Death and Forgiveness
Mary Egan Publishing, $30.00,
Rich Man Road
Eunoia Publishing, $30.00,
In a recent review in New Zealand Books, Jane Westaway commented on the rise, both in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, of the small press, a phenomenon directly attributable to the devouring appetite of the multinational conglomerates. Having charted the rise and rise of such monster publishing companies as Penguin Random House, and the corresponding disappearance, at least from the fiction market, of hitherto commercially successful local presses, Westaway went on to observe that, whereas in the past book editors (she herself is a past co-editor of New Zealand Books) were inclined to turn their noses up at the so-called “vanity press”, in today’s changed world of publishing, that response is no longer valid. Small presses are here to stay!
It’s fitting, then, that both books currently under review come from just such presses. Death and Forgiveness by Jindra Tichá is published by Mary Egan Publishing, the first book to be put out by this press. Rich Man Road by Ann Glamuzina comes from the relatively new Eunoia Publishing. Both these books are beautifully produced, with eye-catching jackets, a high standard of editing (larger publishing houses take note!) and a pleasantly readable type-face. But that is where the similarities end.
Rich Man Road, while not without flaws, is a novel. A story unfolds – rather too slowly, with too many repetitions and too much explanation – but the reader’s attention is held, and the ending, when it comes, is both surprising and, in the best traditions of story-telling, inevitable. Death and Forgiveness, on the other hand, is barely a novel at all. It has dialogue and description, two of the ingredients of a novel, but the tone is relentlessly autobiographical. This need not be a handicap – think Philip Roth, W G Sebald, Thomas Bernhard – but, unfortunately, Jindra Tichá, a celebrated novelist in her native Czech Republic, is not in their league.
Death and Forgiveness first. Structurally successful, it adopts a double time-frame with (the protagonist) Anna’s backstory – how she came to be in New Zealand, what drove her and her husband out of what was then Czechoslovakia – weaving in and out of the front story – Anna’s return to Prague, post the break-up of her marriage, to nurse her dying mother, and the subsequent suicide of her ex-husband (this is not a plot spoiler). It’s written in the first person (adding to the autobiographical feel), the narrative voice being, for the most part, querulous and self-justifying. “I believe that no passion can be condemned solely because it brings misery to others. True passion has its own morality and own justification” is the heroine’s explanation for her betrayal of her marriage. Yet when, many years later, her husband, Jan, leaves her for another woman, we are asked to believe that this hitherto mild academic “turned into a ferocious and merciless enemy. He did not stop when he had destroyed my love for him and our family life. He wanted to destroy me completely, leave me destitute, ruin my career.” As for the “other woman”, she, in the wake of the suicide of her partner of the last year and a half, is described in this unhappy saga as “the first one on my list of people who showed no humanity, no compassion … How dare she, a complete outsider, make judgements on our family, judgements based on lies and misinformation. How dare she sin against mercy?”
Towards the end of the novel the tone changes, and the reader is able to feel some sympathy for Anna, forced to deal with the fallout from her ex-husband’s suicide. But the story never really breaks free from its autobiographical trappings. Information – philosophical, political, religious – is imparted in a way that convinced me that what I was reading was a record, both internal and external, of a life, not a narrative shaped by a novelist. Places visited are described (with varying degrees of success) as if they were simply the next thing that happened: “The first winter spent in exile in England was the worst winter of my life and I have no inclination to dwell on my memories of it … .”
Ultimately, the problem with Death and Forgiveness is that nothing is at stake. The end is clear from the beginning. The only direction left for the story to take is towards the forgiveness of the title. The words are there: the last sentences are a dream-like conjuring of the ship on which Anna and Jan travelled to New Zealand: “the white ship whistles two times. Once to say goodbye to the dead; once to beg their forgiveness.” Fine words but, for me, lacking in conviction.
Far more successful is Glamuzina’s Rich Man Road. Like Death and Forgiveness, it juggles different time-frames but, whereas in the other novel the reader has sometimes to pause to work out where she is in the story, in this novel, neatly divided between two protagonists, time and place are clearly delineated.
Pualele and Olga – our two narrators – are both nuns. Olga’s backstory – her early life and subsequent flight from war-torn Croatia – is told by means of the journal she gives to the much younger Pualele on her death-bed. Pualele’s backstory – her departure from Samoa, and her troubled early years in New Zealand – unfolds in tandem with her reading of Olga’s journal. The device, while too obviously schematic, works well enough, though there is a tendency for the two voices (both stories are told largely through the eyes of the two nuns as children) to sound alike.
Pualele’s backstory begins when she is nine and more or less ends in her mid-teens. Olga’s follows a similar trajectory. This inevitably limits the scope of the narration, leading at times to descriptions (particularly following Pualele’s arrival in New Zealand) of things the reader will be only too familiar with. Here is Pualele’s first encounter with an icecream van: “The side of the vehicle that faces the pavement is open to form a kind of raised counter top and below this counter on a glass panel, a myriad of ice creams and drinks are on display.” Writing like this, which lacks emotional content, slows the narrative and risks losing the reader’s attention, a problem which happily doesn’t arise with the descriptions of Olga’s life in Croatia and, subsequently, in an Allied refugee camp in Egypt. Olga, a child of war, is accorded a greater maturity than Pualele, though the piling up of disasters in her life both before and after she reaches New Zealand does strain credibility. “Why is life so cruel?” Olga asks her older brother, Joe, in the wake of yet another life-changing disaster. “Life’s like that,” Joe answers. Two years later, Olga enters the Carmelite order, the same order Pualele will enter almost three decades later.
There is much to praise in Rich Man Road, in particular the evocations of Auckland circa 1950 (Olga’s story), and circa 1979 (Pualele’s story). I doubt many residents of today’s Auckland would recognise the Rich Man (Richmond) Road described so vividly in this novel. Equally compelling is the recreation of the world of Samoan migrants (many of them overstayers) struggling to survive in a palagi universe whose rules they don’t always understand. As for Olga’s world – the world of a reunited Croatian family (Olga’s father worked on the Northland gumfields for years before he could afford to bring his wife and children out to join him) – history will prove too much for the young girl scarred by war and poverty. For her, New Zealand is not so much a land of promise as a mirror in which the past is endlessly reflected.
The review of Elspeth Sandys’s recent memoir, What Lies Beneath, from our Autumn 2015 issue, is available in the online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.