The House at Karamu
Travelling with Augusta 1835 and 1999
Victoria University Press, $34.95,
Initially, when I received these two books for review, I thought I would resist the contrast-and-compare technique, which usually, it seems to me, diminishes both. However, having read The House at Karamu and Travelling with Augusta 1835 and 1999, it occurred to me that both dealt with an impulse to defy amnesia. Amnesia can occur in individuals but, in a more potent form, among cultural groups. The Germans after World War II are an obvious case. Our own New Zealand condition has a particularly Pakeha face: perhaps leaving our culture behind in Europe was so intensely shocking that people were forced to forget. The trauma of settlement and racial conflict added to the impulse to tidy away, delete. A new culture, almost out of necessity, looks forward. It is only when a cultural group is established that people can afford to look back.
The House at Karamu is the memoir of novelist Beryl Fletcher, best-known for The Word Burners, which won the 1992 regional Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book. This is her first venture into non-fiction and it has about it the confident splash of the experienced swimmer taking to the water for what will be a marathon swim. The surrounding terrain is an instantly recognisable post-war Pakeha world. To be born then was to be born into a muffled silence. The horrors of war, and the preceding depression and even more disastrous World War I, delivered an ambiguous burden to those born after the second.
To us would be given all the opportunities of education, general prosperity and peace. Perhaps because of these benefits, we were also given the opportunity of forcing through radical social change. The twin peaks of The House of Karamu are the post-war silence and the oncoming rumble of a changed consciousness. This would reinterpret the baffled silences, the half-completed sentences heard from under the kitchen table, as a young Beryl listened to her mother and her friends ticking off gynecological catastrophes that implied narrow choice.
One of the real strengths of The House at Karamu is that Fletcher looks at a working class world knowledgeably yet affectionately. She grew up in Ellerslie, Auckland, before shifting to a brand new state house in Mt Roskill. Her father was a Marxist. A photo of Stalin held pride of place on the family’s walls. It is a little-known world to most New Zealanders. Memoir forces specificity; this is its great virtue. All too often, and in characteristic Uriah Heap self-deprecation, Pakeha New Zealanders mumble about how we Pakeha (especially in contrast to our other – the Maori) are “all just the same”. The House at Karamu points to similarities but, more potently, to differences.
Fletcher talks of her father reading the entire text of Das Kapital to her as a child:
It was almost incomprehensible to me, given that he followed his usual habit of speaking to me as if I was an erudite adult with the same extensive vocabulary that he had. But I was a willing participant, and I loved the gentle unfolding of the language. I heard it like a long poem …
Interestingly, Fletcher delivers her memoir with the same “gentle unfolding of language”. There is very little that is consciously poetic about her text but behind it is a kind of propulsion that makes the 438-page book a page-turner. Partly that stems (for someone of my generation) from the delight of recognition, but it is more than that: the book has about it the compulsion of personal deliverance.
Her father emerges as a magnetic force to whom the book is perhaps silently addressed. We meet him as an old and failing man in the present, and as a dynamic younger man in the past, forced gradually to accept that Stalin was a monster. (Uncle Joe’s photo is replaced by that of Sibelius.) Perhaps not unexpectedly Fletcher sought to become a musician – or rather, an opera singer. In The House at Karamu, she fails as an opera singer but emerges as a self-transformed young woman, shedding a hopeless marriage, winnowing her consciousness so that she becomes more herself: perhaps the transformed “revolutionary” her father might have wanted her to be.
This is a lovely, fresh, bounteous book, which sprints from page to page. It is also a potent antidote to amnesia about Pakeha cultural identity in terms of gender but also class. It is also more than these somewhat rigid signifiers imply. It is simply a good book, well written: a history of a generation, a time, a place.
I began Travelling with Augusta 1835 and 1999 with a sense of trepidation. A naughty internal voice groaned: Oh God, not another VUPpie book, with characteristic double narrative, erudite and self-conscious. But I must confess that, as I read on, my apprehensions about the Charm School approach lessened and gradually dissolved. Completely. Travelling with Augusta 1835 and 1999 has the unlikeliest of narrative pulls. One is an early 19th century diary kept by the author’s ancestor, Augusta Horrocks, at the age of 20. The author, Ingrid Horrocks at the age of 23, attempts to follow in Augusta’s footsteps round the Adriatic, keeping her own diary in tandem. In lesser hands this would have been a disaster.
Instead, the gentle intelligence and inquiring mind of Ingrid Horrocks makes this double journey an intriguing one for the reader: the reader goes on his or her own journey with a sense of delight and trepidation – (part of which becomes, interestingly, a question of whether the lonely and clearly attractive young narrator will succumb somewhere along the way to the pleasures and comfort of the flesh). I can’t quite explain it but as I read on until almost the final page, this sexual cliff-hanger delivered what I had hoped for: a genial 19th century solution.
One has to stifle the incipient and incredulous laughter that comes from the coupling of such unnatural companions as “Masterton” and “Venice”. Yet Horrocks provides a supple, intelligent context to her flighty ancestor’s narrative. Augusta and mother, father, and multiple siblings are making a seemingly triumphant progress, in a vast and cumbersome coach, through post-Napoleonic Europe. It is the beginning of a British century. Everywhere they go, people climb onto gilded ballroom chairs to watch the English maidens appear, in muslin and ringlets, only to copy them as quickly as possible.
The Horrocks family appears to be, on the surface, rich: they are the third generation of cotton wealth, and eager to escape the taint of commerce by appearing in the aristocratic salons of impoverished European nobles. Yet something is not quite right. Are they escaping their own déclassé position within a class-obsessed Britain? By the end of their narrative their great wealth turns out to be illusory. They retire to fusty obscurity in the corners and crevices of empire.
Augusta’s journal, then, is a bright dream of maidenhood, a gorgeous moment of perennially entering a gilded salon to applause, creating a “furore” (Augusta’s favorite fanfare); dangerously handsome Catholic nobles circle around the bait. By the end of the book all is revealed as a kind of rhapsodic dream. But Ingrid Horrocks has patiently, and even ardently, accompanied her ancestor round the Adriatic, following in her prancing, dancing, faltering footsteps, writing her own diary in a sense, but also rewriting her ancestor’s past by filling in the background with the unspoken, almost the unseen.
At one point Horrocks nearly loses the diary, which she is physically carrying with her. She wants, we sense, to lose the heaviness of her mission. She, poor girl, “just wants to have fun”. But Augusta has other things in mind. It’s an interesting portrait of the force of the past living in the present. Very few Pakeha New Zealanders have journals from their ancestors, simply because most of their ancestors couldn’t write.
It is an ambiguous gift then, from the past, this bright dream of maidenhood – especially when one sees at its end a kind of dim tragedy unfolding – “and then I woke up”. But most gifts from the past are ambiguous, and this – ambiguity, double narrative, a sense of all things being not so simple – is also a gift from the past. Horrocks massages the narrative so that simultaneously we see themes about travel, women travellers, travel writing, selfhood, encapsulation of place and historical amnesia: “Her (Augusta’s) family had been here all the time, I thought, gathering their memories while mine had wandered distractedly around the globe forgetting more at every step,” writes Horrocks.
To some degree all writing is a tossing off of bits of bread as we walk further and further into the dark forest. Ingrid Horrocks – and Beryl Fletcher – have given us all the inestimable gift of going back into that dark space called the past: they have gathered up the lumps of bread and – more magically still – they have made the bread not only edible but delicious.
Peter Wells’ latest novel, Iridescence, was published by Random House New Zealand in September.