Note from ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias: Man Alone is an incredible book, or at least it contains about 25 incredible pages – the book’s dark heart, its apotheosis, its claustrophobic, feverish, tremendously exciting evocation of life lived precariously and dangerously in the depths of the New Zealand bush. I don’t mind the rest of it. There’s a lot of monosyllabic talk (“Things can’t go on this way”, etc) and a great deal of it is by working men sizing up whether or not New Zealand is a fair and decent place for working men. Women, Māori and anyone else don’t get a look in but it was written in 1937 by an Auckland Grammar old boy. John Mulgan, the book’s doomed author, dead of a morphine overdose in a room in Cairo at the end of the war, wanted to write a serious book dealing with society and the political system but his greatest talent was as an action writer. His pages on the 1932 Queen St riot are fast and crazy, full of movement and glimpses; he takes you there. And he takes you with him, too, in the 25-page section set in the Kaimanawas, in sight of Mt Ruapehu. His main character, Johnson, shoots and kills the farmer Stenning, who confronts Johnson in the middle of the night and accuses him of sleeping with his wife Rua. The brief excerpt as follows is taken from page 142 in the new edition of Mulgan’s book…
He looked round the room and saw everything clearly, even Stenning and the blood that was on the floor and splashed on walls and ceiling. He saw this now coldly and unemotionally. He weighed in his mind the possibilities of going away and escaping from it all and knew that, if this were possible, it was what he wanted to do. Looking at the situation now, clearly and almost impersonally, he knew that though it would be better if he stayed and faced things out it was not what he wanted to do. It would be the end of the things that he wanted for himself. They would take him and tie him, probably for years, to work in a prison camp, perhaps under the shadow of the mountain there, where he had himself seen the convicts road-making in the rain; and he would be older after that, too old to go away or to do anything with himself. They would have finished him then, all right. If he could get away he could keep some things. He could keep one thing that he had had in all the years that he had known this country, and that was a freedom to go and to work and to live where he liked. He knew now, looking back, how the threat of seeming to lose this had driven him from a relief camp. It was driving him much farther now and in a colder, more hopeless way, but it was driving him all right.
His cigarette had gone out and instead of relighting it he dropped it into the blue-enamelled candle-stick. The outline of a plan was maturing, clearly and definitely, in his head. As he stood up he heard, through the night, the sound of horse’s hoofs galloping up the road. If it was Rua, as he guessed, she hadn’t wasted time; and time was important. He had to get somewhere into bush-country before daylight. It would be a while before Rua or her people did anything; it would be morning probably; they would not want to be mixed up in anything if it could be helped; they would take action reluctantly. He looked at his watch; it was still only half-past eleven. He had six hours of darkness left to him which should be time enough.
He dressed quickly, changing the soft flannel trousers that he was wearing for strong dungarees. Then he tipped his packed kit-bag out on to the floor and packed it again, this time with only a spare shirt and woollen socks and another pair of working boots, iron-studded with nails. He strapped leather leggings over his trouser legs and fastened a scarf round his neck. While he did this—it took no longer than a few minutes—he did not look towards the body that lay a yard from him, nor trouble about the blood that he noticed for the first time on his shirt and arms. When he had finished all this he looked quickly about the hut, then blew out the candle, and with his kit in one hand, stepped carefully over Stenning’s body and out into the night.
Outside there was a wind blowing; it was coming from the east. It blew with a steadiness and strength that meant a gale and rain. He did not worry about this now, but went on up to the house. The front door was blowing open and there was no one inside, so that he knew that it was Rua that he had heard on the road. Lighting the oil-lamp on the kitchen table his eye caught for a moment the telephone on the wall and he wondered, without anxiety, if she had stopped first to give the alarm. While he looked at it the bell rang suddenly and startlingly. In the silence of the empty house the sound was shocking, breaking down his newly-found clearness of mind. Johnson went over to the ’phone and lifted the receiver gently. The conversation that he heard came through clearly; a telegram was being read out about the sale of a bull. He heard the voice of the woman from the exchange and the long drawl of the farmer at the other end.
After a moment he put the receiver gently back again. Johnson went into the kitchen and finished the packing of his bag, fitting each article in carefully. He took a great deal of tea and some salt, and about twenty pounds of mixed flour and oatmeal, as much as he reckoned he would be able to carry easily. After that he went into the bedroom and found Stenning’s rifle; it was a small and light .22. He had some trouble locating the ammunition for it, but found at last two packets in the drawer of the kitchen table. He knew that some kind of axe would be necessary to him if he were to keep alive and warm in the bush. There was a small chopper in the woodshed at the back. It was blunt, but it was all that he could afford to carry. He took it, fitting it down the side of his bag, and after that he had finished. He did up his kit-bag and swung it on to his shoulder and pulled his hat down over his eyes, knowing that he was ready to go.
Outside again the wind seemed to have grown even stronger. It was not cold but came down the valley shaking the trees and driving clouds across a waning moon. Going down with a bridle in his hand to find Darky he could not see the horses at first, but found them in the end grouped together in a sheltered corner of the field. When he went up to Darky the horse shied, starting away, and though he followed it quietly, talking to it gently, it would not be caught. The horse had always stood for him before and he smiled a little grimly to himself thinking of the scent of blood that was still on him. He went up to Stenning’s Jonquil, standing still and white in the darkness. The mare trembled as he put the bridle over her neck, but stood still, and came quietly when he led her to be saddled. It was just on midnight when he rode out from the farm and stopped carefully to close the white gate that led on to the road. Behind him the farm buildings were dark and silent and in front the road was heavy with the shadows of high clay banks. He rode quickly, using the mare’s long raking trot and cantering on straight stretches, or, after they had come to the main road with its rough metal, whenever there was a softer clay strip by the side. He made good progress now, riding through the night along roads that he knew well.
He had to go a long way this time to disappear. He had to go where he could not be found for many months, until perhaps men would think him dead or would stop searching for him. This was too small a country for the fugitive. Men in it knew each other too well up and down each part of the island, and the cities were too small to be lost in. It was an easy matter to watch railway stations and ships. He was going instead into bush country, where for a hundred miles no one lived or travelled, where there were no paths nor animals except birds, but only high bush-hills and rivers going down to the sea. He knew that if he was lucky and could live through this, to come out months later away on the far side of the island, he would still need then to have luck with him, but might win, nevertheless, this game that he was playing. It was a gamble that he liked to think of. It would need not courage, but patience and endurance.
He was going over some of these things as he rode on this first night’s journey, with his mind still clear and active. He was not thinking now of anything that lay behind him in the farm-house he had left. He met no one during the night nor was he passed by any cars on the road. He went through the darkened streets of the little dairy town that had served them, riding quietly here so that afterwards men would not trace his movements nor remember the time at which he passed too easily, and went on, going towards the railway and the mountain. He was travelling again the road that he had walked when he first came into this country. The mountain range that he wanted, the only hills that were deep enough and lonely enough for his purpose now, lay eastward beyond Ruapehu and across the tussock plains. He was making for the Kaimanawas, the great range that ran southward like a backbone to the island, its ridges grim and bleak and forbidding, the peaks snow covered in winter. He knew it as a lost part of the country and unknown except to odd prospectors who went into it sometimes, believing in gold that might be there.
Making his plans now as he rode he knew that he could not get as far as that before daylight. Morning would find him on the tussock plains that ran from the foot-hills of the Kaimanawas across to the snow ridges of Ruapehu, and the tussock would give him no shelter if men were out searching for him. He decided then to make this first journey in two parts, with shelter during the daylight in between, and so he turned off and took a road that dwindled to a bush-track, leading, he knew, to Ruapehu itself.
Man Alone by John Mulgan, edited by Peter Whiteford (Victoria University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.