Penguin, Auckland, 1991, $34.95
At the beginning of Albert Wendt’s new novel he plays a game with the reader. ‘None of what follows’, he says, ‘was written by me’. It was, in fact, written by a woman of mixed Samoan and European descent, called Ola, who left three beer cartons full of diaries, letters and notes on the verandah of a house belonging to someone called Pati Tuaopepe who then rearranged them for publication. This technique was used to great effect by Patrick White in The Memoirs of Xenophon Demirjian Grey, of which he claimed to be merely the editor and not the author. This was a marvellous vehicle for White’s acerbic wit which he turned at times against himself.
In the case of Ola, Albert Wendt does not gain as much. The technique allows Wendt’s characters to talk about Wendt himself and his books, but to no great effect. Instead, it becomes a way for him to distance himself from the voice of Ola, whom he allows to expound a more blinkered view of the world than perhaps he himself would admit to.
Ola is an ambitious novel that invites us to view the problems of Samoans accommodating to twentieth-century western culture on a world stage that includes Japan and Israel. The first part is set in New Zealand. The tone is hard and flat with anger. The white people Ola meets are cruel, shallow, arrogant, materialist, neurotic, racist, and rich unless they are revealed to have Maori blood. The Maori Ola meets are kind, spiritual, loving, spontaneous, in touch with nature, have a sense of humour, and eat more interesting food. Ola’s New Zealand does not bear much resemblance to that which Alan Duff describes in Once Were Warriors.
The most interesting part of the book occurs when Ola accompanies her father on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Here the tone shifts and seems to free up as if the author is excited by the creative possibilities he has opened up for his characters. The trip is provocative in the best sense of the word: it provokes comparisons; not only between Samoa and Israel but also between father and daughter; between one who leaves their country for the first time in old age and one who has travelled to many lands; between a believer in the Christian faith and one who has lost that faith.
In Israel, Ola and her father pick up some of the adrenalin of people living with the constant threat of war and violent death. The reality of Israel challenges Ola’s father’s attachment to the Bible and leads to a profound shift in his worldview. Emotionally this is the high point of the novel, but unfortunately, we see few consequences of it later, although we wait expectantly for them.
Because the first part of the novel casts a harsh light on cultural insensitivity and the abuses of power in Samoa and New Zealand, expectations are raised that the Jewish-Arab conflict will have a profound impact. Much is made of the vigorous intellectual debate in Israel. Yet at a party where Ola and her father meet a number of writers, a figure like the novelist and political activist Amos Oz is conspicuous by his absence. Oz has written movingly of the conflict between Jews engendered by the invasion of Lebanon and the fact that this has seen Jews shed Jewish blood. By successfully placing his characters on a world stage, Wendt gains a great deal in terms of perspective and impact. Yet, for all its achievements, the final impression of the novel is one of missed opportunities.
Erick Brenstrum is a poet, meteorologist and book reviewer who lives in Wellington.