19 April 2013

John Mulgan: Man Alone (1939)

Man Alone is the only novel by John Mulgan, who killed himself (for not altogether clear reasons) on Anzac Day in 1945, in a hotel in Cairo, at the age of thirty-three.
 In 'John Mulgan: A Question of Identity', a thirty-five-page article originally published in Islands in 1979 and with a four-page postscript added in 1981 in In the Glass Case (and again in Kin of Place: Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers (2002)), C. K. Stead draws attention to the writing of Alan Mulgan, John's father. Alan Mulgan is seen to represent New Zealand in a cosy, sentimental fashion as opposed to John Mulgan's more negative vision, and an analogy is drawn between England's 'Georgian' romanticism and the reaction of the pylon poets against it.

Stead also points out that there are two very different fictional elements in the novel – the 'economic history' in which the protagonist Johnson (who is given no forename) is a mere 'travelling object', seen from a kind of photographic perspective; and the second is where he becomes the subject, a symbolic representation of New Zealand man. Stead goes on to say that Mulgan is examining the identity of New Zealand, the social and the political weighed against the existential. The ten-page coda Part Two, which brings back the social element by showing Johnson going off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, was added by Mulgan after the publishers requested it.

Johnson, a young Englishman in New Zealand, is an aloof but (generally) sympathetic character, a kind of existential hero without the coldness of a Meursault, without the same egotism, who can join in socially if he chooses without drawing too much attention to his difference, but who also avoids emotional ties, travels light and is prepared to travel far. The story takes him through different farming jobs, through work on a scow, through New Zealand's depression when he is unemployed and sent to a pointless relief camp constructing a scenic road, through a kind of (inevitably fractured) comradeship in the Auckland unemployment riots in Queen Street in 1932.

And Johnson escapes from this life, train hops, and then finds more farm work for a year working for Stenning, who lives with his much younger Maori wife. There is the promise of Johnson getting his own farm in a few years, aided by Stenning, until the unbearable, mounting sexual tension literally explodes in his employer's face and he again flees from a situation that got out of control, but over which he had very little control.

And so it is this general guiltlessness which carries the reader's sympathy for him through the Kaimanawas, the unforgiving New Zealand bush in the centre of North Island, an endurance test in which his physical and mental courage is tried to its greatest extent. He survives, but must continue fleeing from the consequences of the death of Stenning.

Yes, there are two distinct but related parts, although I'm uncertain about the necessity for Part Two.

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