Talking of war, Hugh Roberts 

Noel Shepherd
Steele Roberts,$25.00,
ISBN 9780947493387

Noel Shepherd’s debut novel, Mulgan, certainly doesn’t lack for moxie. Writing one’s way into one of the small handful of truly iconic New Zealand novels and, what’s more, openly setting out to imitate the tone, style and form of that novel, is not for the faint-hearted. One can applaud Shepherd’s ambition even if, ultimately, the novel itself must be seen as an interesting failure. There is, though, at least one way in which a parody or a pastiche or an homage is always interesting: it asks us to think about what really is the quintessence of the thing imitated; what is it that makes John Mulgan’s Man Alone still such a powerful read, even after so many years of stultifying “official” reverence and highbrow critical snark?

Shepherd’s novel is not ostensibly “about” Man Alone, but about its author. In particular, he is taking on Mulgan’s heroic service in support of the Greek resistance during WWII, and the tragically early end to Mulgan’s life by suicide in the waning days of the war. Although there has never been much serious question about the fact that Mulgan committed suicide, despite some improbable conspiracy theories floated by friends and family who understandably did not wish to believe it, there persists a curious sense in the literature about Mulgan that this suicide is a “mystery” to be unravelled. While it is obviously true that every suicide is to some extent a mystery – the key witness is always unavailable – that a young man who had spent two years in the brutal cut and thrust of irregular combat might succumb to a feeling of despair is hardly unaccountable.

It cannot be said that Shepherd’s version makes the suicide any more (or less) explicable. He has Mulgan visited by a mysterious character who calls himself “Johns” and who turns out – in what one suspects the author hopes is a dramatic revelation, but which is telegraphed pretty strongly from the beginning – to be none other than the main character, Johnson, from Mulgan’s Man Alone. Readers hoping for a postmodern exploration of the tenuous borders between the fictional and the real will be disappointed, however; Johns proves to be a hallucination, conjured from Mulgan’s distressed mind. The publisher’s blurb describes this as a “dramatic new account” of Mulgan’s “tragic end”, but it would seem to do no more than suggest that this brilliant young man with a bright future ahead of him committed suicide when he was not entirely in his right mind. There needs no ghost come from the grave, or character from a book, to tell us this.

Shepherd has done his research carefully and works hard to bring us up to speed on both the Greek resistance against the Germans and Mulgan’s role in that struggle, and the vicious infighting between various Greek political factions as they positioned themselves to move into the power-vacuum left by the departing Germans. This, unfortunately, makes for a lot of exposition-heavy dialogue, full of references to the ELAS andartes, Hawker Typhoons, Aris Veloukhiotis, and the security situation in the Peloponnese.

This busy marshalling of historical facts is one of the first things that sheds an interesting contrastive light on Mulgan’s novel. Man Alone is undeniably deeply rooted in a particular historical period: Johnson is an English soldier who travels to New Zealand after being demobbed at the end of WWI; he gets caught up in the Great Depression, working in the oppressive conditions of the relief camps and getting entangled in the Queen Street riots of 1932. But it is remarkable how lightly Mulgan touches on these massive events. Not even the name of “Queen Street” is mentioned in his account. We learn almost nothing of the details of Johnson’s war service, of the work he does in the relief camps, of the details of camp life. Mulgan is certainly interested in the large political forces and events that surround Johnson, but Johnson himself, for the most part, is not, and Mulgan keeps the third-person narrative voice close to Johnson’s perspective. Johnson is a man who has the most tenuous engagement with the world around him. He tells us his “system” is “to keep on working and moving … the hard work for the good time and never stay long anywhere” system: “all my life I’ve been walking on.” His choice of New Zealand as a destination after the war is presented as almost entirely arbitrary (“Johnson went to New Zealand after the war because men he had met in France had talked of it as a pleasant and well-to-do country”), and there is no indication that he ultimately leaves the country with any regret.

Mulgan’s original title for Man Alone was Talking of War. Mulgan’s publishers, understandably (in 1939) anticipating confusion, suggested the Hemingwayesque alternative which Mulgan accepted. It’s interesting to speculate how different the novel’s cultural position would be if it had come out under Mulgan’s preferred title. The phrase “Man Alone” took on a meaning and a weight within a certain New Zealand conception of national identity which often seems strangely at odds with the novel itself. If Talking of War would be aptly foursquare applied to Shepherd’s Mulgan, it is wryly oblique when applied to Man Alone. The novel begins, indeed, with a refusal to talk of war; the narrator meets Johnson and wants to ask him of his experiences in WWI and the Spanish Civil War, but Johnson demurs: “There’s a hell of a lot too much talk about war.” Paradoxically, he tells us, “You wouldn’t understand it unless you saw it. If you did see it, you wouldn’t understand it.” Instead, he offers to tell the narrator “worse things about the peace”.

Why, then, call a novel expressly not about the war Talking of War? Mulgan is interested precisely in this moment of deflection, in Johnson’s insistence on what cannot be understood about the great historical forces that shape and distort our lives. Versions of this scene recur again and again throughout Man Alone; Johnson is forever encountering people who “talk” (the word, and its permutations, recur incessantly throughout the novel), but rarely does he or anyone else feel bound to listen. It was “talk” about New Zealand that made Johnson move there, but when he arrives he enters a pub to find it “full of men talking loudly, but no one was listening to what they said.” It’s not long before Johnson is “at home in this country. He talked as they all talked.” As he drifts, aimlessly, from job to job he encounters many ardent “talkers” with deep convictions about what is wrong with the country, but none of them do, or are meant to, convince us or Johnson that they have any real answers. In Mulgan’s account of the Queen Street Riots, no one quite knows why they are there or what they hope to achieve beyond some kind of break in the soul-crushing tedium of the lives they’re leading on “relief”. When Johnson emerges from his sojourn in the bush, he is picked up by yet another garrulous lorry driver: “They fell to talking about the state of the country. Johnson, now that he was back in civilization, found it hard to accustom himself to conversations in which every man was a politician.” When “every man is a politician”, we know that, for all the “talk”, there is no “understanding”.

Readers who vaguely remember Man Alone from high school and from its general place in the broader Kiwi imaginary may not be surprised by this account: the novel, surely, is a celebration of the “Man Alone”, the Good Kiwi Bloke who can take his rifle and go into the bush and live off the land, who doesn’t need the artificial trappings of “civilization” as he confronts the raw New Zealand landscape. Nothing, though, could be further from the real concerns of the novel. Here, too, Shepherd’s Mulgan is illuminating in its stark difference from Man Alone. Shepherd’s “Johns” is everything an enthusiastic 14-year-old might wishfully misread Johnson to be, a crack shot (Mulgan stresses, in fact, that Johnson is a rather poor marksman), a man of infinite resource and enterprising heroism (Johnson is always passive, always caught up in events initiated by others). Johns’s exploits read, too often, like something out of the jingoistic Commando Comics that I remember reading in my childhood:

“What are you going to do?” Jack demanded.
“I’ll go down to that spur to the north and see what I can see.”
“That’s damn near suicidal.”
“I’m going to do it anyway.”
“I’ll watch your back.”

This is not the Johnson of Mulgan’s book, who almost dies of starvation out in a New Zealand bush he finds no more welcoming or congenial than “civilization”.

So what, then, is Mulgan’s point? What is he saying about New Zealand, and the New Zealand national identity? I don’t really think these things are uppermost in Mulgan’s mind. New Zealand’s complacent “God’s Own Country” myths are, to be sure, steadily unravelled: each repetition (with minor variations) of the theme that New Zealand “is not a bad little country” rings a little more hollowly throughout the book (“It’s not a bad country only there’s always something wrong with it”), until its last appearance as Johnson watches the country slip into the wake of the boat on which he’s escaping:

“It’s not a bad country,” Johnson said. “It’s not too bad.”
“They can keep it,” the captain’s steward said.

But Mulgan is setting his sights both higher and wider than that. New Zealand nationalism is just a convenient example of the kind of “talk” which the novel aims to expose as essentially empty.

Man Alone is, I would argue, best understood not so much in the context of New Zealand literary nationalism, as in the broader context of European literature “between the wars”. It is part of that general feeling – in the wake of the Great War and with a second cataclysm looming – that all human belief systems have proven themselves inadequate: empty “talk”. Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece La Grande Illusion would be a useful point of comparison, similarly using the folly of WWI to cast a skeptical eye on the nationalist dogmas leading Europe towards new and worse disasters. But La Grande Illusion also helps us see another strain in Mulgan’s novel, one which makes it more forward-looking than it has usually been understood to be. Renoir’s film was a significant influence on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with Jean Gabin’s and Marcel Dalio’s POWs on the run, alternately bickering and supporting each other like Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir, a kind of absurdist reduction to the essence of human interaction.

The idea of Man Alone as an absurdist novel brings many aspects of the book into a new and productive focus. There is, for one thing, the essential pointlessness of the novel’s plot: Johnson’s affair means nothing to him, and he kills Stenning by the sheerest accident. Ultimately, he simply leaves his troubles behind him by sailing to England. There is, too, the dreamlike inexorability of the narrative voice (so strikingly different from the busy, would-be heroics of Shepherd’s novel), something that reminds us of Camus’s L’Étranger of a similar date (1942). Johnson is simply caught in a train of circumstances, often violent and absurd, over which neither he nor anyone else can exercise any control: a fact that everyone other than Johnson tries to shield themselves from with a wall of “talk”.

Reading Shepherd’s bold but, ultimately, unsuccessful experiment made me see for the first time the cool, and even grimly humorous, irony that pervades Mulgan’s narrative, its pointed refusal to hope that any kind of “talk” will make us masters of our essentially incomprehensible lives. Could one ask for a more Beckettian piece of grimly ironic humour than this, from the book’s introduction?

“I could tell you worse things about the peace.”
“What was the peace?”
“That was the bit in between.”


Hugh Roberts is a New Zealander who teaches at Irvine, University of California.

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