Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, by Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2011) 198 pp. $37.95
To be an essay writer is to be an eclectic: one who gathers together curious observations and out-of-the-way facts, and then conjures with them so as to offer another interpretation of some aspect of the world. At least, this is what the series of book-length essays that Martin Edmond has produced over the past two decades seem to do. He’s a memoirist, whose ‘memoirs’ are quest books, rehearsing investigations, making enquiries, retailing anecdotes and philosophical ruminations in pursuit of some invariably elusive subject — as in Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which is a circuitous examination of the visionary painter Colin McCahon — or perhaps ‘Colin McCahon’, because Edmond, as he tells it, only ever ‘met’ McCahon twice, and both times briefly without McCahon really knowing who he was or even exchanging words. So the person Edmond pursues in his book, as if shadowing him even as he elegises him, is partly a creature of his imagination, vivified from second-hand reports, scrutiny of the artistic legacy, and guesswork: the artist bodied forth as a sort of Scotch mist, an atmosphere, whose very presence depends on the darkness of the ‘dark night’.
Edmond’s chief narrational pathway into the McCahon myth is the artist’s famous disappearance in Sydney, when McCahon, over from Auckland with his wife Anne to attend the opening of an exhibition of his paintings, seems to have wandered off in a fugue state one morning while visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens. He became a missing person for nearly 24 hours, before the police identified him as someone they’d picked up as a nameless, homeless vagrant in Sydney’s Centennial park and taken to the near-by Caritas Centre of St Vincent’s Hospital.