Thorough examination of Mulgan's last years

Intrigued by seminal New Zealand novel Man Alone, Noel Shepherd explores the life of its author, John Mulgan.

Noel Shepherd
Steele Roberts Aotearoa


Born in Christchurch in 1911, John Mulgan was a multifaceted character, brought up in a liberal and academic environment and later relating wholly neither to his New Zealand identity nor to his British. The son of journalist Alan Mulgan, Mulgan junior was likewise drawn towards narration.

Man Alone, his 1939 novel, is a critical text for our New Zealand literature, as a vehicle for exploring a young man's day-to-day challenges in the rugged back country, here the Kaimanawas, trying his hand at farming in a country balanced between wars and mired in depression.

Rather than feature rosy landscapes and harmonious living, Man Alone looks at the ragged, average, working-class individual, whose main concern was simply survival in tough socio-economic times.

Though from a relatively privileged background offering education and opportunity, Mulgan felt ill at ease in stuffy academia despite of, or perhaps emphasised by, his time at Oxford, and preferred to mix with lively individuals from all backgrounds. World War 2 confrontingly enabled this, and Mulgan, as a likeable and social character, soon rose into leadership positions.

By this time he had a wife, and a young child he had hardly been able to meet. Although heavily involved in campaigns and fighting, there did seem much to live for. Yet on Anzac Day 1945, Mulgan committed suicide in Cairo.

Noel Shepherd was intrigued by Mulgan's Man Alone and familiar with the landscape depicted as he had lived there, too. Delving into the character of the man, he, like many before him, had been perplexed by Mulgan's final act.

Shepherd re-creates this man's final two years in his role as an officer in the British army, where he was based largely in Greece. As a nod to Mulgan's work, this novella holds a similar structure as well as a third-person narrative in reportage style.

It works admirably. He has researched thoroughly into the last two years of his subject's life and the political situation in a war-ravaged Greece. He includes historical figures who crossed Mulgan's path, even as he strived to avoid them, such as the brutal and intimidating Greek resistance leader, Aris Veloukhiotis. At times this detailed background will need simply to wash over the reader, unless he/she is an avid fan of war detail.

Shepherd's novella is thorough and surprisingly complex as he spins a scenario where identity becomes sketchy and confused. Professionally, never does he claim this is non-fiction, and he has gained obvious enjoyment in unfolding a portrait of a man involved in events as a witness and participant on a scale out of control.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.


Win a copy

The ODT has three copies of Mulgan, by Noel Shepherd, to give away courtesy of Steel Roberts Aotearoa. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ‘‘Mulgan’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, March 7.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Doctors in Denial, by Ronald Jones, courtesy of Otago University Press, were: Marjorie Brown, of Dunedin,  Kathleen Cochrane, of Balclutha, and Ross Donnelly, of Queenstown.


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