Hughes, John. No One. UWA Publishing, 2019. RRP $24.99. 157pp. ISBN: 9781760800291.
The pages have browned, and there are more gaps than words. But reading the notebooks is like watching a forest die. It’s possible to interpret their cryptic mode of storytelling as coming from a (justifiable) fear of colonial authorities. (He must have spent many nights with the girl – hence the scale of what is hidden.) It’s the silence that tells the story, and all that’s recorded is there merely to throw light on that silence. If the notebooks taught me anything at that time, it’s that most of what’s important in a story is outside saying. (32)
In No One the narrator walks the streets of Sydney, almost in a fugue state, following what he feels are like the grooves of a record, laid down by his own feet. He describes the walking as though it extends for years, decades. The compulsion to traverse the city, to move, is a reflex that his conscious mind is barely aware of. And while he walks he is deep in thought, driving his memories out, but also steeping in them, delving into the dark legacy of colonial Australia, in which all destinations are illusory, in which all places of origin are lost.
The story opens late one night when the narrator hears a thump on the side of his car as he drives over a bridge near Redfern station. He stops his car a little way down the road, not certain of what he heard. When he returns to the bridge, he can see what looks like blood on the road, and a dent on the side of his car, too high to be made by a dog. There’s no one around.
He begins his search for the victim of his hit and run, but even the terms victim, hit, and run are in doubt. Where to start to make amends when there is no one there to make them to? And what amends does the narrator intend to make? What could he do to erase the impact of metal on human flesh and bone?
It’s the absence that the journey seeks to fill. The spaces in between the plot points of history yawn open, the stories Hughes is telling multiply and each is filled with gaps that somehow tell more of the story than what remains. How to address those absences in a colony whose first act was to declare Terra Nullius, and that is always looking somewhere else, renaming the places and covering them in gritty pavement?
Hughes weaves themes of language, forgetting and remembering into a narrative that is haunted by the past. The narrator drops into reverie, and back to the present moment, seamlessly. The effect is disorienting. The past and the present are the same creature, eating its own tail. The layered effect this creates delivers the depth of the history, the reader is never in doubt that this story is bigger than that of the narrator alone. He seeks a destination that always recedes, assisted by a woman he calls the Poetess, by a train, by voices he hears on his radio in the dead of night, and by his own two feet that walk kilometres of footpath. To what end? There’s no-one there.
Later, driving back to the hostel on the outskirts of the city, I caught the lights of the car behind me in the rear-vision mirror and wondered why I had not looked in the mirror the moment after I heard the thud. It would have been the natural thing to do. But all that came into my mind was another question: why all those injunctions against looking back? I thought of Orpheus, and Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt. (14)
No One is an unsettlingly nihilistic story, vividly allegorical, and beautifully written. If there was a crime there is no victim, and given the car doesn’t seem to reappear after that fateful night, there is also no weapon. But the desire to atone, the desire more importantly to know, remains. Hughes’ focus on the raw depth of pain at the root of Australia’s story is unwavering, if circular. The history of this place is full of casual, and quite deliberate, cruelty. It comes back to the narrator in fits and spurts, in gasps and half remembered languages, like the scramble for a broadcast on his ham radio. He visits the coroner’s court, witnessing the immense scale of Aboriginal deaths in custody as a kind of penance, ‘to punish myself for all that had happened to these people’. The text is most successful when it engages other characters in the narrator’s meanderings, such as the Poetess, and the unnamed Aboriginal artists he refers to and meets along the way. The rabbit warren inside his head is over-woven and difficult, at times, to parse.
There are few resolutions. Everything is circular and doubled, and, as the narrator concludes, the past, too, is waiting for things that do not exist. While the experience of reading No One is slow and lingering, and Hughes’ sentences and images are crafted with great care, it is only at its end that the reader senses the airlessness the narrator has been circling through. The final pages give a sense of finally stepping out of a room closed up tight in an abandoned building, full of so many ghosts.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.