books is the result of a great deal of research, which grew out of Farrell’s growing bewilderment and disquiet at the decisions people in power were making about the city’s recovery. (The first disaster, as the saying goes, was the earthquake. The second disaster was the recovery.) She collected newspaper clippings, made copious notes, talked to people about their experiences, drew on her own. The Villa and Savage Street represent different ways of telling the same story, but the motivation for writing each is similar — how to understand what is happening when the place you live in suddenly changes beyond all recognition.

Rubble and damaged buildings lining a deserted Colombo Street in Christchurch on February 23, 2011 (Logan McMillan/AFP/Getty Images)

I loved The Villa at the Edge of the Empire. I recognised its incandescent anger in my own response to life in a ruined city, and appreciated its restless energy as much as its passages of beautiful writing. I admired the way Farrell moved through history and politics to understand what had happened here, as well as the way she drew on the experience of traumatic events elsewhere — in particular L’Aquila in Italy.

While it’s a non-fiction book, it’s also a profound act of creative imagination. In an author’s note in Savage Street, Farrell explains that fiction seemed too ego-driven immediately after the earthquake, that The Villa’s factual narrative represented a better way to deal with collective trauma — in which a city full of people experienced the same event in different ways. A couple of years on, though, she suggests, and fiction is good at going to the heart of things, to private and secret places that research can’t take you to. Fiction does things that non-fiction can’t. Critically, observes Farrell, stories end whereas real life just goes on; the ending gives shape and heft to the story being told.

The shape of Savage Street is the life of a wooden house somewhere near the river on the east side of Christchurch. Built in 1906, it has a fanciful turret and — to start with, at least — a big garden. Over the years it changes hands and goes from family home to boarding house to hippy commune to doer-upper and investment property and family home again, until finally it is waylaid both by the earthquakes and the machinations of the rebuild. People move in and out and through the house on Savage Street — a vast cast of characters like something from Tolstoy — while each chapter begins and ends with an ellipsis, an idea caught halfway through a sentence. These are fragments of history, pieced together.

Time goes slowly in the first part of the book, and there are long temporal gaps between chapters, several years passing at times without any events being recorded; after the earthquakes, time speeds up and the unwritten time between the chapters grows less and less as things keep happening. Interwoven among the human stories are short chapters about the life of an eel in the nearby river, which runs on a different sense of time and set of impulses. And underpinning it all, of course, is the ancient implacable force of geological time, the 1 in 10000-year chance that a major earthquake would happen on this ground, to these people.

Tony de Lautour’s Searching for the Swastika, & Spoil, Spoil All the Fun : both oil ,enamel and acrylic on canvas (Images: Supplied)

It strikes me that one thing disasters are good for is generating raw content. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of photos of the Christchurch earthquakes have been collected in digital archives, as well as many accounts of the experiences of people living through the quakes and their aftermath. There are endless earthquake documents: doomed government reports, boosterish press releases, angry TV and radio interviews, transcripts of court cases and the Royal Commission into Building Failure, doctors’ notes, engineers’ reports, scopes of works, and counselling plans.

But what disasters are less good at is generating great works of art. You would think that they might be; you would think that such a traumatic event, which exposes the workings of power and money and the fallacies of history, would produce many important works of art and culture. But it doesn’t. Perhaps people are too busy getting on with reconstructing their lives; perhaps geographical distance or the distance afforded by time is necessary to make sense of what is, effectively, beyond ready comprehension.

I can only think of a few really important works of art made in Christchurch after the earthquakes that deal in a nuanced way with the city’s trauma. There’s The Changeover, Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s 2017 post-quake film adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s book, which reflects the city in its current state of becoming something as-yet-unknown; and there are Tony de Lautour’s abstract paintings, which bring together the dubious utopias of early 20th-century modernism with the imposed zoning patterns of the rebuild.

And then there’s Fiona Farrell’s two earthquake books, written out of anguish and love and bewilderment, written in order to understand the effect of sudden trauma on a place and on people; books which do the almost-impossible job of wresting narrative meaning out of a wasteland of smashed fragments.


Decline and Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell (Vintage Books, $38) is available at Unity Books.

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