The Shark that Ate the Sun (Ko a Mago ne Kal a fa)
John Puhiatau Pule,
Penguin Books, $24.95
Can you adequately review a 294-page book – which is rich, allusive, poetic, partly epistolary, partly story‑chants from last century, partly Otara grimness and miseries write large – can you do such a work justice in 600 words? Nope.
So, here’s an oblique approach. A long time ago, during a period of trauma and death in my family, I was looked after for several weeks by a Niuean friend: she was born Mathina Rex, had migrated to New Zealand and trained as a nurse, and eventually married one of her patients, a courtly, scholarly man called Frank Homer (who was a business partner of my father). She was Tina to my parents, and Aunty Homer to us kids. She was brisk, neat, and formidably competent, bringing up her daughter and nursing her husband (Frank was permanently bedridden with arthritis) and caring for all‑comers. And she had a wonderful sense of humour, a positively impish glint in her eyes most of the time: in her home I learned to make fruit mousse, and was introduced to books as oddly disparate as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Frank) and Swallows and Amazons (Lesley Homer was heavily involved in Arthur Ransome at the time). And Tina interpreted such works when I queried things, helped me with my firework collection, settled disputes that arose between me and Lesley, calmed my fears (Was my father going to die? ‘People die, but we can still go on loving them …’) and daily walked with me along the riverbank (we both loved water).
It must have been lonely in New Brighton: it would have been easy to succumb to self-pity, permanent nurse to your husband, and mother of one when you’d wanted to be mother of many. With a combination of shrewdness and zest, Tina made the best of things – and under it all was a huge impersonal sadness.
When I thought about Aunty Homer, much later, I reckoned the sadness to result from exile – Niueans were thin on the ground in Christchurch in the 50s and her family contact there seemed to be limited to ‘things from the Islands’, shellwork or woven knick‑knacks, that went on show as soon as they arrived. But, reading John Puhiatau Pule’s grand first novel, I wonder …
Niue, the island, is beautiful – and harsh. It does not have a happy history (albeit a usual Polynesian one). Most Niueans didn’t – and don’t – have a choice, when it came to migrating. There were too many Niueans, and not enough Niue. But coming here meant spiritual dispossession as well as physical, and what was on offer here, what was available here, seldom matched expectations: it was so easy to blot out disappointment and pain at the pub, blur it all with a bottle. Or take refuge by fitting in with the dominant and dominating culture, and amputating that which made you Niuean.
If you draw your material from mean suburbs, from the sludge of low-status jobs, and too much booze, and the ashes of personalities destroyed by violence and alienation – what chance of writing something vibrant and optimistic? A good one, if you’re John Pule: his language shimmers and dances, he does not fall into the trap of using an impoverished vocabulary to portray impoverished people and circumstances. His performance – for this book speaks, cries out and rants and sings – is not unflawed (I still cannot understand why Puhia is as mean and violent as he is; there are sterile passages, where it seems Pule’s poetic drive fails and there is a pedestrian flatness about it all – we’ve got to tie these bits together / provide some background for this character / make an authorial comment, not really worth investing much creative energy in the job, this’ll do – before the next flare). The flaws are not major, for this reader, because of the sheer intoxicating power of most of Pule’s writing.
Listen. Be a festival. You cannot be distant with all your caged anxiety and storms that crush your life; lift up your soul so the labourer may save you, the labourer who smears the bus with dirt and sweat, the labourer who builds hospitals and digs ditches, the labourer you would not sit next to because he is black with a fat nose and fat lips.
Will you join us? Because when the slaves were murdered or sent off to war, it rained for twenty-six years and those who ran away gazed at the bloody trees, said: ‘Celebration, although we killed no‑one we hope you our people, our nation, will still accept us. We will be a festival, we will come into your city dancing.’
One of the excitements of living at this time is being part of the Polynesian contribution to world literature – and art (Pule is a painter, and illustrated the cover of The Shark that Ate the Sun). New Zealand is, of course, part of Polynesia, and together with other Islanders, we are creating something lively and new. I wouldn’t call it ‘a truly Pacific magical realism’, though: the spiritual, the fantastical, the numinous, are as much part of Polynesian everyday reality as the washing, taro and kumara, alcohol and laws, and our realist writing simply reflects this.
Keri Hulme has just about finished a quirky and self-willed novel, Bait. Her second collection of poetry, Strands, is currently being reprinted. She still lives in Okarito, South Westland, and fishes each whitebait season.