Memories, dreams and idealisations, Emma Neale

Holy Terrors and Other Stories
Amelia Batistich,
Vintage Books, Random Century Group, Auckland, 1991, $19.95

How to belong, and where to find ‘home’, are the obsessions which unite the stories in this collection. These can tip over into a vivid world of madness, or lead characters on to moments of release and self-recognition. The stories shift between New Zealand and Dalmatia, as immigrants to New Zealand cope with pioneer reality, or try to recall and re-live the land of their origins.

Although the style is basic, uncomplicated. even light, Batistich fully exposes the complexities of a notion like ‘home’. People in her stories constantly try to negotiate between two worlds: one is located in Dalmatia, but made up largely of memories, dreams, idealisations and so is intangible, the other is the physical experience of life in New Zealand which for the characters, maintains an aura of the alien.

The urge to return to Dalmatia is at once a question of identity and an acknowledgment of growing old. In ‘A Time for Everything’ and ‘An Olive Tree in Dalmatia’, feeling the loss of the homeland is inextricably linked to the loss of childhood. The onset of age exaggerates a severance from the past, and there is the need to recount, revise, revisit. In ‘An Olive Tree in Dalmatia’ the actual return to Yugoslavia suggests that the sense of fully belonging is impossible for the immigrant. Dalmatia is peopled only by ghosts, even when a physical drive takes an elderly couple back to their old village. ‘Home’ can only be an internal landscape: a hybrid of memories and the experience of being a foreigner. The couple can perhaps locate themselves in each other, i.e. someone else who has undergone the same ‘translation’ away from one language and culture to another.

Just as a return to Dalmatia reveals how distant that life becomes for an immigrant, so several of the stories emphasise that its influence is, paradoxically, inescapable. Even the character who dismisses the old country with ‘If it had been good then we would not have come to New Zealand’ preserves the practices and values of his former life in ways as simple as the food he eats.

Batistich also reveals ‘difference’ in the careful, slightly formalised English her characters use. Voice and expression testify to the various layers of their identities, even as they declare they belong to one place alone. The basic vocabulary Batistich uses is an aspect of her economic style, but it also gives a sense of a newly encountered language. In ‘Holy Terrors’, clichés and commonplaces often take on a fresh humour because of an unexpected juxtaposition of phrase and context; in ‘The Champion of the Wairoa’ the network of experience is reflected in language. Matti’s English is strongly accented, but the metaphors and similes are drawn from the experience of living and labouring in New Zealand. ‘Straight as a kauri he was, with a back as broad as a beam and a pair of hands to match’.

The richest, most striking story for me is one in which loneliness and language barriers are lifted for a moment, but where these are made all the more intense and painful as a result. In ‘The Road Back’, a story which slides into the surreal even as it uses sharp physical images, a woman develops her own ritual of Sunday dressing and speaking to her reflection, in an effort to give her new life colour, structure and companionship. A chance meeting with another immigrant woman totally transports her. Although neither can speak the other’s language, there is an instant and instinctive understanding. Even so, the picture of two women, virtually drowned in the expansive landscape, crying incessantly and uncontrollably, only serves to highlight their isolation and loneliness, especially as Batistich tugs at the reader’s sense of security over just what is the story’s reality, and what is the character’s haunting mindscape.

 

Emma Neale is a freelance editor and this year tutored first-year English at Victoria University of Wellington. She has had poems published in Takahe 1991.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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