Brittle and febrile images, Anne French

Motu Tapu: Stories of the South Pacific
Graeme Lay,
Polynesian Press, Auckland. 1990, $19.95

A Network of Dissolving Threads
Richard von Sturmer,
Auckland University Press, 1991, $19.95

Motu Tapu is described as a collection of ‘stories of the South Pacific’, as though the limiting term gives them a cachet or raison d’étre they would otherwise lack. Someone ‑ either the author, or his doubting publisher, or perhaps the author’s sponsor, Polynesian Airlines ‑ thinks these stories need marketing. They could have saved themselves the trouble. The collection is uneven, but the best stories break free of any artificial constraints of setting or intention to occupy squarely their own place.

Lay is not, however, a careful writer. His prose is at best straightforward, sometimes awkward, and occasionally downright maladroit (‘Stephen and all those around him were in ecstasy, and minutes later their joy was even greater when Victor Donovan nudged the ball over the cross-bar to convert his own try’). His narrators are mostly bluff, uncomplicated types, nephews of Sargeson’s heroes; loners, male, middle-class, university-educated but not intellectuals, who seem to be slightly out of their depth even when they’re at home in New Zealand. Usually they find themselves at odds with those around them. In ‘A Temporary Solution’, for instance, Stephen stands back, sickened, from the tormenting a Jewish boy receives from his fellow soldiers (though he doesn’t intervene to stop it): standard issue New Zealand short fiction, which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dan Davin collection of forty years ago.

But in a few stories the narrator and the tale kick loose and go their own way. The most effective pieces seem to be the ones associated with teaching, Lay’s own profession. ‘The Jacket’ is one of these, told in diary form; the narrator is a (nonspecifically) Polynesian girl, trying to adjust to living with her aunt in Auckland and attending a New Zealand secondary school (‘Every night Ta gets some videos, and always they are noisy, full of shooting and wars and shouting. I hate that Sylvester Stallone’). Her story is told with dignity and beauty. ‘Baksheesh’ is similarly successful: the feminist English teacher who decides to falsify Naseema’s exam marks to save her from an arranged marriage. ‘How often did anyone get the chance to change an entire life at the stroke of a pen?’.

The prevailing tone of Motu Tapu is surprisingly sombre: the Pacific is a despoiled Eden, the largest Polynesian city in the world is full of white racists, and anything that is good and true lies in the past. The only relief is to be found in the quiet humour of ‘The Copier’, in which a Rarotongan dancer called Moana learns how to play capitalists at their own game.

In contrast to Lay, Richard von Sturmer is not in the least concerned with plot, character, or social comment. These ‘pieces of short fiction’ have many of the qualities of poetry, and the images they use have a brittle, febrile quality. The medium may be prose, but it is the kind of prose that a Janet Frame character might speak ‑ Daphne or Istina Mavet perhaps.

The book is divided into eight parts, and each is further subdivided. The relationship between them is not immediately clear. In the title piece, which is also the longest and most complex section, the segments are arranged on the page like prose ‘with a regular right-hand margin’, but are discontinuous, and dropped from the top of the page like poetry; moreover each piece of prose contains within it short, haiku-like poems (without the syllabic regularity of haiku). The titles (The Fog’, ‘The Ocean’, ‘The Night’) are too unspecific to generate expectations in the reader, and the helpful author’s introduction merely tells us that the form imitates the Japanese Haibun, prose written in the spirit of haiku, and that the subject is travel. Within the eight parts, things happen; the setting moves from London, to Italy, and back to New Zealand; a lover is first present, then absent; the narrator’s mother’s death is mourned, and her life remembered. The remainder of the book is uneven but the ‘Series of Momentary Deceptions’, each one simple enough, gathers resonances, echoes, stray vibrations.

A Network is one of the most original works of prose to be published in New Zealand in the past year. It is not a book that works best when read in a linear fashion, from beginning to end; its movement is sinuous, as though its parts are concentric spinning spheres. ‘Not to examine, but to be examined. To become lucid. Translucent. To receive the gaze of each thing’.


Anne French is Publisher at Oxford University Press, a poet (‘Cabin Fever’ published by AUP in 1990), and is currently working on her first novel.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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