Thursday, July 27, 2006

Johnno by David Malouf

Johnno is a beautifully written elegy to a lost friend and a vanished city. Dante, the narrator, remembers his boyhood friend, Johnno, and the Brisbane of their post-war youth, which he paints in loving detail. He recaptures the heat, the lush vegetation, the pubs and the public library, the back yards and the brothels of a city that with World War 2 had just come into the big world and was about to lose its particular ragged charm and become a modern city just like any other. Johnno is the book that put Brisbane on the literary map, and in a sense that is just what Malouf intended.

It is very much a bildungsromans, a writer finding his personality as a writer and, characteristically, doing so through guilt. What exactly was his part in Johnno's life and death, he wonders. Johnno, who from the first had been Dante's alternative version, his way out of his good Catholic-boy upbringing, his way out of Australia, in the end cursed him. Johnno's final note, delivered days after his (probable) suicide pleaded with Dante to answer his call as he had never done in the past. "I've spent years writing letters to you and you never answer, even when you write back. I've loved you - and you've never given a fuck for me, except as a character in one of your funny stories."

There is justice in his accusation. Dante is a distant figure, even as narrator. He reconstructs a world in fine detail yet somehow manages not to interact with it. Perhaps his most telling line is "I was simply immobilised from within". He observes, in a manner that is very familiar from Henry James (Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady is a good example), and though he makes use of the energy released from Johnno's clash with the world, he remains on another trajectory, if that is the right word for so motionless a movement. However, it is perhaps one of the weaknesses of the novel that Johnno's search for the right place, the right state of mind, his resolute spiritual shopping, which must have resonated greatly in the Seventies, now makes him seem a rather tiresome figure, spoilt by too much choice and easy rebellions. As a reader, I shared the narrator's lack of committment to Johnno's quest, and I certainly did not feel guilty about it.

Johnno is also a very writerly project. Malouf is determined to be the makar of Brisbane. Dante says at one point that he was happiest when reading about

when everything that happened was history. I was very strong on history. Not the terrible history of our own misplaced continent,… but the history that was recounted in the books I bought at Old Neds in Melbourne Street… Australia was familiar and boring. Now was just days, and events in The Courier mail – even when those events were the Second World War. History was the Past. I had just missed out on it.
Now that the Brisbane of his childhood has been swept away by development and modernity, Malouf makes that place and time something where history has happened, something remembered strongly which is therefore meaningful. He makes Brisbane a place of the imagination. No small thing.

Johnno is a very good novel, and maybe for Australians and Brisbanites, a necessary one. I'm not entirely sure how appealing it would be for others, though it is not only in Brisbane that the need to escape from the flatness of suburban life is an urgent one.

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