Reviewed by by SUSAN JACOBS
A young New Zealander is trawling Amsterdam to find gigs for his touring theatre company stranded in London. Wandering along a narrow street one balmy evening, his mood bolstered by a joint, he stops before a human skull displayed in a shop window. Above it he glimpses his own face startlingly mirrored back to him "like a premonition of my death". This cinema-of-unease image, reminiscent of dark themes rippling through New Zealand literature and film, both opens and sets the tone for this haunting "travelogue of the mind".
Martin Edmond, award-winning author, film scriptwriter, former member of the Red Mole theatre troupe and at present writer-in-residence at the University of Auckland, has written a memoir that combines the autobiographical with the biographical by mining the lives of famous "others" in order to illuminate aspects of his own restless psyche.
Loosely divided into four sections, the book juxtaposes fragments of his life with explorations into the tormented personalities of such disparate figures as Van Gogh, Rimbaud, George Grey and missionary David Cargill.
Edmond draws from a chequered past borne of the rootless travelling embraced by a generation fortunate to have come of age in the 70s. He captures a delicious haplessness that belongs irrevocably to the spirit of those heady times. Finding yourself was a rite of passage and the success of the quest less important than the places it got you into.
The Sydney squat with its cast of derelicts, drunks and runaways, seedy downtown New York where he survived by writing pornographic novels and a journey through post-coup Fiji in search of locations for a film that never got made are some of the territories mapped out by this exploration. Each place, however, has its own resonance vibrant with stories that take on a digressive (and transgressive) life of their own.
Although fascinating little-known facts emerge, some digressions work better than others. The prose can become bogged down in a plethora of detail that, set loose from the thread that led to the digression, has little function other than providing an erudite mass of information head-spinningly dense in names, dates and places. Yet, just when the text seems to have become completely dislocated, the narrator thankfully connects us to why he digressed in the first place. It is these threads that give meaning to the book. The introspective, lushly descriptive prose is jolted by insights so acute and chilling they almost hurt.
Although the anxieties of the cashless (male) writer are dissected thoroughly, flashes of sardonic, self-deprecating humour leaven them. In fact he often mocks his own seriousness. In post-modern fashion he discovers that the unity of self is an illusion and an identity can be forged through imitation.
The voyage out, if handled in any depth, is inevitably a voyage in and a primary school reunion marks a return to childhood, to the landscapes of home and family, to interior battles. Here the mother, a successful poet recently deceased, looms large, a powerful, ambivalent force with whom he seems locked in literary competitiveness, while his disappointed father, whose posthumous story Edmond constructed in Autobiography of my Father, is portrayed as an unfulfilled tragic figure. Most painful of all is the pervasive shadow of a sister, eternally 21, whose suicide "closed off that option forever for me".
Thought-provoking, self-conscious, questioning, this book probes uncomfortable territories. The nature of self, death, poetry and relationships are covered. The writing can be breathtaking, yet sometimes gets unbearably heavy and sinks under the weight of its own literary angst. A touch more humour would have lightened the load.
* AUP, $34.99
* Susan Jacobs is the author of Fighting With the Enemy: New Zealand POWs and the Italian Resistance.
Reviewed by by SUSAN JACOBS