Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2021

No One, by John Hughes

I have all sorts of good reasons for reading this novella by Sydney author John Hughes.  I have just posted a giveaway for his new book The Dogs, of which I also have my own copy via my subscription to new publishing venture Upswell and (in a rare moment of self-discipline when it comes to the TBR) I thought I ought to read No One first.  I’ve had since it was nominated for the 2020 Miles Franklin.  And because it’s only 157 pages long, that also makes it a good flag-bearer for Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. However, now that I’ve read it, I have another good reason: I think No One is destined to be a classic of Australian literature, and people will be reading it for many, many years to come.

Yes, that’s a big call.  But Miles Franklin judges aside, there is plenty of other praise for this deceptively simple story.

and, comparing Hughes to the 2014 Nobel prize winning author Patrick Modiano,

  • George Kouvaros at the Sydney review of Books: ‘The capacity of the past to return in a manner that unravels our place in the present links No One to the work of perhaps the greatest living novella writer, Patrick Modiano.’

And that’s just the reviews that weren’t behind the paywall…

This is how the story begins:

For a long time I used to drive around the city late at night, but why I found myself in the ghost hours of that Monday morning nineteen years ago on Lawson Street I can no longer recall. Nothing remains for me but the sound—a dull thud, like a roo hitting the side of a car—and the dreamlike slowness of my realisation. I had almost driven past Redfern Park before I pulled over to the kerb to collect my thoughts. The park was empty except for a couple of men sleeping rough between the roots of a large fig. I drove a little further on so as not to disturb them. It must have been a dog, I thought. What else would have been on the road at that time of night? (p.1)

Belatedly, he pulls over.  His car, an old Volvo station wagon which he bought from a drummer who had fallen on hard times, has dings and scratches all over it, and a couple of larger dents at the front and rear. He can see a dent on the passenger side where he’d heard the thud; he’s not sure whether it’s new or if it’s been there all the time.  He drives back to Lawson St and sees what might be a bloodstain on the road.  He realises that the dent in the front panel is too high to have been made by a dog, or only a dog as large as a man or a roo.  And he has a strange sensation of being watched and held to account.

Something has happened, he didn’t deal with it at the time, and although he is uncertain about  what he might have done, now he feels responsible.  This feeling of guilt is a metaphor for Australian uneasiness about wrongs done to Indigenous people in the past.

To develop the metaphor, Hughes offers two central characters, both of whom have identities to which the author has no claim.  The  driver of the car has never developed a sense of belonging: an orphaned immigrant from the Middle East, he lived in a succession of foster homes, remembering only fragments of life in Broken Hill, Cessnock and Sydney.  As an adult, he is a transient with no home, work or family to ground him.  But he is not an ‘appropriated’ Other.  He is like all of us who have come, one way or another, in the present or the past, to a country that was not our own.  And, like the characters in Modiano’s novellas that I’ve read — is troubled by fleeting, inconclusive memories, by a problem he cannot name and by questions for which there is no answer.

He meets an Indigenous woman that he dubs the poetess.  She is not a poet, but she is poetic. Like the words of a poem she is more than her utterances, and she must be ‘read between the lines.’ She is unimpressed by his futile quest to absolve his guilt, but like so many Indigenous people she is generous in educating him about a reality he cannot see or interpret.  She accompanies him on his fruitless endeavours, always cutting through his vague meditations on Australia’s colonial legacy and his meaningless gestures to atone.

There is nothing heavy-handed about any of this.  This is an example of the delicacy with which Hughes focuses our attention:

On the road behind where I had parked I had noticed what looked like a mark.  When I bent down to examine it more closely I was overcome by a momentary vertigo.  A week after I was placed in their care I was taken by my first foster parents to look at a small cave in the country south of their property near Katherine, a place my new father would often take me later when he went hunting for roos. When I turned on the torch he had given me, it seemed to me as if I had wakened a zoo full of hibernating creature come out of the darkness in which they had slept for a thousand years.  There were hands, larger than my own, stencilled in ochre, and kangaroos and crocodiles and snakes and fish, not painted onto the surface of the rock, but rather like apparitions that had come up through the rock somehow to be seen.  Everything was getting confused in my mind.  There was blood on the road: it had dried to the colour of those apparitions in the cave.  And the creature that had left it — where was it, if not an apparition itself, gone back into the road.  (p.3)

Odysseus blinding the Cyclops

The title is a sly allusion to Homer’s Odyssey.  When Odysseus is trapped in the cave by Polyphemus the one-eyed Cyclops, he tells Polyphemus that his name is Οὖτις i.e. No One.  When the other Cyclops come to the aid of Polyphemus who cries out in agony as Odysseus blinds him, they ask who is attacking him, and he answers ‘no one’ so they go away. ‘No one’ is responsible for the crime — and yet it has undoubtedly occurred.

No One is a book that rewards re-reading time and again, and I can imagine the rich discussions that senior students and book groups could have about it.  Threads of forgetting and remembering, of alienation and connection, and of guilt and atonement are woven together in a kind of dream, and like a dream, have no resolution.  A reviewer at Westerly thought it was nihilistic, but I think it’s hopeful and it suggests good will.  There’s hope in caring about our fraught history, and there’s good will in wanting to know what happened and desiring ways to redress it.

Image credit: By Rider Painter – User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-05-31, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2183756

Author: John Hughes
Title: No One
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781760800291, pbk., 157 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $24.99


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, an excellent review. I must reread it, I missed a lot. I wrote in my journal strange but excellent writing.

    Like

    • I reckon this is going to be one of the few books I re-read, again and again.

      Like

  2. Sounds like an important book and not to be missed.

    Like

    • I’m pretty sure you’d like it.

      Like

  3. Hi Lisa,
    My publisher just alerted me to this. Thank you for such a thoughtful review. It’s a pleasure for a writer to find such readers.

    Like

    • Hello John, my thanks are due to you for writing the book!
      I’m looking forward to reading The Dogs too, it’s near the top of my TBR pile.
      Stay safe and well in Sydney:) Lisa

      Like

  4. I have just bought a copy :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That will make the author even happier!

      Like

  5. I look forward to your response, Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person


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