Review by EMMET O’CUANA
Building Bridges is the third book by Melbourne ophthalmologist Joe Reich. Launched to a packed room at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival in May, Reich’s mixture of ironic humour and wry commentary on Australian society continues to impress. The story, set in 1970 around the time of the Westgate Bridge disaster, follows two protagonists who are the children of post-war immigrants. Petr is a construction worker at Westgate. Arnold is a junior resident doctor at the fictional ‘Royal Hospital’.
As a novel, Building Bridges is the product of an author not only ‘writing what he knows’ but sharing personal insights in a fictional context.
In the book’s opening Arnold, the child of Jewish survivors, witnesses Petr’s arrest for the stabbing of a doctor. The suspected killer’s parents were Nazis. Reich weaves the perspectives of these two men into the plot to bridge our understanding of them as characters as well as the legacy in Australia of the conflict in Europe.
The author spoke with Crosslight about the appeal of Melbourne as a setting for his novels.
“The portrayal of Melbourne in most contemporary fiction is usually set in the Northern or Western suburbs,” Joe said, “often in a milieu of drugs, violence, sex and abuse. Certainly good material for a novel but I have written of the oft-neglected, and perceived middle class east.
“Our suburbs stage our lives and, while it may seem I have typecast my characters and their homes, I feel the city of Melbourne is in fact as important a character in my writing as the more recognisable humans that inhabit it.”
The book has arrived at a time when the perceived ‘Australianness’ of second generation immigrants is high on the political agenda. How much of an influence was this on the book itself?
“Building Bridges cheekily starts by having Petr called a ‘dago’ by the policemen arresting him, excusing themselves for this racial slur by the fact they had recently fought the Second World War to keep foreigners just like him out,” Joe said.
“It reminds us that in the 1970s those not born in Australia were called ‘New Australians’. Arnold, even though he arrived as a baby, was also considered as ‘other’ especially by the older doctors in the hospital. Following the war Jews in Europe, like Arnold’s parents, were homeless and stateless. By the end of the war, the countries of their birth had occupied their previous homes and made their return unwelcoming and dangerous.
“Australia, to its credit, was one of only a few countries that welcomed the new immigrants so that Melbourne became the city accepting the most refugees from the Holocaust apart from Tel Aviv in Israel. The Australian populace, suspicious of the newly arrived, were not as welcoming. They saw that many spoke no English and had no useful trades. The rules were soon changed and ships leaving Europe were not allowed to have more than 25 per cent Jewish refugees.
“I didn’t write to contrast those times when migration was being encouraged with today, as Australia immediately post Second World War was a different place. The government had realised it needed to encourage migration to bolster the population, initially as a way to protect Australia from the risk of invasion and then for the economic benefits of growth.
“Today, the mood of the country is different, with talk of overcrowded cities, global warming, water shortages, and a lack of infrastructure bandied as excuses as to why we need to limit growth.
“Yet it is sad to see the same attitudes about racial difference being used to vilify prospective migrants and their perceived ability to integrate and contribute to our society. That much has not changed.”
Building Bridges is available from Sid Harta Publishers (http://sidharta.com/) RRP $24.95