John Hughes’ The Remnants requires much of a reader. It requires thought, perseverance and a certain stamina, but it is not without its rewards. The central story is taken from a father’s papers – diaries, notebooks and a manuscript – found and translated by his son. The book presents snippets from these sources with a brief heading to alert the reader to their provenance. In some pieces we learn the history of Anna, a Russian immigrant, who is wounded by her experiences of Stalinist Russia, by the torture of the poet Osip Mandelstam and by the murder of her son, Kolya. In other pieces, we learn more of the father, an Australian art historian with Russian heritage, who believes he has discovered lost paintings of the Italian artist Piero della Francesca.
The novel is already complex: there are stories about several characters coming from several sources, some undeniably fiction, some not. The reader must also balance these stories with commentary from the son. This serves, stylistically, as a contemporary “new world” balance to the European and Russian sensibilities. The son has travelled to Italy, where he is having an affair with Angel , but is also thinking about his girlfriend, Monica , back in Australia. He reminisces about his sometimes difficult relationship with his father as he critiques the father’s manuscript. (Incidentally, how cathartic, as a writer, to be able to comment on your own work, possibly more scathingly than any reviewer) There are also footnotes to the manuscript, made by the son, which highlight translation difficulties and decisions and sometimes reveal a little of the father’s history.
The novel is dense with ideas. It is huge in scope – geographically, philosophically and, to a lesser extent, historically. There are moments when The Remnants threatens to disintegrate under its own weight. It is not easy to keep the characters and intertwining plots distinct and there are times when the asides, the footnotes and commentary, jolted. Nevertheless, the very structure of the story is a comment on the nature of memory, described by Hughes as “a cement-mixer jumble of time”. The line between the remembered, the made-up, the true is deliberately blurred. Early in the book, the father’s notes define the remnants (of art) as
“stains, watermarks, fossil imprints, footprints, ash smoke, refuse – what remains”. Hughes has attempted the literary equivalent. Not easy to read, but complex and satisfying.
This review also appeared in Newsbite (the NSW Writers’ Centre enewsletter)
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