In 1945, John Mulgan – soldier and author of the New Zealand novel Man Alone – committed suicide. The reasons behind his actions are still unknown today. But one of the many magical things about fiction is how it allows us to speculate. We can wonder about a different world, an alternative end. And this is what Noel Shepherd does in his novella Mulgan; he seeks to give John Mulgan an ending that will explain his death.
The novella begins with Mulgan’s life in Greece. There he meets Johns, an enigmatic figure with the same name as the main character in Mulgan’s own novel, Man Alone. Johns and Mulgan become partners in crime, working together through the war-stricken landscape of Greece. Shepherd has evidently done his research, and this shows through this text’s little details where he makes references to exact people and places. These details help bring precision to a world so far away from modern New Zealand.
The language of Mulgan was easy and enjoyable to read; Shepherd interpreted the last two years of Mulgan’s life with clarity. The story of Mulgan’s life in Greece was also interesting in itself. The constant pressure and threat of war overhung the whole novella and often there were short bursts of violent scenes, serving as a reminder that this danger could come at any moment. I got so caught up in the scenes of war that I forgot, from the beginning, that I knew what ending this story would lead to: Mulgan’s own suicide. The many snapshots of war developed Mulgan into the full figure of leadership that he is known for, but Shepherd made it clear that the horror of consistent violence leaves scars. When the all-revealing plot twist appeared, Shepherd stated it modestly, letting the reader’s own realisation wash over the text.
While reading the novella, I also felt a constant undercurrent of homesickness. Before the war, Mulgan studied the Classics and this was what brought him to Greece. There were moments when Mulgan described the ancient sites he saw: “crumbling pieces of the often conquered and sacked ancient Greek world”. However, being in Greece and in the thick of war also meant always being ready to leave. And the switches from place to place – Greece to Cairo, Cairo to Greece, but never home to New Zealand – was rendered so heartbreakingly in a single piece of dialogue from Mulgan: “I’m not sure who I am any more. I have no country, or maybe I have too many countries.”
After the revelation near the end of the text, I wanted the story to slow down; I wanted to understand Mulgan more. I soon realised that this could be my own flaw, too. The true cause for Mulgan’s death will always be a complex mystery. The speculation of Noel Shepherd’s novella is brilliant because, as Shepherd explicitly states in his introduction, the novella not claiming to be any sort of non-fiction. Instead, Shepherd shows an ending that you may have never considered, one that makes you pause and think. He invites you to wonder.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
by Noel Shepherd
Steele Roberts Aotearoa