Chris Womersley’s novel Cairo is the first person narrative of the young 18-year-old living in Melbourne in 1986. Tom Button, the narrator, is exactly the same age as Chris Womersley who was living in Melbourne at the age of 18.
The first half of the novel is a detached reflection, by the older Tom Button, on his life after leaving his boring country town, moving to Melbourne and becoming involved with a group of eccentric musicians and artists, including the beautiful Sally with whom he falls desperately and unhappily in love.
The second half of the novel deals, for the most part in historically accurate detail, with the theft Picasso’s painting The Weeping Woman from the NGV in Melbourne.
There are additions to the historical record, Tom and a group of his friends that includes the Australian Cultural Terrorists have stolen the original and substituted it with two highly accurate forgeries. In both the book and real-life, the Australian Cultural Terrorists are the group that claimed responsibility for the theft. They also wrote letters to both the Minister for Arts and the Premier. The content of these letters is accurately reproduced in the novel.
So why did Womersley choose to use such accurate information in a work of fiction? Why not simply suggest another painting? This would have distanced the novel from the reality of the actual theft. But he chooses not to. Is it simply an effort to provide his work with more credibility? Surely not. He’s far too competent and novelist to need that kind of cheap trick.
It is also interesting to note how the narrator’s tone changes in the second half of the novel that deals with the theft. Tom Button’s wry detachment disappears to be replaced by a slightly breathless engagement with the events of the novel. Is this because Womersley cannot maintain this detachment when writing about the theft?
The novel is about deception and art. Is Tom Button’s story of the theft of The Weeping Woman simply a brilliant imitation of the original? Close but not good enough to fool the trained eye or, is it, like The Weeping Woman that Max’s beautiful wife Sally leaves for Tom, the real thing?