“It seems to me,” writes the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz, that “all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time”.
John Hughes’s new work, an ambitious elaboration of themes contained in his 2020 Miles Franklin-shortlisted novella No One, shares Sebald’s eerie sense of simultaneity, albeit with a twist. The Dogs instead contains events from the past given up, like a retreating glacier disgorging human remains. It’s a novel in which a hundred years of family history is suddenly thawed into the present.
Michael Shamanov, the middle-aged screenwriter who narrates much of the book, has grown up in the shadow of his Russian father’s suicide and his Italian mother’s adamant refusal to give account of her past. The couple arrived in postwar Sydney as migrants, where they cleaned houses and worked as shop assistants, remaking themselves according to the demands of a society that considered itself spotlessly new, innocent of history.
Shamanov, like so many next-generation migrant children, made a successful career and moved away from his mother as soon as he could. When the now-elderly woman began to exhibit signs of dementia, he dumped her in a nursing home on the New South Wales Central Coast.
He has not seen her in two years when, in the novel’s opening pages, word comes that she is close to death. Guilt is the water in which the son now swims. All he can think to do is bring a Dictaphone on his visits, recording the long-held privacies of a mind in the process of shedding them.
Since he began his literary career as an autobiographical essayist in 2004, Hughes has been preoccupied by the situation of the exile and the migrant. What, he asks, should be kept from a past so damaged by conflict and upheaval, and what should be retained? Anna Shamanov turns out to contain within her paper-thin skin and failing consciousness a story at once remarkable and horrifying. Tragedy has gathered around her like a storm.
Hughes makes an unsparing tale from Anna’s life, but he softens the brutality of the material by wrapping it in exquisite, aphoristic prose. Had Sebald grown up in Hughes’s Hunter Valley rather than the Bavarian Alps, he may well have written a novel such as this.
Upswell, 310pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "The Dogs, John Hughes".
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