Tag Archives: New Zealand

Living in the Maniototo (1979) – Janet FRAME

This is the last of the novels I bought in New Zealand at the beginning of the year, and the woman at the second-hand bookstore said I chose well. Janet Frame is a towering figure in New Zealand, and her wiki page (I know, I know, I’m a terrible person) says she is famous for almost having a lobotomy and for eschewing the New Zealand realist tradition. Certainly the latter is true in this novel. This is a feast for the uncanny and unreal fanatics out there, constantly forcing the reader to question what is real and what is not.

Mavis Halleton has survived the deaths of two husbands, and in an attempt to get her life back on track, and to get her writing back on track, she goes to America to visit some old friends. There she expects to live in a quiet house while her friends are on holidays and get back into writing. What happens, though, is unexpected. Her friends die, and four uninvited guests turn up on the doorstep, wanting to stay at the house. Reluctantly, Mavis lets them in, and so begins a tale of five people living in close proximity, but never truly knowing one another.

I can’t remember a text I’ve ever read that so carefully – and indeed brilliantly – blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact. Many authors mine their own lives for their work – and many even “appear” in their own work with characters named after themselves that bear more than a passing similarity to their writer. But Janet Frame doesn’t bother with any of these devices. She is a character in her novel. There is no question of this. And I’m inclined to believe she is not hiding behind any affected mannerisms or speech patterns or anything else – this is what a Janet Frame autobiography would look and feel like. As far as I’m concerned, Mavis and Frame are interchangeable, though I’m certainly no Frame expert, so someone please correct me if I’m way off here.

On the first page, our narrator proclaims that she has three identities – Violet Pansy Proudlock; Alice Thumb; and Mavis Furness Barnwell Halleton. It is this last identity with whom we spend most of our time throughout the novel. Her last three surames come from having been married twice – both husbands died, though Mavis seems somehow emotionally detached from these events. She wants to write again, to feel the slow of story running through her veins, the feel of her mind and imagination working again.

The plot, such as it is, picks up when Mavis goes to visit some friends in America. After arriving in America, she is told that her friends actually died in a freak earthquake, and their will declares that the house – and everything inside – should be given to Mavis. Of course, Mavis cannot quite understand how or why this has come about, and with four guests about to arrive, she does the only thing she can think of – let them come, and look after them for a while.

When the four guests turn up, the novel shifts gears. It is almost – but not quite – as though all we read up to this is a prologue (though it takes up almost half the word count) to a story about two couples interacting, doing normal human things, feeling normal human emotions, fighting like normal people – all while Mavis looks on, as the passive author observer. Mavis is an isolated and introverted woman. More than any other first-person novel I’ve read in a long time, she is so inside her own head, thinking about everything she does, everything everyone else does. She is deeply concerned with the writing process – paragraphs are dedicated to her thoughts about good sentences, bad sentences – but she is also concerned with story-telling as a larger concept. Much of the first half of the novel is a treatise on what Frame thinks is good storytelling – how one should construct sentences and how one should use the English language feature so heavily they could be extracted into their own tiny writing advice book.

It is not until almost the very end that Frame pulls out the big guns. A phone call comes, announcing that, actually, the owners of the house are not dead. Everything that happened at the house was a figment of Mavis’ imagination – a story she concocted in her mind. And what a story. Her own battles with depression and mental illness are clearly weighing heavily on her mind here, and the collision of storytelling, illusion and depression mingle together in a way that is both surprising and surprisingly natural. Of course writers should be interested in the inner mind – they tell lies for a living, they construct unreal worlds and situations

Did I like the book? I don’t know. To be honest, I felt it dragged on for a long time, not really going anywhere, despite the occasional paragraph of brilliant insight . But then that twist comes, and it all falls into place. I didn’t see it coming at all, but now that I think about it, it was perfectly signposted. Living in the Maniototo demands a rereading – even typing these thoughts out, there are things I still don’t understand. What is the significance of these alternate personalities introduced at the beginning? What do these four guests represent? Are they facets of Mavis’ own mind? How much of this reflects Janet Frame’s own mind? This is a novel that leaves more questions than answers, but sometimes it’s nice to be confused by your reading.

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Chinaman (2011) – Shehan KARUNATILAKA

Chinaman, or The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, won the revamped Commonwealth Writers’ Prize this year. It had been on my radar for a while, thanks mainly to Mark’s review, and insistence that I read it. So I ordered it a little while ago, and when it arrived at my house this week, just after the prize announcement, I knew I had to read it. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this fast – which can only be a good thing, right?

The cricket world seems to have a short memory. Why can no one remember Pradeep Mathew, one of the best spin bowlers in the history of the game? W.G. Karunasena (Wije) – a retired sports-writer, and current drunk – remembers, and wants to tell the world just how this young Sri Lankan man became a great player. But finding evidence is hard, and as Wije’s becomes more and more ill, time is running out, and information is becoming more and more scarce.

It’s safe to say that I have little to no interest in cricket, though as an Australian, I have learned a surprisingly large amount of it by osmosis. While our our narrator is keen to point out early on in the novel that no knowledge of cricket is required, I am curious to see how many of the references to famous cricketers non-cricketers (read: Americans) understand – Shane Warne is referred to simply as Shane; Mark Waugh, Muttiah Muralitharan, and a whole host of other famous Sri Lankan, Australian and international players are mentioned with no explanation. Having said this, some of the best parts of the novel are the little asides that explain both mainstream and obscure parts of cricketing rules and terms – Karunatilaka has a way with these little bits of flash fiction, it’s hard not to smile at his explanations of things like the chinaman, or the Duckworth-Lewis System.

There’s a lot to love with an unreliable narrator. It seems almost a tautology to suggest that any first-person narration should be considered unreliable – no character can possibly know the entire truth about everything – but I think a lot of authors forget this. Fortunately, our narrator in Chinaman, Wije, is a loveable drunkard, who seems to have no qualms about telling lies in order to make his story better. Even better, he free admits this, turning the novel into a game for the reader. How much of his story are we to believe? Is it really possible that Mathew had a six-fingered coach to teach him how to spin the ball? Or that he wasn’t chosen for the nation team simply because he was a Tamil?

Wije is a beautiful character, pitch perfectly sarcastic and curmudgeonly. It is not difficult to imagine this grumpy old man going around the island of Sri Lanka trying to find his white whale, annoying people all around him. The angry old man journalist who has pissed off more people than he can remember is hardly a new archetype, but it’s nice to see it put to such good use here. The tone and style of his narration is a joy to read, perhaps because he is just so angry, or perhaps because he is hilarious in his old age.

Big spoilers for the end follow, so look away now if you want to be surprised. The fact that Wiji is so unreliable, coupled with the fact that no one else seems to be particularly willing or able to offer information about Mathews, led me, for a long time, to wonder whether the player was even real. And after Wije dies, for a few moments, I really believed that he didn’t exist. But as Garfield takes up the story in the final act, and he too realises that Mathews is real, the narrative shifts gears, as we find ourselves in New Zealand. It seems desperately cruel that Garfield should be able to pick up his father’s life’s work with relative ease – and then manage to finish the job by actually finding Mathews.

Perhaps the best thing about sport novels is the fact that the best ones are never really just about sport. And with the best of them, Chinaman, too, is not just about a mysterious cricket player. It is a fascinating look at contemporary Sri Lanka, and how it came to be a country split along ethnic lines. There’s a beautiful section where Wiji is asked to explain the difference between Sinhalese and Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and he is unable to come up with one good difference. And yet, ethnic violence and civil war are never far from the background of the novel, and often spill over into the cricket field, where ethnic politics dictate team selection and game strategy. It’s subtly done, and definitely not the focus of the novel, but it’s that little bit of extra detail that makes the novel seem more whole.

I’ve not yet read any of the other short-listed Commonweath Book Prize novels, but they would have to be really good to top this one. A drunk old man telling us the story of his last days, spent searching for a cricketer that may or may not exist – I don’t think I’ve had this much fun reading a novel in a long time.

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Wulf (2011) – Hamish CLAYTON

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.

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The Uncle’s Story (2000) – Witi IHIMAERA

Like the good person I am, on my recent jaunt over the ditch (to New Zealand, for those playing overseas), I sought out some good bookshops. Partially because I’m a book whore, but mainly because the book I took wasn’t nearly long enough. I managed to get some good advice about New Zealand literature from this rather wonderful second hand bookstore in Wellington. Check it out if you get a chance.

Michael chooses perhaps the most inopportune moment to come out to his Maori family – the week before his sister’s wedding. Doing so unleashes a chain of events in his own life that see both his family and partner reject him. But then, his aunt comes to him with a bundle of notes from his uncle – an uncle he never knew existed. An uncle that fought in Vietnam. An uncle carrying a secret not unlike the one Michael has just shared with his family.

This is, essentially, two novels that have collided to form one. The first is the modern coming out tale of a young Maori man in contemporary New Zealand, trying to find his way in a world dominated by white gays, and how he can reconcile is own sexuality in a Maori context, and how he can still be a Maori in a gay context. It’s a good question, and not one with an easy answer. Ihimaera, for the most part, stays away from any kind of moral preaching, though his ending implies he is optimistic about young gay Maoris. Michael’s best friend, a young women who sounds like a walking advertisement for militant feminism, occasionally comes off as ridiculous, but this is mostly undercut by her position as a Maori woman trying to fight her way in a white man’s world, and the realisation that maybe this is the only way she can be taken seriously.

It is Sam’s story, the uncle’s story, that Ihimaera seems more concerned with, and this shows in the novel’s construction. Perhaps simply because I, too, was more invested in this half, but it felt more real, perhaps, certainly I think it takes up more page space than the contemporary narrative strand. Sam falls in love with an American fighter pilot – Cliff Harper – and despite slight reluctance from Sam’s side, their relationship eventually becomes physical. It is a relationship that, in today’s terms, is nothing but homosexual, but in pre sexual revolution terms, the two men don’t seek to label it. Both have had women in the past, and perhaps because of the intensely emotional situation in which they find themselves, they have fallen in love, both emotionally and physically. Of course, the fact that Cliff is willing to follow Sam to New Zealand to meet the parents suggests this is more than just a short but intense burst of gay, but whether either

There is an inevitability to Sam’s fate – partially because it’s been foreshadowed, and partially because it seems that there is only one way out of the cycle of abuse perpetuated by his father. What was surprising, though, was the brutality and physicality of it all. Look away if you don’t want to know what happens. When Sam’s father, Arapeta, a highly respected Maori elder, and a man who seems to take great pleasure in breaking the spirit of his own children, discovers that his oldest son likes boys, let’s just say the phrase “he loses his shit” is not even vaguely appropriate. In a deeply disturbing display of masculine strength, he whips Sam until he lies bleeding on the ground, and then in perhaps the most confronting thing I’ve read in a while, urinates on his own son. It’s shocking, brutal and appalling, and really hammers home just how not ok Maori culture is with homosexuality.

Masculinity is at the heart of this novel – and at the heart of that is the the father/son relationship. Sam and Arapeta’s relationship is disturbingly dysfunctional, though in Sam’s defence, it is clear that Arapeta is a raving loony. His inability to interact with anyone outside his circle of army friends is worrying. The fact that he has broken his wife’s spirit, and is doing his best to break the spirit of his eldest son, highlights the twisted way he seems to view love. His youngest son, Michael’s father, at first seems to have similar problems dealing with his own son’s sexuality. Though, as he begin to understand the household in which he grew up, and the way in which Sam’s “abomination” was viewed, one can perhaps be a little more forgiving. Perhaps with some intense reeducation, he’ll get there. For Arapeta, though, there seems to be no hope. Too deeply wrapped up in ensuring the family line stays intact, and ensuring Maori tradition is followed to the letter, he is blinded to the fact that his oldest son is, fundamentally, a good person.

I did a course about Indigenous Australians at uni last year, and one of the questions that kept coming up was whether “traditional” Indigenous culture could survive in a contemporary, multicultural Australian setting. The corollary to this, of course, is whether this is an important question. Should we be trying to preserve Indigenous culture in some kind of vacuum, not allowing it to interact and change, just as all other cultures do over time? This was the question I kept coming back to again and again reading The Uncle’s Story. How can we, as liberal (very much with a small L) social democrats, dedicated to encouraging equality for all, simply accept that – in this case, Maori – culture dictates that it is ok to ostracise someone because they happen to be gay, all in the name of “traditional culture”?

The lessons contained in this novel are universal. Though they evoke a specific culture in a particular time and place, they are also a warning against tradition for the sake of tradition. The optimistic ending sees Maori culture taking a step towards the contemporary, and highlights the one universal constant – cultures and values are constantly changing, and one mustn’t be afraid of this. The Uncle’s Story is a story of past mistakes, and offers a way forward.

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