Subtle use of myth, Nelson Wattie

Baby No-Eyes
Patricia Grace
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0 14 027993 8

In Writing Along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction {reviewed on p22], Otto Heim expresses surprise that writers like Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera have shocked so few non-Maori. Is this due to the manner of the writing or the dull indifference of the readers?

Baby No-Eyes is not shocking, but it is a profoundly disturbing book, partly because of what it says and partly because of the way it says it. It tells of deep suffering and of the scars that suffering leaves, and it does so with an indefinite number of inter-related stories.

The baby of the title is stillborn after an accident and its eyes are surgically removed to permit some (unspecified) genetic research before the body is thrown into a waste container. The doctors have understood nothing of the importance of such an embryo to the whanau, who insist on having both body and eyes returned to them. This failure of the system to cope with the sensitivities of Maori people is the central example of such failures, which are further illustrated by every story in the book. In some degree the credibility of all of them depends on that of this central example – but is it credible? To this reader at least, it is unconvincing partly because it is intrinsically unlikely, but even more disturbingly because it arises so obviously from the manipulative attitude of the author-in-the-book. The action is there to make a point, almost as an act of propaganda, so that its relationship to objective reality becomes unfocused. Such a stance, however, runs the risk of making everything in the book unfocused: its characters, its events, its poesy, its passions and even its narrators and author.

I must clarify my terms: the “author-in-the-book” is not the narrator (there are many narrators in this book) nor necessarily the living writer, Patricia Grace, but is the guiding presence the reader feels controlling the narrators almost as if they were its puppets. It can be detected by readers rather than encountered by people at a book-launch.

The narrators of the many stories are usually their protagonists. For example, Gran Kura tells us of her experiences in the earlier part of the century (dated by the fact that she was six at the time of the Spanish flu of 1919). This includes the distressing tale of Riripeta, who falls ill with fear when she has to go to school and encounter a strange language, strange attitudes and a total lack of understanding from her teachers. She grows thin, ill and desperate and dies before school restarts at the end of the holidays. In the reader’s mind she might well blend with Baby No-Eyes.

The latter goes on living in the mind of her younger brother, Tawera, who helps her live a childhood with him. Only because he is the narrator of these chapters are we aware of how intensely Baby No-Eyes goes on being alive.

Even from this necessarily skimpy presentation, it should be clear that the story of Baby No-Eyes gives some kind of unity to the book by being reflected in the other stories. On the other hand the stories often take on their own impetus and seem to lose contact with each other and therefore with the book’s unity. The chapters of Gran Kura’s narration are scattered through the book. If they were drawn together and elaborated they might well make a book of their own.

There are other potential books within the book. Is this a sign of generosity and narrative wealth? Grace’s many admirers would almost certainly say so, but the same quality could be used as an argument for denying the novel’s coherence. This sort of disagreement has occurred in relation to other modern novels – Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is an example, but there the wealth of narration is a part of what the book is telling us, namely of the vast diversity of its socio-geographic background. Central to Grace’s book is the concept of whanau, the bonds across space and time that create a unity larger than the lives of individuals. In this context the tendency of the character’s stories to become autonomous can only be problematic.

It is only the reader’s privileged position that makes the connections between the stories clear. We have access to each and all of them but to a disturbing degree they are independent of each other, because each takes place in the mind of its protagonist. The persistent change of narrators suggests that they are cut off from each other’s experience. That would be fine in Samuel Beckett, but is uncomfortable in a book that otherwise suggests it is the story of a whanau bound by aroha.

An unfortunate binding force, however, is the uniform style. Switching narrators has almost become a feature of New Zealand fiction, but in the better examples (such as Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest novel) the voice of each narrator is distinct, the language differentiated. Patricia Grace’s characters tend to talk with the same voice, a voice which belongs less to them than to the author-in-the-book, a presence more poetically inclined than they and, unlike them, verging on sentimentality. There are exceptions to this, notably in Chapter 18, where an old man gives a moving speech in a highly distinctive voice and where Mahaki is given some lines of stream-of-consciousness. Such moments are highlights and suggest how the book might have come alive if handled throughout in this way.

In fact, Mahaki’s tale is normally told in the third person, so that he is kept at a distance from us. Is that because he is an adult male? Because he is a lawyer and therefore closer to the system than the others? Because he is educated and therefore, according to a persistent Kiwi myth, outside the stream of emotional life? Whatever the reason, this adds yet another disturbing element to the book’s structure. The author-presence intrudes even further. But that presence is also felt in the (usual) failure of each narrator to maintain a distinctive voice. They are left, for all their potential, to be subordinated to the dominating voice, a voice that has an axe to grind as well as a narrative poem to write.

I am conscious that the doubts expressed here run counter to the warmth with which this book, like others of its author, has been greeted elsewhere. Willingness to perceive the book’s undoubted strengths might still the awareness of its disturbing nature. It has such strengths in abundance – the musical language, the sense of political and aesthetic commitment, the subtle use of myth.

Tawera’s school puts on a performance in which he, the shy, insecure lad whose words sometimes suggest a disconnection from experience verging on the pathological, is paradoxically cast as the heroic demigod, Tawhaki. He rises to the occasion, and it seems that there is a profound affinity between these two, who bear somewhat similar names. The incident in the Tawhaki myth which is best known is not actually mentioned here, but is perhaps the most relevant all the same. When he climbs to the sky to visit his grandmother, Whaitiri, Tawhaki discovers that she is blind and restores her sight (in one version) by giving her the eyes of his dead brother or (in another version) by anointing her eyes with his spittle. Clearly there are connections between the “hidden” part of the myth and the eye imagery that pervades the novel (not only relating to the dead baby). There could well be a connection with the story of Tawhaki ineffectually washing his baby daughter as well. The precise nature of such connections is, however, unclear, and each reader is challenged to define them. This is not unlike the use of the genesis myth in other stories and novels of Patricia Grace, and it adds a dimension that nothing “realistic” could provide.

There is power, too, in the way the isolated individuals come together to reclaim the land taken from their family many years ago. Here the sense of purpose becomes strong and the “private” nature of many of their concerns obtains a public resonance.

Awareness of such strengths cannot lessen the disturbing quality of much else and especially the uneven and inconsistent use of language. On page 77 Tawera is narrating and his mother interrupts her reading to address his fantasies, until she “went back to staring at the pages”. This is clearly the child’s view of reading and is in keeping with the narrative situation. But the perspective is upset only five lines later, when Tawera reports: “When we went back out to the kitchen Mum’s eyes were still glassy on her reading. It was information that she had from the principal of the school that I would be attending.” The second sentence uses the first person but is all too clearly a communication from the author to the reader, bypassing the narrator. The next paragraph goes on to describe the activities of adults which would be unknown to and unnoticed by the narrator, who was not yet five at the time being described. Who is talking in that passage? Who is seeing? When does Tawera tell the story as opposed to experiencing its events? Why is his manner of telling indistinguishable from that of Te Paania, his mother, when she takes over?

There are no answers to such questions, which the reader is compelled to ask nonetheless. No matter how impressive the events told, this manner of telling them drives a wedge between reader and story, so that the events can only impress at a distance. And this is why at least one reader is torn between admiring the strengths of this novel and being bored by the constant intrusion of the author-in-the-novel. Why can’t she leave the characters and events to tell their own stories?

The disturbance this reader feels is not the shock whose absence puzzles Otto Heim, but rather a sense of some inner disharmony in the book itself. The overriding narrative voice can conceal the discrepancies by covering over the cracks with music and charm, but within that music, someone, it seems to me, is singing out of tune.

Nelson Wattie is co-editor of The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, reviewed in our December 1998 issue.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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