Peter Kocan’s new novel, Fresh Fields, is a stark, harrowing, yet deeply courageous work of immense power and magnitude.
It was fashionable some years ago for literary critics to search the horizon, Ahab-like, for the Great Australian Novel. If this is not exactly the Great Australian Novel they expected, it is certainly a very great novel, the greatest to appear in Australia for a long time.
It confirms absolutely Kocan’s place in prose as in poetry as one of the foremost writers in the English language today. As I know of no other contemporary poet who can combine profundity and clarity like Kocan, so I know of no other contemporary novelist in the English-speaking world who can so use his art to heighten and sharpen realism. Kocan, whose poetry often shows him to be the most romantic of contemporary writers, has both broken the “serious” novel out of the mire of “social realism” and beaten the social-realist writers at their own game.
The story is, on its surface, simple and terrible. Like Kocan’s earlier novels, The Treatment and The Cure, it appears to be closely autobiographical
. The protagonist, the nameless “Youth”, is already, when the story opens, plainly deeply disturbed. His mother has taken him and a younger brother away from his violent and abusive stepfather. She, however, can barely cope with the two children.
The youth is sent to a farm to learn jackarooing, for which he has no aptitude, sleeping in the shed with rats and terrorised by a part-mad farmer’s wife. Other such jobs follow, short-lived, often back-breaking, alternating with drifting poverty-stricken in the city, sleeping in alleys and telephone booths. What social interaction he has, as when he manages to pawn a stolen bicycle, is almost a matter of repeating parrot-fashion a language and references he hardly understands.
One of the many remarkable things about this novel is the way it completely avoids self-pity. There is no simplistic Marxist exegesis along the lines that the youth is crushed by socio-economic forces. He soon sees that life is more complex than that. “The system” is not to blame for what is unfolding: some people, some of them grappling with tragedies and terrors of their own, offer help and kindness, but the youth is in no condition to understand or accept this. It is part of the knotted question of “Guilt or Fate?” Kocan has said:
"Our society is already drowning under a plethora of victim-mongering crap. My character is more someone trying to make sense of what’s happening to him, trying to find both an honourable way to live and models of resistance to his perceived expendability."
The really alienated, says Kocan, don’t need profound advice so much as someone to chat and joke with. There is none of that for the youth. He is moving into a more and more lonely and desperate situation. His most realistic attempt to seek help ends in a tragi-comic fiasco. His best job is lost through a couple of feckless, effete “uni” students. He moves beyond asking for help, beyond even knowing he needs it.
There are a few gleams of something else, and that is what the makes the youth different: tiny crumbs of a world of courage, devotion, beauty come his way, to be the jumbled icons of an autodidact. Clinging to confused notions of courage and honour and a higher, numinous world, he looks to King Harold, last of the Saxon kings of England, going down fighting under the concerted attacks of too many enemies, a lone Viking, Lawson’s tragic drover Harry Dale, and often Diestl, a lost Wehrmacht soldier defying the world. There are pictures of the beautiful Grace Kelly.
His responses to the scraps of history he has picked up are those of someone with the sensitivity and perception to be a poet—but he has hardly heard of poetry and with nothing to guide him those very qualities of sensitivity and perception make his plight more terrible. If he were the man Housman envied, “with flint in the bosom and guts in the head”, he might get by at a dumb, basic level of existence. As it is, he is going down into a vortex.
A day’s budget encompasses a sausage roll and a glass of milk. The questions of a bed for the night and food the next day are ceaselessly-gathering horrors too terrifying to contemplate. Part of Kocan’s genius is that he can take the reader with him into the youth’s deeply and increasingly disturbed mind, yet never lose sight of the real-world situation. The youth has ended up in this situation because of an almost total lack of survival skills, and the absence of any father or teacher. There is no old bird to teach the young bird to fly. He does not know about the social-work and welfare industries, and they do not know about him. He makes his way alone because as far as he is concerned there is no other way to survive. Then other things begin to awaken. The bewildered youth is coming to see that destruction has agents as well as patients:
"He stood up and left the reading room, putting on the Diestl mood to help him cope with the feeling that all eyes were on him. He went into the park and walked about. He thought about Diestl. There was a side to Diestl he had not paid enough attention to. He mostly thought of Diestl as the great symbol of detachment, of solitary survival, of being impervious to everything in the world. That was all true, but there was a whole other thing too. Diestl did not wander the earth randomly. He had a destination and a purpose: to get to the spot where he would make his stand, strike his blow, make the enemy pay. Diestl was like a time bomb. He kept himself apart and safe, not because his wellbeing mattered in itself but because he needed to get that bomb to where it would do most damage.
The youth stopped walking about and stood staring at the city skyline. He was picturing that skyline crashing down in flame and smoke. Diestl was beside him and spoke in an ice-cold voice: “That’s it. You’ve seen the point at last.”"
The approach of the deadly idea is slow and sinuous as the hopeless months go by. He buys a rifle. The knot of fate tightens. Things move into the Last Hours:
"It was around three o’clock in the afternoon and at around eight o’clock that night he had to be at a certain location where all would be revealed. That phrase kept running through his mind: All will be revealed. Oh yes, he was thinking, I have a bag of tricks right here. Actually it’s just the one trick, but it’s a bobby-dazzler. You’ll read all about it tomorrow. He kept his eyes level and didn’t mind exchanging glances with the oncoming people. He felt as confident and cheerful as he had ever felt in his life."
On one level, the story is a starkly terrible diagram of the maiming effects on a child of the absence of a father to teach and guide, and I do not think anyone who lost a father young will fail to feel a throb of recognition. That aspect of the story alone would be reason enough to make one wish this book were compulsory reading for the various politicians, sociologists and alternative lifestyle advocates and practitioners who dismiss the conventional family as a reactionary bourgeois affectation.
It also—this is a theme Kocan has made clear in the poem “The Fathers”—suggests that one of the purposes of heroic legend is to transmit the great values of nobility and valour down the generations. Although its juxtaposition with the milieu of Fresh Fields seems at first incongruous, it is no coincidence that Kocan, like many of the present generation, is knowledgable and enthusiastic about The Lord of the Rings and the Arthurian legends.
It may be objected that there is some ambiguity here: it is the fantasy-figure of Diestl that stands not only for stoic fortitude but for violent revenge on the world. I think the point is that the youth is in a situation in which the symbols of courage and affirmation have inevitably become twisted. If it were not Diestl, it would be some other product of his mind.
This is where much of the spiritual strength and greatness of the story comes in: Fresh Fields is at first reading unrelievedly black, depressing and despairing, the humour—of which there is certainly some—as black as the rest. And yet somehow it is not so. It has all the elements of tragedy yet avoids being a tragedy. Partly this is due to the iron in it—the fortitude of the central character. Partly, perhaps, this is because we know the true story that parallels the fiction: in 1966 Kocan, a fatherless street-kid-cum-casual labourer, in a state of total alienation, attempted to shoot Labor leader Arthur Calwell.
He apparently had fairly little in the way of political motive, and thought vaguely that he would die in a hail of bullets, but showing that a downtrodden worm could turn and sting. Calwell (as Kocan said later by the Grace of Providence) received only minor injuries and magnanimously forgave Kocan, who was initially sentenced to life imprisonment and in the event was confined in prisons and a secure mental hospital for more than ten years. Whether or not he was literally insane or had been driven into a state of total unreality by his situation is a somewhat futile question.
Kocan has set out much of this in his prize-winning autobiographical novels The Treatment and The Cure. In a long article originally published in Quadrant in 1977, Kocan wrote:
"For over three years my fantasy and anguish had been building towards this terrible “solution”. I had never once considered what would happen to me afterwards. I was blinded by the potential vision of my life ending in a welter of violence, with the shocked eyes of the entire nation riveted for a brief moment on me alone ..."
Then, after the shooting, when he was held by an angry crowd:
"Someone shouted that Mr Calwell was not seriously hurt. I felt a vague sense of relief, but could not still grasp fully that “Mr Calwell” was a flesh and blood human being to whom I had just done dreadful violence. He had seemed to me to be almost a fantasy-object in my own mind ..."
We know that, against all odds, and with enormous courage and fortitude, beginning with no more than a few old-fashioned books of poetry at the institution and initially completely cut off from the sympathetic and stimulating environment of company and conversation which most budding writers must have, Kocan made a major writer of himself.
His poetry long ago outgrew the autobiographical and his recent books of poetry have been splendid and eloquent affirmations of the great values of civilisation. He is also a quite considerable playwright. (He has, I think, at least a fourth autobiographical novel he must write—what happened after he was discharged into the world again.) Perhaps the values of those dim historical figures that the street-kid clung to turned out in the end to play a large part in the saving of him.
If one had been able to travel back in time and tell that friendless fifteen-year-old kid that one day he would be teaching at a university and the author of a series of highly-praised books, one wonders what the words would have meant to him, or, when he was committed to Morriset mental institution, that one day it would be mentioned on the local website as the place where Peter Kocan began to write? The question is whimsical, but perhaps it illustrates something.
I hope Fresh Fields will mark the shift of Peter Kocan’s writing career into a new and higher gear. He deserves recognition not only as a major Australian writer but as a major international writer. I was privileged to see a late draft of his long essay Dysart’s Dilemma and can say that he has there another important book ready to go. If a true history of Australian literature in the twenty-first century is ever written, Fresh Fields will be marked as the century’s first Australian novel of genius. I hope that it may lead to some competent body at least putting Kocan’s name forward for the highest formal literary recognition.
by Hal G.P. Colebatch, whose latest book is his biography of his father, Sir Hal Colebatch, Steadfast Knight.