Master of the novella form

HARMLESS
Nanjing Night Net

By Julienne van Loon. Fremantle Press. 140pp. $22.99.

The action of Julienne van Loon’s novella Harmless is compressed into the late morning and afternoon of a single day. Compression is one of the novella’s hallmarks, and van Loon uses it to good effect. A few pages in and tension clamps the hearts of the protagonists; a few more pages and the reader is struck by an impending sense of doom.

Two of the protagonists, an eight-year-old girl, Amanda, and an elderly Thai man, Rattuwat, are on their way to visit Amanda’s father in prison when their car breaks down. It is hot; the only other traffic road-trains. Rattuwat, who has come to Perth for his daughter’s funeral, has no money and no mobile phone. They get out and walk, leave the road, and soon, carrying neither food nor water, become separated from each other.

Though the landscape is dry and hard, I was reminded of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and the sense, in that classic novella, that, once the initial incident has taken place, what follows, unavoidably, is a tragic downward spiral.

Amanda finds orchids and, hours later, a dying kangaroo. Rattuwat sees a man on a tractor in the distance. But he doesn’t know how to ask for help and wonders if he isn’t some kind of ”walking ghost”. Meanwhile, Amanda’s father, Dave, waits for his visitors and, when they fail to show, is forced into some kind of reckoning with himself. He spends the afternoon regretting his failures, as a father and as a de facto husband to Sua, the Thai woman whom he rescues from her abusive husband, but then leaves, escaping back into the familiar security of prison.

The title comes from Dave’s reflections, after he has climbed onto the prison roof and waits, while guards close in. ”I’m not here,” he thinks, and then: ”Harmless, but; harmless, eh? That was the main thing.” Dave is only dimly aware of the levels of irony that permeate this scene, obliging readers to question the meanings of ”harm” and ”harmlessness” and where the line might lie between the two. Van Loon’s novella works by posing questions and leaving readers with a sense of mysteries that can’t be explained. There is no room, in a novella, for detailed explanations; only what is strictly necessary so the story can be told. Those who understand the form can make remarkable use of it. Van Loon is one of these.

Sua is a character constructed out of memories, lovingly and convincingly recalled by Amanda as she trudges on; Rattuwat’s memories of Sua’s childhood and the family’s misfortunes in Thailand are heartbreakingly real. But it’s a minor character, Darjuna, who manages a petrol station, who offers hope at the end.

Harmless was originally inspired by the Jatakas, stories of the Buddha’s former births, in which the Buddha appears variously as a king, an outcast and an elephant. In the course of writing the novella, van Loon says, she became less concerned with keeping true to the original tales; but surely it is the Buddha as outcast that shines through her narrative, and the grace one outcast can unexpectedly confer on another.

Van Loon’s first novel, Road Story, won The Australian/Vogel Award in 2004.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.