Strangers in Paradise
Jonathan Eisen and Katherine Joyce Smith (eds),
Random Century/Vintage, Auckland, 1991, $24.95
There can be no better antidote to hubris than to see ourselves as others see us. A dispassionate observer can pinpoint our foibles and frailties, both personal and national, and heighten awareness of what is unique, interesting, or even merely curious about the land and its people. Literate visitors to New Zealand have been expressing their thoughts on these matters for over 150 years. This book is an anthology of extracts from such writings chosen, in the words of the compilers, to present ‘what we believe is the best and most enduring reflections and observations of this very young nation in the making’. Such a brilliant and simple idea. My initial reaction was to marvel that no one had thought of it before – and then, having read the book, to wonder why the end result left me so unenthusiastic. But, of course, someone has thought of the idea before. What is more, they have executed it very much better.
To see the deficiencies of Strangers in Paradise you need only compare it with Desmond Stone’s Verdict on New Zealand. Thirteen extracts in this new book are also in Stone, although there they form part of much longer selections that do the authors greater justice. Stone’s book may not be perfect, but it is superior to this one on all counts. The quality of the prefatory material, the bibliographic citations, the way extracts are set in context, and above all the sense of logic and focus which seems to underlie the choices, make Eisen and Smith seem gauche. Some of their extracts are barely set in context at all. They do not give details of the modem editions of this material now available, although it would surely be valuable for the reader. Their apparent urge to cram in as many different authors as possible results in snippets stronger on cleverness than substance and too many brief items whose only recommendation seems to be that their authors boast well-known names. There are certainly interesting and little-known items included but the overall impression is of an opportunity missed.
No doubt the publishers of Strangers in Paradise would argue that since a book such as Verdict on New Zealand is long out of print their volume makes a timely replacement My response is equivocal. Yes: there is room for another anthology of writings by visitors to New Zealand. There remain a number of worthwhile accounts which have not received modern editions and which, in some cases, seem to have largely escaped contemporary notice. But no: I do not think there is room for one containing a fair amount of material available with relative ease elsewhere, inadequately presented and communicating no clear sense of focus and priority. We are generally well served by the variety and quality of books emerging from our publishing houses. But because of this country’s small population there is seldom room for more than one publication on any very specialised topic. This surely puts an extra burden of responsibility on publishers and their editorial advisors. Marketplace economics are such that the existence of Strangers in Paradise may well prevent any better anthology being published in the foreseeable future.
Adrienne Simpson was the 1991-92 Research Fellow at the National Library of New Zealand and is co-author, with Peter Downes, of Southern Voices (1992).