Date: June 16 2012
There is a moment in The Remnants when a poet tells a young boy that ''most of what's important in a story is outside saying''. It's a truth that sings through every page of this remarkable book from Sydney writer John Hughes. A Russian-doll of a novel, this is a work that - like Hughes's previous works - almost defies description. It is writing that is elusive and playful, poetic and impassioned; writing that steadily mines the great ideas of literature and philosophy, of religion, art and music, and builds from them a narrative that is, quite simply, wondrous.
The narrator of The Remnants is R.H. (Robert), an abrasive young man who has found among his dead father's papers a manuscript made up of 31 monologues. The monologues tell of a relationship Robert's father had with Anna, an older Russian woman, and contain the stories she has told him; stories about her persecution in Stalinist Russia and her relationship with the poet M. (Osip Mandelstam), who has been tortured and who she nurses through his final days.
Interleaving these stories of Anna, M. and Anna's son Kolya, are imagined narratives - written by R.H.'s father - about the Italian artist Piero della Francesca, his theories of art, and his obsession with the story of St Francis of Assisi. It is the figure of St Francis of Assisi that, tragically, links the two threads of the father's manuscript, and in trying to unravel his father's writing, R.H. struggles to reconcile himself to the man his father was, and the son he himself has come to be.
In his first published work, the award-winning The Idea of Home, Hughes explored his own family's history through a series of autobiographical essays. In his next work, Someone Else, he immersed himself in the imaginations of some of the great thinkers and artists who had influenced him, offering readers essays that were exotic hybrids, blending his own sensibilities with those of the subjects about whom he, ostensibly, was writing.
The Remnants is very much a natural progression from both these works. It explores questions of memory - of how families and family histories are memorialised - as well as exploring the remnants of the past through which we come to define ourselves. In doing so, what it emphasises is the layering of time, the way the past lingers - wholly alive - in the present; that who we are is locked up not merely in the influences that have come to us, but in the landscape itself: ''Why does what starts in rock end in consciousness, if consciousness is not necessary to this end; if rock did not need something by which it might bear witness to itself?''
What The Remnants also opens out are the oppositions - the contradictions - that are inherent to the human experience: fact and fiction; past and future; surface and depth; beginning and end; presence and absence; noise and silence; life and death. It finds its narrative not merely from the fragments of a manuscript that have been left behind by a dead man, but from the ellisions and obfuscations that are elemental to any story; the gaps that exist between one language and another.
Helpfully, R.H. lists at the beginning of his narration the source texts that he has drawn on in this work; the texts that have informed the various commentaries he offers between each of his father's manuscripts (riffs that take us from the Big Bang to the joy of scrawling poetry on his lover's skin). They are sources that range from Samuel Beckett to Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Faulkner to Simone Weil.
Often writers season their work with names such as these in order to afford it a significance that the writing itself doesn't warrant. This isn't the case with Hughes. He plumbs the depths of each of these sources, making The Remnants more than simply a meditation on time and memory. It becomes, itself, part of this great flowing of ideas that comes to us from ancient times; that with writers and artists from Aeschylus to The Doors wears away the rock-face of human experience in the hope of finding - somewhere, somehow - the meaning of it all.
If there is one word that describes Hughes's writing it would have to be spacious - every thought here opens out another and another and another. And there are passages of both heartbreaking loss and keen insight: ''The only law of history is chance. The universe appeared by accident and will disappear the same way. Our killer lurks, inside or outside, who can say, but lurks nevertheless. Every bullet flies in from the future.''
The writing also shifts from half-articulated sentences to beautifully sustained runs of lyrical prose: ''And in the sky … stars like I'd never seen, as if the darkness were the finest lace, more hole than join, through which the tiniest crumbs of light poured and hung like mist all around, dry water.''
Not merely a novel about fathers and sons, The Remnants is also about the connections between the New World and the Old; about Australia's relationship with the rest of the world, and how that relationship is expressed in our art and literature. (The narrator's stream-of-consciousness on what it means to be Australian is an extraordinary piece of writing.)
It's impossible to do this book justice within the space of a single review. The Remnants is a complex novel, one that is both engrossing and inspiring. John Hughes deserves so much kudos for what he has come up with here. He really is one of Australia's unsung literary treasures.
Diane Stubbings is a writer, researcher and academic.
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