The good, the bad and the epic, Louise O’Brien

As the Earth Turns Silver
Alison Wong
Penguin Books, $37.00,
ISBN 0143011677

Who Sings for Lu? 
Alan Duff
Vintage, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869790585

The Adventures of Vela
Albert Wendt
Huia, $35.00,
ISBN 9781869693633

Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver describes the coming together of two people struggling to find their place in the very hostile environment which is turn of the century Wellington. Katherine McKechnie finds herself emotionally and financially stricken by the death of her husband, left as sole support to her two young children. Wong Chung Yung came to New Zealand seeking gold, but is disillusioned to find himself part of a Chinese community which is ostracised, denigrated and abused, his political and philosophical ideas making him an outsider even to his countrymen. Their relationship, pursued despite their own better judgments, transgresses boundaries of class, society and culture, allowing each the freedom which the demands of family and duty otherwise deny them.

The tragic end to the affair is signalled very early in the novel. That’s because Wong so persistently and realistically describes the relationship in terms of its contexts – family, history, politics, culture – which are overwhelmingly determining. It’s an unusual framework for a love story, and a refreshingly complex one. For these are grown-up characters who live firmly in the world; who have responsibilities and histories; who have families, friends and employers with opinions and prejudices which matter; where history and politics do intrude on the everyday. The inevitability of the story’s end, though, doesn’t detract from the momentum of the narrative, which uses the foreboding atmosphere to add intensity to what could otherwise have been a conventional tale.

Wong is also a published poet, and her writing pedigree is foregrounded in this debut novel. As the Earth Turns Silver is a richly lyrical work with a lingering attention to symbol and metaphor: “She peeled the skin, held the naked onion in her hand. For a moment she saw a lopped-off globe with no continents or seas, a world that had lost its shape. And all its boundaries.” The imagery is given extra scope by the interplay between the two languages of the novel, and by the lovers’ exploratory attempts to learn them. Wong makes full use of the possibilities of translation, both linguistic and cultural, to mine the meaning of unfamiliar and familiar words, ideas and worldviews: “He’d given her language: his language, a new opening into her own.”

The two world views represented here are carefully balanced against each other, both thematically and structurally, to assert the novel’s underlying premise that “there [are] many ways to see the same circumstance.” So the outbreak of war in Europe is set against revolution in China, the action of the novel is set both in Wellington and Kwangtung, and the shifting narrative perspective moves across cultures and genders, the first-person voices recreating interior lives which are privileged equally despite gender, race or class.

That balance is in stark contrast to the historical reality that the novel paints, rather grimly and in well-researched detail, of a racist and violent New Zealand society. Yet it also seems to be an attempt to correct the faults of that society from the present – implicitly more enlightened – perspective.

For the heroes of this novel are endowed, and sometimes burdened, with noticeably modern sensibilities, jarringly at odds with the representation of their historical and cultural milieu. They argue for equal rights for women, cultural relativism, and Maori land claims; in this early 20th century context, those sensibilities can be earnestly self-righteous: “Edie will never be happy as a wife and mother, dedicated only to domestic duty … she’d have the chance to choose her own destiny”. The characters we are meant to dislike and condemn, then, are easily identified by their racism and sexism, by the qualities that mark their belonging in their own society. And if that standard of judgement is a little simplistic, a moral sleight of hand in condemning those in the past for crimes of the present, it is also remarkably effective in making As the Earth Turns Silver so easy, compelling and appealing to read, precisely because it accords with the prejudices and worldview of the reader.

Appealing isn’t, however, a word that applies to Alan Duff’s eighth and latest novel, Who Sings for Lu?. Best known for his shocking first novel, Once Were Warriors, Duff’s latest book is familiar in its brutality, anger and hopelessness, rehearsing old themes in a new location.

In contemporary Sydney, in “the fabled Lucky Country”, two worlds collide with catastrophic results. Lu is struggling to escape her roots in Woolloomooloo, “down here on Suffering Lane”, and from a drunkard father, a mentally unstable mother with a gambling problem, and the predatory uncle who has systematically abused her since she was a child. At the other end of the spectrum which the novel establishes is Anna Chadwick, the stunningly beautiful, wealthy, and much adored daughter of a successful horse breeder: “A ripe fruit of womanhood quite glorious in her youth and the glowing complexion of her superior breeding.” When the two women fleetingly encounter each other at the Sydney fish market, Lu is overcome with envy and rage at a woman who has all that she does not, “the sneer growing like instant cancer on her pretty features.”

Lu’s revenge is to arrange a vicious attack on Anna, finding satisfaction and recompense in the beating, rape and sodomy which is meant to erase some of the differences between them. The aftermath of that attack, for Anna and her family, but also for Lu and her friends, is utterly devastating. That there is supposed to be a lesson in all this for Anna – “no pain, no gain” – is unconvincing from a narrative point of view, as well as emotionally repellent. Lu remains the hero of a novel premised upon a hierarchy of victimisation, in which suffering is made relative through the application of a disturbing calculation of crimes and their consequences. In Who Sings for Lu?, victimhood is thus also accompanied by an entitlement to anger, bitterness and revenge, directed against both individual perpetrators and society at large. It’s not a tale for the fainthearted.

Irrespective of their place on Duff’s spectrum of class, wealth and breeding, the men in Who Sings for Lu? are uniformly vile: violent, selfish, stupid, and driven by base sexual need. Rocky is Lu’s saviour and the best of a dire bunch, largely because he’s “one of those rare creatures: a boy who never tried to stick his dick or finger or tongue in one of her orifices” and because, after his acts of violence, “no follow-up meant he had mercy”. These men look down on women, if they consider them at all, and the female characters of the novel are uniformly used, abused, weak and disempowered, as well as being highly sexualised. That’s not for the fainthearted either. It’s difficult to care about such one-dimensional characters who, despite their tragedies, evoke no sympathy or even interest.

But that’s assuming one struggles through the strangled and sometimes incomprehensible prose. Those readers who respect the complete sentence may find Duff’s abuse of basic syntax the most unlikeable feature of Who Sings for Lu?, but it’s certainly not the only one.

The Adventures of Vela, Albert Wendt’s latest exuberant work, brings us the chronicles of Vela, the immortal Samoan songmaker, poet and storyteller. Unlike Wong’s heroes, he is perplexing and often unlikeable; unlike Duff’s heroes, he is utterly compelling. Vela enthralls his audience for nearly 300 pages, telling of his various patrons and his own 300 years, to Alapati, the adopted son he chooses to succeed him, who duly passes them on to the reader with the addition of various asides, commentaries, and poems of his own.

Those adventures range from the mythical to the mundane, the ancient to the modern, the human to the divine, moving from meeting for coffee at a Ponsonby road café to encountering the strange society of Olfact – with “over 100 words for BO alone” – where the ability to distinguish scents determines one’s social role and class, one’s health, happiness and life partner. Like Gulliver, Vela roams far and wide, across the globe and across the ages, meeting the Tagata-Nei, a democratic, brain-linked society run according to a strange mathematics; that he destroys that society, by endeavouring “to civilise/my hosts in the Samoan image”, forms one of the lessons which his travels teach him, and which his tales are intended to teach others.

The lives of others which Vela recounts are no less instructional or vivid, beginning with his recounting of the “war of the naked morning” waged by Tuimanu’a Fa’aola. But Vela’s central task is to memorialise the life of the atua Nafanua, transforming her confessions into art and history, recalling her troubled relationship with her immortal eel-tailed father, her doomed love of a mortal (who, like Tithonus, is gifted immortality without eternal youth), and the destruction of her people and the religion she leads by the arrival of the Albinos and their missionaries.

This collection of romping, effervescent, larger than life stories is offered as an oral experience, in the form of songs and poems, asides and interruptions. Rhythmic and lyrical, the words are set out on the page largely without punctuation, and the result is seductively fluid. For The Adventures of Vela places great emphasis on the mode and act of storytelling, meditating on the role of the storyteller in shaping the reality he describes. And while Vela’s chronicles keep up the narrative momentum, the real hero and story of the book is the chronicler himself, and the real heart of its meaning is in the role and nature of storytelling itself: “chronicles usually omit the lives of their chroniclers/but   as you know   the chronicler is the chronicle/the teller is the tale”. So Wendt has some fun with the reader of his novel, who is asked to judge the variously flawed narrators (Vela’s development of a science of Feetistry, for instance, demonstrates what an “intolerable arsetit” he was), to judge between contesting versions, identify their contradictions, and to divine the truth within the tales, no matter how strange.

But that’s not all Wendt is playing with here; he’s also reworking and subverting a hefty chunk of Western literary and cultural history, then confidently synthesising it with an oral Pacific tradition in ways which are sophisticated, unexpected and witty. Though ostensibly a Samoan history, the cultural references are wide-ranging (Coleridge, Freud, Pythagoras, Bill Shakespeare, Einstein, the Doors, Dracula, Baxter and Tuwhare among others), and the book evokes the heroes of multiple cultural traditions (Maui, Zeus, Odysseus and Christ). Like Omeros, Derek Walcott’s Caribbean echo of Homer’s Odyssey, The Adventures of Vela is a contemporary and localised epic, conscious and in control of all the histories which precede it. The novel wears that inheritance lightly and joyfully; it is an impressive work in Wendt’s already impressive oeuvre, offering a very optimistic vision of modern Aotearoa-Pacific identity.

 

Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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