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Holland an outback boy afloat in the modern world of Asia

Patrick Holland grew up in Outback Queensland but his latest novel is set among the glittering towers of the Far East, writes Phil Brown.

Jul 10, 2024, updated Jul 10, 2024
Queensland author Patrick Holland is back in Brisbane to launch his new novel Oblivion.

Queensland author Patrick Holland is back in Brisbane to launch his new novel Oblivion.

He’s a boy from the Queensland bush and Patrick Holland is in Brisbane to launch a dazzling new novel.

Holland, 47, is originally from Roma, the son of a stock and station agent who grew up learning the ways of the bush. By his late teens he was riding horses and working as a ringer and truck driver in Cloncurry.

His new book, Oblivion, published by Melbourne-based Transit Lounge, is a far cry from that world. It’s set in Asia in major cities and at one stage in freezing-cold Urumqi in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

It’s about an unnamed Aussie, a bloke who might be from Brisbane (he’s done some dodgy property deals in the Queensland capital), although he doesn’t really still call Australia home and is unsure if he can still call Australia his homeland.  He is now a citizen of the world, a little like the author himself.

Holland’s protagonist works for the Australian Government overseas in the area of trade and – spoiler alert – he may or may not turn out to be a spy in this story.

He’s a hard-drinking, world-weary denizen of the night who travails all over Asia and is never more comfortable than when he is in transit.

Holland, who is assistant professor of creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, is in Brisbane to launch his new novel at Avid Reader Bookshop in West End on July 12.

Readers might wonder if there is anything of the writer in his burnt-out protagonist. At Avid Reader on July 12 Brisbane writer Simon Cleary will probably ask that question in his conversation with Holland, who admits he has propped up various bars throughout Asia in his leisure time.

“But do I live like this guy?” he asks. “Well, maybe not, but I have seen the world he floats through. I have touched the fringes of that world but I’m not a high roller like him.”

The book is beautifully written, tough and world-weary in the best literary tradition. Holland confesses to have read everything that Graham Greene ever wrote and there are echoes of books such ass Greene’s The Quiet American in Holland’s brilliant new work, although Holland’s style is more homage than imitation.

He draws parallels between the world his character wanders through and the Floating World of Edo, the city of Tokyo before it was Tokyo. Ukiyo is the Japanese term describing this urban lifestyle and culture, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects of the Edo period in Japan (1600–1867).  And this sometimes seedy but entrancing demimonde is reflected in Oblivion. There are hints about Holland’s sources of inspiration … the poetry of Basho, the great Japanese Zen poet, and the music of his favourite composer, the Estonian Arvo Part.

The novel has been described as “lyrical and atmospheric” and it is certainly that. It’s also a story of its time as the influence of the west falls away and Asia finds its own way, like it or not.

The unnamed narrator drifts through the Far East – Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and China, and much of the action is set in hotels, bars, airports and other such places in these mega-cities, particularly at night when covert deals and operations occur.

Holland celebrates what he calls “these non-places” in his compelling and spare (there’s the Graham Greene influence) narrative.

“One of my interests is non-places,” Holland tells me when we catch up on the deck at my home in Brisbane. An author who comes to one’s place for an interview is a rarity, a rather delightful one.

“I wrote my PhD about non-places,” Holland explains. “Where is the poetry in such places?  Well, I happen to love them.”

And he discovers the poetry in surprising ways in these transitory worlds.

“This guy is just passing through everywhere in life generally and wants to stay in that transitory space,” Holland says. “He hasn’t been home for a long time and he basically travels around doing underhanded trade deals.”

Holland says he couldn’t help introducing an espionage element.

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“I like a mystery,” he says. “Some people think that if you dip into genre in this way, you lose your capital ‘L’ literary credibility.” Nothing could be further from the truth though.

The character in the book has a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tien (Holland’s wife, Amy is, coincidentally, Vietnamese), and longs to settle down with her in a flash apartment in Saigon. It’s now Called Ho Chi Minh City but Holland prefers to call it Saigon, which he finds more evocative. Holland spent time living there when he was younger and worked for various NGOs and at one stage was involved in helping rescue children from child traffickers. Hence his knowledge of the criminal underbelly and the seedy side of life there. This experience imbues his novel with a veracity and an emotional truth which is palpable.

It’s a story quite removed from some of his earlier work. His first novel, which was published by UQP in 2006 was called The Lonely Road of the Junkmailer and as the title suggests was about a lonely junk mailer. All his books since then have been published with Transit Lounge.

His novel The Mary Smokes Boys was highly acclaimed, a story involving horse thieves that obviously mines his bush childhood. It is now being made into a feature film.

His last book was the brilliant One, about the last bushrangers in Australian history, James and Patrick Kenniff, who were at the height at their horse-thieving operation at the turn of the 20th century. In One, troops cannot pull the Kenniff Gang out of the ranges and plains of Western Queensland – the brothers know the terrain too well and the locals are sympathetic to their escapades. When a policeman and a station manager go out on patrol from tiny Upper Warrego Station and disappear, Sergeant Nixon makes it his mission to pursue the gang, especially Jim Kenniff who becomes for him an emblem of the violence that resides in the heart of the country.

That’s another book mining his knowledge of the bush. It could have all been so different for Holland if he had stuck at his accountancy course at UQ.

“I lasted one day,” he recalls. “I went to one lecture and quit. Then I did three months of teaching and quite. Then I did literature.”

And that took. Now with his eighth book published he has cemented himself as one of the most interesting novelists in Australia today. His new novel offers a view of Asia you won’t see on the nightly news and explores what it is like to have almost lost hope. Almost, but not quite, because there is a love story at the heart of this book that keeps his main man dreaming of a better future.

Oblivion by Patrick Holland, Transit Lounge, $32.99; transitlounge.com.au

Patrick Holland’s book launch is at Avid Reader, West End, July 12 from 6pm; avidreader.com.au

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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