The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Outlaws. It is true to say, probably, that John Mulgan's Man Alone is the best handling of the theme of outlawry and pursuit which we have had. But R. M. Burdon's Outlaw's Progress, 1943, touches upon the same material, in particular the pressure of economic forces on the post-war settler. Like Mulgan's Johnson, Burdon's Owen Marley is a returned soldier, who has "been in all the wars" but finds that there are "worse things about the peace". His hopeless struggle on the starveacre soldier settlement, Donovans, is described to us rather than felt by us, but the township Rangitira is vivid enough, with its queer cards, businessmen, humours, disasters. Marley is driven helplessly along the road to rebellion. Finance, banks, the law, bring him at last to murder. Burdon has the Graham case in mind, but shifts our sympathy to the hunted. But Outlaw's Progress does not really penetrate beyond a surface treatment, and lacks the grip of tragedy. Burdon, who is a South Canterbury man, ex-soldier, run-holder, and author, is better known for his biographical series than for what he now calls a "damn bad novel".
Another novel of "the hunted", to use John Lee's title, is that by Erik de Mauny, The Huntsman in his Career, 1949. This does get below the surface, being an exploration of the problem of personal responsibility. Most young men have had to consider their attitude to war or capital punishment. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is a commandment—when, if ever, do circumstances justify a man in setting it aside? When may he refuse to take part in actions sanctioned by his society? If he conforms, to what extent is he guilty, or to what extent can he contract out in spirit while obeying physical commands? How far is a man involved in the collective guilt of the community, and how may he purge such guilt?
De Mauny weaves a net of tentative explorations round a murder (the Graham case again). His seeing eye is young Peter Villiers, a sensitive intellectual, journalist, and pacifist. There is much talk of books, ideas, values and the meaning of life. As an outlet for his page 65 nagging sense of guilt about society, Peter leans to Socialism, and offers his pity to the refugee Kurt. When war comes and Kurt is interned, Peter reacts by enlisting to fight the foe, but finds himself first a member of an Army team detailed to hunt down a murderer.
Next in the pattern, but unrelated in any way to Peter, is Bernard Cleaves, whose growing up in shoddy suburbia is drawn parallel to Peter's. Bernard is murdered by the third figure, Gerald Milsom, a backblocks boy, who has been driven into a nightmare fantasy by years of unrewarded slogging, financial trickery and long suppressed hatred of his father's authority. These three barely meet—but "no man is an island"; murderer, victim, hunter, are linked. Who is innocent? Whose is the guilt? And who may kill? There is no villain, or scapegoat. The hunting down of Milsom becomes the image of Peter's private war with himself.
These themes are strongly handled, but the ending leaves a vague sense of failure. Peter decides "I will kill this man because pity and understanding are not enough . . . only the act . . . has reality . . . If it should be the act of another, I would have to consent to it . . . But by making it my own, I make the responsibility mine: and I do not consent." Making thus a positive gesture, he fires the shot which kills Milsom. He then departs on an overseas troopship. In spite of the weaknesses of an uncertain philosophy and a rather undisciplined style, this book has merit, not least that of taking life seriously.