Travelling through time, Nelson Wattie

The New Zealanders: A Story of Austral Lands
J S C Dumont-d’Urville,
transl Carol Legge, Victoria University Press, $39.95

From the excellent translations of Olive Wright, even readers who prefer to avoid the pitfalls of French grammar already know that Dumont-d’Urville was one of the most attractive figures of early 19th-century New Zealand, a visitor who had a deep sympathy for and appreciation of the Maori culture he encountered, an inexhaustible curiosity and a great fund of human warmth which never clouded his scientific understanding. Even so, it comes as a surprise to discover that he wrote a novel in which the world is viewed entirely through the eyes of Maori – fictitious Maori who may have only a general resemblance to the living people, but recognisable Maori nonetheless. It is Carol Legge’s considerable achievement to have made this discovery for us, breaking through the wall of prejudice which prevented earlier scholars from according the novel the same status as its author’s non-fiction, scrupulously and tirelessly transcribing his difficult manuscript and now presenting a skilful and worthy translation.

The novel turns out to be a strange but enthralling mixture: genuine anthropological empathy combined with a conviction of the superiority of France. The kind of understanding of the indigenous people demonstrated here has nothing to do with the ‘Noble Savage’ myth, but, on the contrary, the humans living in this exotic culture have all the weaknesses as well as all the beauteous virtues of other human creatures.

In one of the prose-songs of evocation which introduce each of the six ‘Cantos’, the author even goes so far as to say (addressing ‘Civilisation’): In vain a few jaundiced philosophes, a few morose critics have tried to deny your excellence and to defend an alleged state of nature which existed only in their disturbed minds. So much for the Rousseauistes. The potential greatness of the Maori lies, according to Dumont-d’Urville, in their possession of ‘reason’: Man received his share of reason to guide him and it is up to him to follow this guiding light. And so we find a Maori hero who denies the savagery of his people, renounces cannibalism and the warfare of revenge, and does his utmost with love and understanding to draw his people closer to ‘civilisation’. If this sounds intolerant of local customs, then that is a misunderstanding, since the author shows on every page his surprisingly extensive knowledge of the people he had, after all, only visited, and tolerance is one of his most obvious characteristics.

For all that, it is hard to repress a smile when we read of a Maori describing the French as ‘powerful, enlightened, rich and noble’ and Paris in these terms: Their capital, a pa which covers an immense area and which alone, it is said, has more inhabitants than the whole of New Zealand, is the depository of human knowledge, and it is there that a hundred neighbouring nations go to draw from the very wellspring of science and enlightenment. But before our smile turns to mockery we should consider our own nationalistic fervour (on the sports field?) and think about the glasshouse we may be living in.

A book which can stimulate us to consider our own attitudes is always worth our while, and this is only one reason that makes Dumont-d’Urville’s novel a considerable enrichment to our understanding of the past and an aesthetic enrichment to the culture we live in. As a novel, it is unlike most we are familiar with. It seems to be trying to achieve the status of a prose epic, with an epic hero who conducts a battle against inhumanity rather than against an enemy neighbour or a fanatic dragon.

Carol Legge has found an English style which matches the original elevated without becoming pompous, sufficiently of its time to ‘place’ it in an historical context but sufficiently lively to prevent alienating its readers. She also incorporates signals that remind the reader that this is a translation – such as preserving the French forms of Maori names (Chongui for Hongi, and the like). This is in keeping with the best modern theories and practice of translation. In such capable hands as these one can feel sure that the flavour of the book is authentic and one need not therefore regret that the original French book has never been published.

The translator’s introduction, with its references to such predecessors of the novel as Fénelon’s Telemaque, adds to our understanding of its place in literary history and therefore to our appreciation of its rather exotic character. Strangest of all, perhaps, is that Dumont-d’Urville’s non-fictional end notes are almost as extensive as the novel. These, too, have been scrupulously translated and commented on in their turn, so that we find a complex series of textual layers which complement each other in fascinating ways.


Nelson Wattie is working at the Stout Research Centre on early New Zealand literature.



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