Nothing sacred, Christine Johnston

Risk 
C K Stead
MacLehose Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780857052230

C K Stead is a towering figure in New Zealand writing – a distinguished novelist, literary critic, poet, essayist and emeritus professor of English of the University of Auckland. He has won and been nominated for many prestigious awards, including the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers’ Fellowship in 2005. Along with Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, he was one of the pioneers of New Zealand literature in the 1960s and 70s. Since then he has been consistently productive, not shy to tackle the societal issues and attitudes of the subsequent decades. His prose is lucid and elegant, his scope expansive. In his fiction the reader encounters characters as diverse as Katherine Mansfield and Judas Iscariot, viewed with wit and wisdom. Nothing is untouchable; nothing is sacred.

Risk is a novel of our times, opening in 2002 and closing in September 2008 with the world on the brink of financial crisis. The protagonist, Sam Nola, a middle-aged New Zealander of Croatian extraction, has returned to London where he spent two years as a young man enjoying his “overseas experience”, now working as a financial lawyer for Interbank America. Through his eyes we revisit “the weapons of mass destruction” debacle and the ensuing war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which divided British society into pro-Blair and anti-Blair factions. Stead’s characters – educated, articulate English men and women – fall into both camps, although overwhelmingly they hold a critical anti-Bush and anti-Blair position.

The “Prime Minister” and his adviser (Alistair) make a brief two-page appearance in this novel, creating a distraction from the story. Similarly, Dr David Kelly’s final hours are related largely from his own point of view: “He wished for unconsciousness. He was glad to be dying.” These passages sit oddly in the novel, partisan in a way that the narrative about Nola isn’t. (Stead’s attitude to his protagonist seems to be: here is a man, make of him what you will.)

Nola, who is recently divorced with two teenage sons in New Zealand, discovers that he fathered a daughter 20-odd years before – a young French woman Leticia (Letty) Clairmont. He establishes what becomes a close and loving relationship with her, travelling to France to meet her stepfather and reacquaint himself with her mother, Simone, a woman he loved and lost.

Letty is repeatedly referred to as “his Perdita”. (If you aren’t familiar with The Winter’s Tale or didn’t do Latin at school, this reference may well be lost on you.) She has symbolic value and is a foil to Nola, but remains a shadowy character. What do we know of her? She is a doctor, completing a graduate course at Great Ormond Street Hospital. She looks like her mother and she drops her aitches in a charming French way.

Motivated to improve his schoolboy French, Nola starts reading Daudet and Gide in the original. Is this detail important? Yes, because he and his friends value the life of the mind. Sam once wrote a thriller. His banking colleague, Tom, is a poet. This novel is peppered with literary quotations, which may delight or irritate, depending on the reader: “ ‘Man, proud man,’ he quoted, ‘dressed in a little brief authority…’ ”; “Sam looked around. ‘Yes it’s nice. Some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’ ”

 

Nola has left behind a settled life in Auckland with his former wife, Ngaio, and “the boys”, whose names we don’t learn until p79. This is a telling omission, given the detail already revealed about other characters and their offspring, Letty’s half-sisters, for instance. We are told Sam “was a dutiful and practised parent” but I had my doubts.  Our protagonist, however, seems confident that his sons are “doing well and in no need of him”.

He is dispatched to a banking conference in Croatia on a somewhat mysterious mission. He visited the country earlier, when his aged grandfather seemed destined to inherit a small property there. Even without the language, he had established a good relationship with Great-Aunt Rosa and with Maja, “a distant cousin several times removed”, with whom he had an affair. “They were physically attuned. It was something Sam looked back on later as a sort of ideal state – wordless and self-sustaining.”

On this earlier occasion the recent civil war thwarted Sam’s intentions, and he returned to New Zealand without satisfaction and with a desire to flee “the cage of home and family”. Now back in a post-war Croatia Sam endures the dreary conference and becomes the recipient of a mysterious envelope that provokes some soul-searching. When he learns from Rosa that Maja went to America to marry, and subsequently committed suicide, he is embarrassed to find himself stricken with grief.

Let us not forget that Nola is in the business of banking, and it is with the London bombings of 7/7 2005 as a sobering development that the world lurches towards a financial crisis.

Stead is telling a complex story from our recent history. He places his protagonist in London, Croatia, New York and, briefly, in Berlin. In each location there are intelligent and critical observations about recent historical events that enrich what could otherwise be read as a story of one man’s pursuit of happiness and a sense of place. In Berlin his lover of the time, Ruth, points to a bronze plaque locating the former home of her great-aunt and great-uncle, who were sent to Auschwitz. In New York Nola visits Ground Zero “with mixed feelings”, reflecting on how the world-wide outrage at the attack had in the intervening years “melted away”.  In London and in the South of France he is assailed on all sides by history – political and literary.  I enjoyed the description of the Pont du Gard and its significance as a monument to human ingenuity.

There is considerable pleasure to be taken in Stead’s writing. He is a stylist, his language sparkling with a poet’s economy and grace:

He walked on, watching his own shadow accompanying him, black and sharp-edged on the red-yellow stone and beaten clay, bending slightly forward like a man with the weight of the sun on his back. It put into his mind a painting by Van Gogh; and at the same time it threw him back sharply to that earlier life, when he’d walked along a similar road, with the same scents of pine and eucalypt, thyme, fennel and rosemary.

 

Stead can’t resist referring to works of art or literature, challenging the reader’s erudition, but these references aren’t always helpful. It devalues the moment to immediately compare it with another event – someone else’s literary invention – even if it is Shakespeare’s. What, for example, is gained by comparing Nola’s relationship with Ruth to that of Mellors and Lady Chatterley? In my view nothing is gained; something is lost.

Nola on occasion uses his particular education to show up other characters, particularly young Maureen, with whom he has a loveless affair in New York. “‘D’you know your Wittgenstein?’ he asked.” She says of course she does (she doesn’t) and punches him on the arm, “hard”.

Risk is a novel of ideas with Nola at its centre. Flawed and self-deluding, he is not altogether convincing as a Shakespeare-quoting banker in his late 40s and early 50s. His education and attitudes suggest that he is older. He is “a lucky bastard” in ways that make him hard to like. Largely untroubled by the fact that he is missing out on his sons’ adolescence, Nola is accepted by his newly-discovered daughter and her family without recriminations. Women find him sexually desirable and take him to their beds in spite of husbands and fiancés. He experiences little in the way of personal anguish, although he is put out when his ex-wife takes up with an old friend. He loses sleep over the millions of dollars the mysterious envelope might give him access to.

Of course liking Sam Nola is not the point, but Risk is his story and he is the reason we are revisiting the first decade of our new century. While playing his role he remains emotionally detached, but readers are expected to care. He is not without integrity, but he is corrupted by his environment and continually rewarded financially and emotionally for his actions. Will he get his comeuppance?

Risk is a novel that will exercise book clubs and provoke readers to reflect. It deserves to be widely read and comprehensively discussed.

 

Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer and reviewer. 

 

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