I was not alone in finding John Hughes’ collection of essays, The Idea of Home, a beautiful book. It contained some brilliant observations about the dislocated world of the children of immigrants that resonated with many Australians, and was voted favourite for NSW in the National Year of Reading’s ‘Our Story’ competition.
Novels are not essays, but this one walks a line between the two forms, calcifying around the bones of an imagined manuscript by a fictional John Hughes, as rediscovered by his son. This ‘translation’ adds layers of interpretation until the annotations cohere into a kind of thesis about translation itself: the translation of reality into language, of metaphor, of fathers and sons, and the loss inherent in translations of literature.
Hughes’ erudition is formidable and inescapable. The novel’s opening chapters include a reading list – Dante, Beckett, Berger, Rilke, Sebald, Weil and so on – which is inserted into the text by the main narrator, one Robert Hughes, who we find in Rome, investigating the manuscript of his art-historian father. The son slowly unveils his father’s relationship with Anna Ivanovna, the keeper of perhaps the last words of the poet Osip Mandelstam, whose words turn out to have more thematic revelations regarding fathers and sons.
Unveiling is perhaps not the right word here because the weight of Hughes’ intellectual dressing tends to obscure rather than draw out his themes. In an essay, literary tangents can be riveting, footnotes helpful; in a novel, the former is distracting, the latter contrived. Part of the power of fiction is that it leaves gaps and doubts that allow the reader to use her imagination; a side effect of this quality is that too much explication takes away from the reader’s experience. Hughes marshals his characters as mouthpieces for a whole flurry of observations, which do contain a generous serve of edification, but give the characters themselves little room to breathe, so they never quite come alive.
Perhaps Hughes’ other job as a teacher has filtered into this pedagogical mode, or perhaps it is the constant self-interrogation that overwrites the narrative. The Remnants is like a reverse game of pass the parcel, wrapping, rather than unwrapping, with the prizes ever more deeply buried. Now maybe that is part of what Hughes is saying about language and translation, but it is said at the expense of his story’s emotional power.
My sense of being excluded from this work of high-culture swaddling was enhanced by the main character’s objectification of women, which cannot go unmentioned. Early in the book Robert hooks up with Angel, a Polynesian bartender, and makes remarks that raised my feminist hackles: ‘Like Africans, Polynesian women have the most glorious raised behinds.’ I hoped the author was not condoning this sort of racist exoticism. Later Robert writes his poems on Angel’s arse while musing about text as penetration, a clumsy groping at meaning, which Angel apparently appreciates but almost made me give up on the book altogether. (She later has the good sense to dump him.)
The character of Anna is better drawn, but still represents the (one hopes) long-outmoded idea that women are muses or simply there to take dictation: keepers of the words of men. Anna’s meaning derives entirely from her relationships with men, and although she is given her share of wise observations, she finishes on a note of despair that is both predictable and disappointing.
At one point Hughes theorises that the Christian hell might be based on the cave dwellings of Cappadocia, and the speleological imagery returns as we follow him into darker recesses, each with a little less oxygen. ‘Whole novels might be seen as a kind of purgatory,’ he writes. Writing them, certainly. But reading them shouldn’t be suffocating.
The Remnants is not without value. Those willing to follow Hughes into the intricacies of his intellect are sure to be rewarded with bons mots and highly perceptive connections. To demand such deep concentration from a reader, with all of this wandering through dimly lit caves, you had better have something wonderful to offer in the way of revelation. I am generally a fan of the novel of ideas, but cleverness is not enough.
The obvious risk in positioning your work inside high culture to the extent that Hughes has done here is that you might come off as a bit pretentious. He has doubled this risk by building a novel from fragments. The audacity and erudition of this book are utterly commendable, but it ultimately fails to do much more than instruct. There is plenty of fodder here for the grazing intellect, but Hughes’ talents are better suited to the essay.