Pivotal chapter in Peter Kocan's life
I'm probably raving on a bit," says Peter Kocan. He's not. It's just eloquent concern about the state of the world from a highly intelligent man who knows his literature, history and philosophy.
It is hard to believe that this award-winning author and poet is the same person who, as a lonely, silent teenager in 1966 approached Arthur Calwell with a sawn-off shotgun, aimed it at the politician's head and fired.
Calwell, then federal opposition leader, suffered facial injuries but later forgave his assailant. Kocan, then 19, was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder, first at Long Bay and then at Morisset Psychiatric Hospital in NSW.
After 10 years in prison, he was released and began to rebuild his life through writing about his experiences. Two autobiographical novellas, The Treatment and The Cure, told of his harrowing life inside. The Cure won the 1983 NSW Premier's Literary Award for Fiction.
Now Kocan's new novel, Fresh Fields, tells the story of his life before the crime. It sheds new light on the state of mind and the circumstances that could propel a disturbed young man into such an act of violence.
Kocan's friend, poet Les Murray says: "Others have given us guesswork and melodrama about the dark evolution of a loner; Peter Kocan's superb new novel traces the reality, step by step, from within."
We meet "the youth" (he is never named) as a 14-year-old fleeing a violent stepfather with his mother and younger brother. He is a morose, silent boy who shuns human contact. Gradually he drifts into living on his own, taking a string of jobs in the city and the country. Often he's homeless and hungry: he curls up to sleep in a telephone box or on an abandoned sofa in the street.
Yet the physical hardship is not as painful as his inner conflict. The lonely youth has a gentle, romantic, sensitive side that yearns for love. He cuts out pictures of Grace Kelly, his "sweetheart". But a darker side insists the only way to survive is to become tough and unfeeling, like Diestl, the German soldier he once saw in a movie.
By the book's end, Diestl has the upper hand. The youth has bought a gun, and the reader senses inevitable disaster.
While Kocan, 57, points out that "the youth" and his young self are not exactly the same, it is clearly his own story.
"It's very similar to my own state of mind at the time," he says from his home in Brisbane. "(But) I was very conscious of not wanting this novel to be just another growl or howl or whimper of victimisation... I was more interested in trying to illuminate something about the inner human being."
At the time of his trial, reports painted Kocan as a coldly deranged Lee Harvey Oswald type who wanted to kill to be famous, to rise above the nobodies of the world.
Kocan's picture is different. "Even at the end, when he's entered this dark pathway", he says of the youth, "he sees it as having something to do with love and faithfulness and being loyal to your post. That's very different from a savage, nihilistic view."
Several times, the youth comes to a turning point that promises to bring him closer to others and put him on a safer path - but it never quite happens. That's the tragedy, says Kocan. "If some sort of genuine help had turned up, things might have been different."
He worries that we still live in a callous, throw-away world where some people are deemed superfluous. The youth's redeeming feature is that he is not prepared to accept that. "Despite everything, he doesn't despair of love. He's constantly looking for models of resistance, of affirming his right to exist."
Kocan's advice now to a teenager in a similar state of mind would be: "Don't panic and don't despair, because time takes care of a lot of things."
But advice alone isn't enough. "Something has to enter deeply in their life," he says. In his case, it was discovering literature and history "and the poignancy of the human heart and mind".
At Long Bay, in the exercise yard, he described the clouds to a fellow inmate, who said "that's very Rupert Brooke".
"Rupert who?" asked Kocan. He asked his mother to send him a book of Brooke's poetry and was bowled over.
The mature Kocan has come a long way from the alienated youth in Fresh Fields. He is working on another book about the years after his release as he tried to re-enter the world. It is about the shelter of other people, and how necessary that is to everyone.
He still has an acute sense of the fragility of life. "We're walking in the dark over a pit of crocodiles, but at the same time we're out in a meadow of flowers walking in the light. Perhaps the whole key to being happy in life is to be able to make the light option more real simply by wanting it to be more real."
The youth never found the love he yearned for. But Peter Kocan clearly did.
By Jane Sullivan