Saturday, April 22, 2023

Absent Friend, by John MacKenna. A review.

This is not a book for hours and hours of reading, writes Brian Byrne, but it is beyond value as a memoir of two creative lives separated by an ocean and connected by words, songs, and an enduring friendship.
John MacKenna’s Absent Friend is built on his longtime fascination with the lyrics and music of the late Leonard Cohen, to which he had been introduced at a critical time in his own younger life. Later, by the happenstances of career, he met the poet-singer-novelist and the two became friends, and eventually collaborators. 
This could be taken as the author’s ‘song soundtracks of my life’ kind of book. Though without the sound part. Which doesn’t matter, because without words there is no song, and it is the words and the stories they make which are the foundation of Absent Friend. Stories that could also be considered as a roadmap for a generation.
As the author replays it, milestones on his own road were the releases of new Leonard Cohen songs and albums. When MacKenna eventually got to meet the singer, in the course of his work as a producer with RTE, there was a mutual recognition of like souls. Over the next three decades that connection was maintained and built upon. Most of the time through letters and emails, many of them pithy and brief but deep in sincerity and mutual appreciation.
Lives have highs and lows and whatever happens in between. In this retracing of the journeys of two connected men there are resemblances between them. The stories of each are both difficult and easier, both remarkable and ordinary, both spiritual and secular. What stands out for me after reading Absent Friend is the similarities in the creativity of two different masters of the word. Cohen’s needs no introduction to his global fan base as writer, poet and singer. John MacKenna through his poetry, prose, playwriting, acting and documentary has built a similar legacy in this geographical space and in his own particular skill as a storyteller.
It might seem that this book would only be for those familiar with Leonard Cohen. But MacKenna’s selection from the singer’s verses, parsing them through the prism of his own and Cohen’s lives, make it for everyone. Deceptive simplicity is a characteristic of MacKenna’s writing, so this is an easy read on the surface. But there’s measurement of and appropriate depth to every word. To a writer this is a short book of much beauty — for many other readers it will sparkle from as many facets as there are sides to life. I read Absent Friend at two sittings. I’ll read it again, perhaps next time taking longer with a selection of Leonard Cohen’s songs running in background.
Absent Friend is published by John MacKenna and Angela Keogh’s own Harvest Press. It was recently launched in Athy Library by actor Gabriel Byrne to a packed house. There will be a local launch in Woodbine Books in Kilcullen on 5 May, without Byrne but guaranteed to be an evening to savour.

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