Antoni Jach's latest work is odd, self-conscious and slightly cringe-inducing

  • Travelling Companions, by Antoni Jach. Transit Lounge, $32.99.

Back in 1994, I reviewed Antoni Jach's novel, The Weekly Card Game, in these pages. The book was cover listed as a "haunting portrayal of a vast ennui", to which I added the suggestion that it might have stumbled at the self-imposed hurdle of trying to write about boredom without becoming boring in the process.

Almost 20 years on, Jach seems to be haunting familiar territory.

Travelling Companions is a sophisticated example of how storytelling can differ from fiction. However, despite glowing praise from several other writers, it remained - for me, at least - a self-consciously intellectual tapestry of oddly assorted weavings.

In fact, the overall effect put me in mind of William Carlos Williams' brief poem about the delicious plums he had swiped from someone else's freezer. That poem is famous, I dare to suggest, more for its provenance than its poetry. And I suspect something similar is happening here.

An anonymous Australian first-person narrator (who brushes aside requests for his name by saying "it doesn't matter" or is "irrelevant") is travelling solo through Europe to revisit places, pictures and philosophical references fondly remembered.

He becomes engaged by stories from fellow travellers. These are seen by the cover commentary cartel as "captivating and often hilarious" and the book as "a joy from start to finish" but I found little here that didn't seem overworked and curiously flat.

The companions include Gary, an American neurologist and self-confessed bore - who soon provides ample evidence of his unfortunate condition - and his psychologist wife, Nancy, who sensibly decides to discard him and take up with Kirsten, an attractive young Swedish woman.

Then there is Frans, an existentially depressed Dutchman who reads Kierkegaard, Claudine, a precociously insecure French-Canadian, and Nina, the storytelling princess, who demands unconditional attention for the ad nauseum detail of her shamelessly contrived stories, usually featuring ex-lovers.

Finishing a story, Nina airily shrugs off the gasps of amazed admiration, then, like a cat soothed by the cream, is likely to fall asleep.

When the Australian narrator, an educated man of artistic sensitivities, is persuaded to tell a tale, he spins inexplicably a cringe-inducing yarn about a bunch of firefighters and nurses holding an all-night booze and sex party. Good grief!

Perhaps this is merely a clumsy attempt to satisfy poorly supposed perceptions of Australian culture? Or not. In any event, the traveller's tale has a rich Chaucerian heritage.

Sadly, this collection is weighed down by the precious nature of its own imperative.

This story Odd, self-conscious and a bit cringe-inducing first appeared on The Canberra Times.