Chronicle of the Unsung
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
Martin Edmond, son of Lauris, played a role in two iconic cultural phenomena of my formative years in 70s and 80s Auckland – he wrote the screenplay for Leon Narbey’s Illustrious Energy, and he was a member of Red Mole, the famous avant-garde theatre group. Since then he has written a number of award-winning screenplays and books, including two biographies: The Autobiography of My Father and The Resurrection of Phillip Clairmont. The former was a place-getter in the 1993 Wattie’s Book Awards, the latter shortlisted for the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. In Chronicle of the Unsung, Edmond turns to memoir.
The title, I have to confess, made me feel a little uneasy. It seemed to verge on the pompous. This uneasiness persisted through the first pages. Described in language reminiscent of a 19th century gothic novel, a young, down-at-heel Edmond wanders the streets of Amsterdam’s red light district and stops to look at a skull in a window display: “the uncertain light produced a curious and unsettling illusion: my own face reflected in the glass over the bones of the skull, like a premonition of my death.”
The siren call of such heightened language has lured many an undergraduate self-chronicler onto the rocks of self-regarding adolescent melodrama, as he (and alas it usually is “he”) attempts to imitate a style he can’t control. However, all my anxiety melted away as Edmond rapidly revealed himself to be the real thing – this is a tone he can handle with consummate ease. Also, perhaps even more importantly, he knows how and when to moderate it. His exquisite control of language turns out to be one of this book’s many pleasures.
Chronicle of the Unsung is a book which is hard to categorise. Written in four sections, each one more or less independent of the others, it’s variously memoir, travel book, biography – and something more besides.
The bare-bones story which emerges is that of a classic post-adolescent coming of age, a journey from young adulthood to selfhood, touching on many of the traditional bases you might expect in a young New Zealander’s search for artistic identity: London squats, failed relationships, failed artistic enterprises, drug-fuelled adventuring. It’s a familiar pattern, but never for one moment is there a sense of here-we-go-again. Partly this is because it’s so well written, but more importantly Edmond’s intelligence and insight allow him to take the necessary distance from the material. Despite the fact that this is an intensely personal story, he’s never drawn into the philosophical, emotional and moral quagmires the young Edmond faces. This is an achievement in itself. The key is perhaps a quality the author shares with the young Edmond, who, engagingly, despite his youthful stumblings, never seems more interested in himself than he is in the world around him. Similarly Edmond the Elder, while compassionate, never takes his younger incarnation more seriously than he should, and never gives himself more credit than he is due.
This is all very reassuring. There’s a real sense of the broadened, mature intelligence which has emerged from the vitality and confusion of youth, and this constitutes a kind of implied happy ending which illuminates the protagonist’s travails. We come to like and admire the man that Edmond has become, precisely because he is so clear-eyed about himself, able to look back with clarity, fairness, and humour: and there is plenty of the latter. It’s a wry, carefully controlled humour which never breaks into outright comedy.
The doubleness, the sense of two opposed but complementary characters – Edmond the Elder and Edmond the Younger – is very strong. This is entirely appropriate, because the doubleness of self – the self as other – is an explicitly and implicitly stated theme of the book.
But this is not just a memoir. It’s also a travel book. By this, I mean that when Edmond travels, the places he visits become more than settings for his own personal drama. They become objects of enquiry in their own right. A gripping gonzo-esque adventure in post-coup Fiji, in search of locations for a never-to-be-made movie – complete with night encounters with drunken Fijian soldiers, mysterious Americans in hotel bars who might or might not be working for the CIA, and late-night quests in search of drugs – in fact, goes beyond gonzo, because Fiji is treated with real interest. There’s a genuine spirit of enquiry. Fiji – and Fijians – are never diminished, never made to serve merely as a backdrop, or as a target for cheap shots in the style of P J O’Rourke. There’s no cultural arrogance. Edmond engages honestly, and so do we. This is a quality he shares with his younger incarnation: it was the young Edmond’s insistence on engaging with the realities of Fijian society and politics in his screenplay which ultimately scuppered the film project.
Apparent in the Fiji sequence and elsewhere is Edmond’s ability to research, and to deploy research to good effect. In an earlier, extraordinary sequence, which again borrows from but goes beyond the gonzo tradition, Edmond visits the ruins of a rubbish incinerator in Sydney. Telling the story of the building, he reconstructs it as a powerful symbolic presence on the Sydney skyline. This pays off magnificently as the drug-addled Edmond picks his way through the brooding, mysterious and threatening ruin.
But there’s yet another strand to the book. Edmond includes some quite sizeable pieces of straight biographical writing. He discusses the lives of Rimbaud, Van Gogh and George Grey, among others. These writings – showing Edmond’s characteristic skills of detailed research, insight, and elegant prose – do occasionally threaten to break the thematic, or at least the structural, integrity of the book. But at the same time they open up one of Edmond’s central preoccupations: the function and place of biography in literature and life. The young Edmond was obsessed by biography:
I was actually more interested then in the lives of artists than I was in their works. I would read biographies meticulously, as if by tracing the life I could … find out who I might be.
But the older Edmond, is a wiser Edmond: “The most dangerous error is to attempt to live like the subject of a biography yourself.” Here we have a biographer writing of the dangers of obsession with biography – in his autobiography.
Although resolution is not perhaps the point of this book, the final section “Home” does a good job of bringing about a sense of closure – narrative, emotional, structural, thematic. It’s intensely personal, moving and honest, and it reveals the way the book has been structured as a sort of meditation on the structure of self. Chronicle of the Unsung is more than an autobiography, more than a theory of Martin Edmond; it is a theory of self, and particularly the mythic journey from young adulthood to maturity. It’s remarkable that a book which is so diverse, so seemingly unconcerned with linear narrative, with “making sense” in an obvious way, is so satisfying and complete as a reading experience. It can be argued that in judging any book we are always really judging the character of the author – at least as he or she appears to us through the writing. It’s here that the real satisfaction of Chronicle of the Unsung lies. Through all the ups and downs, its character shines through.
William Brandt is the author of a novel and a collection of short stories and is currently working on a second novel and a screenplay.