Dark Night: Walking with McCahon by Martin Edmond review

by Justin Paton / 19 August, 2011
Martin Edmond has written the best – the riskiest and most fully imagined – book there is on Colin McCahon.
Whatever else they might do, the words “New Zealand non-fiction” don’t exactly stir the soul. If the national book awards of the past decade or so are any measure, the best of local non-fiction is defined not by flair or idiosyncrasy – not by writing – but by hard work and high page counts.

Amid the doorstop biographies, no-fact-left-out studies of the natural world and thick slabs of social history, it’s always a relief to encounter a new book by Martin Edmond. Too personal to be called histories, too flagrantly imaginative to be called biographies and too wayward and meandering to be called strict travelogues, Edmond’s books look out of place on whatever shelf you put them. And that, I suspect, is how he likes it.

Edmond’s newest book is, to use his words, “a twisted pilgrimage”. It begins with the moment in April 1984 when Colin McCahon, in Sydney to attend a major exhibition of his work, went missing in the city’s Botanic Gardens. Terribly reduced by decades of drinking (he stopped painting in 1982 and died in 1987), the greatest New Zealand painter of the 20th century was found one day later in a park miles away, unsure where he’d been and who he was. In contrast to all those international moments the culture loves to remember (Keri gets a Booker! Kiri does Covent Garden!), McCahon’s disappearance must be one of the oddest and saddest moments in New Zealand art history, a black hole in the cultural record.

Edmond’s mission is simple and very game: to walk through Sydney, reimagine what McCahon saw during his “dark night”, and shape his discoveries into a kind of devotional journey, a contemporary Stations of the Cross. It is a great, risky premise, and there’s a moment early on when Edmond seems rather too sure of how well things will go: “There were so many possible dimensions to the projected experience that even if nothing happened, that nothing would still constitute a something.” Well, the sceptical reader wants to reply, let me be the judge of that. This is the problem with pilgrimage literature generally. Having committed to the journey, the pilgrim needs everything to be significant – even the insignificant bits.

These doubts drop away once Edmond starts walking. A long-time Sydneysider and sometime taxi driver, he’s uniquely well-qualified to track McCahon’s “wordless, amnesiac ghost” through that city, with its fruit bats, fitness freaks and nocturnal cast of “shufflers, yarners, drinkers, ramblers and sleepers”. Reading Edmond is much like exploring a city, where simply crossing a street or turning a corner can launch you from the mundane into the marvellous. The method kicks up visions that no strict scholar would dare entertain, as when we encounter Maori drag queen Carmen taking a hankie from her bra to mop McCahon’s forehead – Edmond’s lurid and strangely touching variation on the Christian story of Veronica and her veil.

What really sets Dark Night apart is the care it expresses for its subject as a person and, strange to say, as a soul. For Edmond, “McCahon has become a revenant, one of the unquiet dead, whose dilemmas, so intense while he lived, have not gone away”, and Dark Night is powered by a conviction that “the need to care for a soul can outlast the death of the body”. It is not a book written about McCahon, then, so much as one written beside him. And it’s this ambitious and wholly unfashionable sense of companionship, of writing as a way to re-enter the past and speak with the dead, that makes Dark Night, for me, the best – the riskiest and most fully imagined – book there is on McCahon.

Where to shelve it? In my dream library, I’d place it between Delia Falconer’s recent Sydney, a similarly haunted and haunting account of that supposedly sun-drenched and easy-going city, and Peter Carey’s novel Theft, whose painter-protagonist creates explicitly McCahon-like canvases. In the meantime, Edmond’s publisher has placed the book in that odd sub-category “creative non-fiction”, a term that suggests creativity plays little part in most non-fiction writing. Lucky for us, creatively is the only way Edmond writes it.

DARK NIGHT: WALKING WITH ­McCAHON, by Martin Edmond (AUP, $37.99).

Justin Paton is a senior curator at Christ­church Art Gallery. A series based on his book How to Look at a Painting is currently screening on Sunday nights on TV1.
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