Review: Jennifer Millson Chris Womersley

A victimless crime: Cairo by Chris Womersley

One Saturday night in August 1986, Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the St Kilda Road premises of the National Gallery of Victoria. Two days later the ransom demands appeared: a $25 000 art prize for young Australians and a ten percent increase to arts funding. The demands were surprisingly modest coming from a group who called themselves ‘Australian Cultural Terrorists’.

‘We live in a philistine nation but a civilised city,’ said then Director of the NGV, Patrick McCaughey, on purchasing the painting for $1.6 million earlier that year. It was Australia’s most expensive art acquisition at the time. In 1986, the economy was in recession, unemployment was rising, and the national debt was a quarter of GDP. Struggling artists could afford to live in Fitzroy only because it was a shithole. But McCaughey was taking the long view. ‘This face will haunt Melbourne for 100 years,’ he claimed.

‘We’ve stolen the Picasso as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick state and against the clumsy, unimaginative stupidity of the distribution of that funding,’ read the first of the ransom notes sent to the Arts Minister. The second one called him an ‘old bag of swamp gas’. Unsurprisingly, the demands were not met. The painting was returned seventeen days later, left in a locker at Spencer Street Station, and the investigation was closed. To date, no one has come forward to take the credit for the most famous art theft in Australian history, and one of the nation’s most memorable pranks.

In Cairo, Chris Womersley has taken the theft of Weeping Woman and re-imagined it from the perspective of a young innocent from the kind of country town McCaughey was referring to when he called Australia a philistine nation. Seventeen-year-old Tom Button moves from (fictional) Dunley to the book’s eponymous block of flats and is soon exposed to the bohemian lifestyle he is looking for. Tom becomes mixed up in the lives of Max and Sally Cheever and their circle, including the painters Edward and Gertrude. He is entranced first by their permissive lifestyles, and then by Sally herself. Bit by bit, he is drawn into a plan to steal the Picasso.

The building is real. A beautiful deco anachronism on Nicholson Street overlooking Carlton Gardens, ‘Cairo’ has now become a sought-after designer apartment building for the inner-city’s creative elite. It appeals to an appetite for the vintage that I think will also provide this book with its core audience. For Cairo relies heavily on nostalgia, and not simply for the era in which it is set. It is pulled along by nostalgia for a time of life that can be difficult to write about: at seventeen, we are no longer children but barely adult enough to take the bruises that will form our characters. The young Tom is passive to the more forceful characters around him. He is looking back on his youth and his mistakes from the perspective of an older, wiser and more disappointed man. The temporal gap between the narration and the action gives his point of view a mellowing distance that provides the book with its beauty. Tom’s narration also has a somewhat elevated tone, suggesting that he has left his roots in Dunley far behind him. As a Bildungsroman, the novel is a tale of a moral descent but a class climb, both of which enable Tom to become an artist. It seems gentrification is part of the bargain.

Fitzroy of the 1980s is recreated in Cairo with affection and sometimes humour; I laughed out loud at the ‘black hairball of Goths’, and other descriptions. Some landmarks, such as the Black Cat cafe, are easily recognisable with only a cursory appreciation for Melbourne’s cultural history. The Orphanage squat makes an appearance, there are a few lists of rock bands, and mention of Nick Cave. I assume some of the characters will be familiar to Melbourne readers of a certain generation, too, making some of the fun of the book’s detail the preserve of a fairly small contingent of insiders. At certain points, the local references can feel like a run of in-jokes or a collection of subcultural ephemera with little meaning outside their context. Melbourne’s parochial exceptionalism has survived the era intact.

Despite these anchoring details, there is a sense in which this book could have been written at any time in the last hundred years. This is due to a combination of factors. The age of the building and the story structure, which is straight out of Raymond Chandler or an old noir film, both contribute to Cairo’s patina. But it is mostly due to the narrator’s voice, which is oddly genteel. There are no ‘old bags of swamp gas’ and it’s hard to imagine anyone here saying such a thing. The irony of nostalgia is that it recreates not time but a loss of time. Eventually, the specific historical details come to seem anachronistic. Despite the hairball of Goths, I kept expecting Phryne Fisher to pop along and solve the crime.

Without revealing the ending, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what Womersley’s novel says about art, authenticity and forgery in order to judge it by the standards it suggests. ‘Our appreciation of a work of art often has nothing to do with the aesthetic virtues of the work alone,’ says Gertrude the painter and forger: ‘It’s the aura that surrounds it. The brand, essentially.’ This is a reductive interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.

Authenticity, then, is a product of an artwork’s duration in time and ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’.

If that is the aura Gertrude means, it is surely more than a brand. To Benjamin, all reproducible works of art can be stripped of their special, contingent social meanings, what he calls their ritual meanings, and given new meanings by the social experience of becoming copies, by virtue of their very reproducibility. Gertrude’s notion of the ‘aura’ is closer to the instinctive ‘feel’ later argued by the criminals’ authenticator, Eric, who works by a combination of cotton-bud chemistry and instinct. ‘You know when it’s real,’ he says. ‘You have to divine the intent of the artwork.’ This is the ‘I know it when I see it’ school of aesthetics. It has nothing to do with historical context, or indeed the artist’s intent.

Benjamin goes on to argue that distraction has replaced contemplation as our main form of looking at art, an argument that seems, like much of his thought, radically prescient. There is a sense in which this happened to the novel a long time ago. Distraction forms part of the novel’s raison d’être; it is an inherently conservative form, since it displaces us from the present and comforts us with fiction’s suspension of reality. That conservatism can be fought; distraction can be used to radical effect, to disturb and disorient the reader. It can also be artfully employed, as it is here, in the service of entertainment, and in the service of nostalgia’s brand – that is, in the service of what we might be taught to long for.

All fiction is forgery. There is a sleight of hand at work when an author creates a believable world for the duration of a book, a world interesting enough that readers will stop thinking about how it is made. Cairo’s nostalgia is unsettling not just because it feels displaced in time, but because it doesn’t quite escape the material evidence of its nature as a copy. Its nostalgia is really for other fictions and not for life itself.

Womersley has not avoided novelistic conventions in crafting this ‘mystery’; he has embraced them. The bohemians are generically bohemian. The baddies are creepy, particularly the Gothically named Queel, and one of them even has an eyepatch. The heroin addicts behave as heroin addicts always do. The homosexual characters are doomed, as homosexual characters always are. (Although one of them points this out – ‘Everyone knows the poof never lives happily ever after’ – it comes so late in the book it feels like an apology.) The lives we live in our late teens and early twenties are, in truth, full of encounters with ill-formed people, and heroin is admittedly cliché-forming. But I confess I hoped for a few more surprises from a writer of Womersley’s calibre. His brilliant debut novel The Low Road (2007) earned him a reputation for daring, and the brooding Bereft (2010) attested to an interest in the disturbing.

There is so much potential for metafictional play in the arena of an art forgery that I also found myself hoping Cairo’s beautiful construction would fall away and reveal something more insightful about the meaning and nature of art. But disruption is not Womersley’s intention. His reproduction of a lost era is the nostalgia of Instagram and hipster-vintage clothing: the nostalgia that has become one of the defining characteristics of the work of art in the age of digital reproduction. For all the questions it politely posits, in the end Cairo is a declaration of loyalty to the novel, and to a faith in art as soothing entertainment. ‘It was comforting to be involved so intensely in a make-believe world,’ narrates Tom, already a budding novelist. This is as close as we come to a manifesto. Womersley has left the moulds intact in the narrative factory – mainly out of respect, I think. He is a writer who loves convention, particularly cinematic convention. Indeed, Cairo’s world is ripe for adaptation.

Though Gertrude argues that committing a forgery purifies the artist from notions of bourgeois authorship, nobody here is as radical as they seem. In the end, everyone in this novel is in it for two things: escape, and the money. Womersley’s book answers its questions about authenticity with a beautiful entertainment – taking a firm stand against the avant-garde notions it seeks to historicise. His characters might be pseudo-radicals, but he is on the side of the gallery.

Writing about the Weeping Woman incident in retrospect, Patrick McCaughey, who was clearly deeply embarrassed by the theft at the time, called it a victimless crime. No lasting harm was done. The painting was returned to its place in the gallery as an object of either distraction, contemplation, or historic specificity. That and the thieves’ liberal-bourgeois ransom demands made it an acceptable spectacle. The story has added to the painting’s layered meanings, and is now readily digestible in teachers’ notes and dutifully written up by students, who will go on to make their own high school, then art school reproductions. And it’s a good story. It has become part of the aura that gives the painting its power now, at the same time robbing it of some of the artist’s intention to communicate the grief and trauma of the Spanish Civil War. That’s the way the aura withers. Nostalgia is a form of amnesia, after all.

Womersley has in a sense committed a similarly victimless crime; even better, it is one that won’t embarrass anyone. Cairo is a good story. It is delightful for its modesty as much as its execution. If there is something a little fraudulent at work, it is only fitting, and easy to forgive in exchange for its pleasure. The work of art can be safely returned to its place on the bookshelf, and no-one is any the wiser.


Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (Pimlico, 1999).