Tuesday, 26 September 2023 04:40 GMT

The Shadow Of Raymond Chandler Looms In Call Me Marlowe, An International Tale Seeking Humanity In The Darkness


Author: Brigid Magner

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Catherine de Saint Phalle lived alone for many years in the country in France, where she published five novels and toured with controversial author Michel Houellebecq.

She came to Melbourne in 2003, where she now works as a writer, literary translator and French tutor. To acclimatise herself to Australian life, she remembers she used to follow women in the street“just to catch whiffs of their conversation”.

on brunswick ground (2015), the first novel she published in Australia, was triggered by the murder of Jill Meagher and the dramatic change of atmosphere she sensed in the local community. De Saint Phalle is interested in the ways individuals are socially connected to one another. As a character in On Brunswick Ground says:“We are all knitted together in a Brunswick sweater – like the knitting those women wrap around trunks and streetlights.”

Review: Call Me Marlowe – Catherine de Saint Phalle (Transit Lounge)


The character of Harold Vaněk from de Saint Phalle's second Australian novel the sea & us (2019) and its sequel call me marlowe came to her as a voice in her head. She felt compelled to find out what he was trying to tell her.

Call Me Marlowe is focalised through Harold, the Australian son of a Czech immigrant, who has spent 18 years in Seoul developing his pottery practice, before returning to Melbourne. He lives above a fish and chip shop, works on his moon jar or“white whale”, and hangs out with a multicultural cast including Ben, a Māori man from Aotearoa New Zealand; Placido, their housemate who jingles with with nose rings, earrings, studs and boots; and Syn, the Nordic manager of the pottery shop.

The title of call me marlowe is an allusion to Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective, who has been celebrated in countless films and television programs. Harold loves Marylou, a Korean sex worker he has brought back to Brunswick in a wounded state – she calls him“Marlowe” due to her compulsive reading of Raymond Chandler.

Marylou speaks like a Chandler protagonist:“you always make me feel better Marlowe, I don't know how you do it”. Harold also uses Chandleresque language to distance himself from his emotions, since he cannot read Marylou's feelings for him:

In one of their quirky exchanges, Marylou says“the only real crime is rat out on those we love”. Harold runs out on her instead of ratting her out, causing another breach in their on-again off-again relationship.

Read more: noir and nostalgia inform chris womersley's tale of forgery, grief, and the seamy side of urban life

Past traumas

Harold claims he left Melbourne for Seoul to get away from his complicated and distant mother Liběna, but also because he felt neither Czech nor Australian. Looking back he reflects:

Through a flashback, we learn that Harold found himself caught in a ménage à trois in Seoul with a local woman and her husband, a master potter. This brought him closer to Marylou, as she offered a shoulder to cry on, even with bruises on her face.


Catherine de Saint Phalle. Transit Lounge

Back in Melbourne, Harold discovers his landlady's ex-husband is a convicted murderer and rapist, who once occupied his first-floor room. Inhabiting the same space makes Harold and the other characters feel complicit. When his landlady, Verity, shuts her fish and chip shop to provide palliative care to her criminal ex-husband, Harold senses a“deep wrong” and an“upsurge of darkness”.

Harold initially thinks Verity“seems to absorb negativity”, while pain and sadness“melts” in Marylou's presence. But he later checks himself, realising the criminal in their midst is triggering past traumas in Marylou.

True to form, Harold flees the country when the going gets tough. In Prague,“the City of a Hundred Spires”, he meets Vacláv the chemist and an eight-year-old boy named Petr. His way is discreetly smoothed by his relative Marie, who sets him up with a job running errands for Vacláv and a room with Pete, a Czech-American bookseller.

Prague's violent history weighs heavily on Harold. He discovers what his mother and grandmother went through, causing their migration to Australia, and he is haunted by memories of his grandmother, who brought him up. He confirms she had been badly“hurt” by men. The journey also sparks an obsession with the Czech politician jan masaryk , who was likely murdered by the Communist government in 1948.


Jan Masaryk (1886-1948), Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, was widely believed to have been murdered. Wikimedia Commons Moments of empathy

The novel has a meandering pace, as the story is filtered through Harold's interior world and his conversations with others. He is an unreliable narrator who misinterprets what he sees and hears, yet there are moments of great empathy.

The most affecting is the scene in which Harold follows young Petr home and discovers Petr's mother has been dead for days. He watches Petr embrace his“Maminka's” body on the couch where it is lying covered by a scarf, because the boy could not face the reality of her death.

Themes and imagery recur from previous books. De Saint Phalle is fascinated with different kinds of shipwreck:

There is also an interest in human heads, which is appropriate given the novel's cerebral focus. Harold is fascinated by corpus callosa, the bridge that links the two hemispheres of the brain, which is usually“thick” and“solid” in women and thinner in men. He dreams that his doppelganger kisses Marylou's fontanelle. A caul is described as“an adequate word” for how Harold's memory behaves.

De Saint Phalle's bowerbird-like assemblage of texts is impressive, but some of the allusions feel thin and underdeveloped. At one point, Marylou reports in an email to Harold that she has been reading the work of the French playwright jean anouilh :“there's something about him ... that helps. He's not an echoing worm anyway.”

When Harold considers the unfairness of the world, he says:“I think of Gitta Sereny and Alice Miller who searched for humanity in darkness and found it – eventually.” These scattered references have the effect of dragging the reader out of the narrative.

A citizen of the world, Harold offers a model for an unconventional, if chaotic, way of living. His instincts bounce him between Seoul, Prague and Melbourne. The diverse bunch of humans in his life are more important to him than where he is located:

In the final portion of the book, there is a suggestion Harold will usher people into a new“found family”, possibly with the inclusion of Petr and Marylou.

De Saint Phalle's international life experience and her unconventional upbringing, detailed in her stella prize-shortlisted memoir poum and alexandre (2016), inflects her storytelling. Call Me Marlowe is a cosmopolitan novel that pushes against borders, featuring migrants navigating urban environments with their own layered histories. It is an idiosyncratic work that challenges our preconceptions of what an Australian story might be.


The Conversation

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