I picked this up earlier in the year while I was in New Zealand in a rather excellent independent bookshop called Unity Books. I was looking for some new New Zealand fiction, and this struck me as something quite interesting.
A ship filled with a rather ragged collection of sailors and merchants has come to New Zealand to seek trade with Te Rauparaha, a man widely believed to control much of the southern part of the North Island. Aboard the ship are two sailors who will rapidly become caught up in historical events well out of their control, as Te Rauparaha – the Wolf – has plans of his own for the new visitors. Plans that will have far-reaching consequences for the future of New Zealand.
Maybe I’m reading things into the text that don’t really exist, but I like to think there’s a subtle hint of homo-eroticism between our two narrators. Our narrator of the present is deeply attracted to Cowell, our narrator of the past, though his feelings seem to be confused. It’s an interesting point – there’s a scene early on in which he masturbates in the river, only for the whole thing to be reversed, and all of a sudden, he’s watching Cowell do the same thing. As a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of a native knowledge of New Zealand, it’s hard to tell whether the narrator is actually gay, or if he is simply misplacing his own longing to understand New Zealand, transferring it to the closest available symbol.
Look, it’s probably a little clichéd to say this, but Clayton really does make the landscape of New Zealand a character in this novel. Just like Rohan Wilson did for the landscape of Tasmania, Clayton evokes in the reader a series of images and sketches of the southern tip of the North Island (a place I have been, so that helped), told from the perspective of an outsider. That sense of wonder and confusion anyone gets when exploring the bush of a new land—trees that don’t look right, animals that seem bizarre, stars in the wrong place—is something captured by Clayton perfectly.
Attached to this evocation of landscape is the folkloric history of Te Rauparaha. It is gorgeously retold by Cowell, who clearly has the ability to tell a great story. From the language and tone of his stories, it is clear Cowell has a great deal of respect for the Wolf . There is a deliberate sense of the romantic hero about him—by tying the story to the conventions and practices of heroic poetry from the Western tradition, Clayton gives a sense of the epic to his readers. Instead of using Māori structures and traditions, I wonder if, by using Western constructions to describe a great Māori warrior, we, as white readers, get a greater sense of legitimacy from it. It’s that age-old question about whether oral history has any value, and Clayton neatly offers something of an alternative here.
In contrast to the mysterious and enigmatic Cowell, our other narrator fares less well on the character development front, though I rather suspect that’s the point. He is never named – though at one stage, he gets the unfortunate nickname David Jones – allowing us as readers to project something of ourselves onto him. He remains the ultimate everyman in this situation – he is new to sailing, has little experience of going to foreign lands, and is, in many ways, scared of what is going to around him. Indeed, he is so worried about one expedition, he stays behind without telling the rest of the crew. Of course, this turns out to be the sensible option, but his cowardly acts are, in many ways, completely understandable – at least to me.
I don’t want to call Wulf “experimental” literature, but I do want to point out its uniqueness. There is a quality to Clayton’s writing that often seems unreal, a tone that strongly supports the heavy mythology he has used to build the novel. Lloyd Jones (who’s quoted on the cover) is right – the real strength of this novel is its “imaginative derring-do”. There’s a lot to love from this little New Zealand novel – I hope it gets more recognition from some bigger markets.