Living on the edge, Brett Mason

He Tangi Aroha: A Cry for Love
Apirana Taylor,
Huia Publishers, $29.95

The Eye of the Everlasting Angel 
Noel Virtue,
Vintage, $19.95

1990. Lest we forget. 150 years. How could we forget? But it was a year no one seemed to want, not at the time. It was a year glossed over by big money TV ads, big money commemorations (specifically not a celebration). Even the Queen made a fleeting visit and hopeless politicians bleated hopeless slogans. Unmemorable and best forgotten. But Apirana Taylor wants us to remember – remember that it was the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty. The Treaty that has never been honoured. Taylor’s first novel, He Tangi Aroha, is written by the poet – serious, with a concern for language – and not the short story writer whose offbeat sense of humour leads to a gutsy use of pathos.

He Tangi Aroha is fiercely political (or should that be fearlessly so) and harshly realist. You can throw away any sense of an underlying message; this is up front stuff – the author as voice. If you don’t like that, don’t bother. It’s in the lines, not between. It’s in the words, Maori and English. It’s in the characters, Maori and Pakeha. Taylor’s characters live 1990 with a purpose, with a vigour for thought and concern and wonder and disbelief. They live 1990 intensely. As people on the edge of society; on the verge of being a part of it but never quite. Not mainstream; by no means (money or belief) middle-class. This is the world of political Maori questioning everything and anyone but mostly themselves. And liberal Pakeha urging them on (that is supporting them) while doing their best not to feel guilty.

This isn’t the novel of Alan Duff’s landscape. His characters would be too drunk to know what year it was, and if they ever came across a Treaty poster it would only be for them to piss on. No, Taylor goes the other way. His characters have that Duff reality but deal with it rather than to themselves. To have hope, to know love – even if for some it is only fleeting. And Taylor makes it clear what he thinks: ‘Hemi Weston, the Maori columnist who frequently admits he knows nothing about Maori and Maoritanga, and then criticises us Maori and our Maoritanga and is then held up by Pakeha rednecks to be spokesman for Maori.’

Taylor’s landscape is sometimes mythical, sometimes mystical, but mostly hard-arsed dry. Life on the dole, life in the urban marae (the pub) or life in a boarding-house. Etching out a living, often subsistence, on the streets, while at other times fulfilled by knowledge of the past driving the present forward. We are given one redneck (other than Pakeha society in general) to despise – that dumbo brother/ sister/ father/ mother that all true liberals have hidden in their closet. He Tangi Aroha is a defiant novel, daring readers to consider Taylor’s words as larger than fiction.

Writing for a more subdued audience, Noel Virtue brings us his fifth novel, The Eye of the Everlasting Angel. This, as the blurb explains, is a picaresque journey through the London of the 1960s. If it is, then my brain must have closed down somewhere between page one and the last. What we are given is the rambling tale of young Toby Todd, a do-gooder waif who can only do good, and such good as he does is too good to be true. If you know what I mean. There is no doubt that attempting to ‘picaresque’ a story is an admirable thing, but when it fails, well it all seems a bit dismal.

Toby Todd, our witless rogue, begins his journey in Southampton, where he lives with his gypsy grandmother, hopeless father and couldn’t-care-less mother. The grandmother teaches him all there is to know of the gypsy world and then dies. Father takes off with his stripper-lover, and mother skips country for the US of A. Toby decides on the big smoke, London, where he befriends just about anyone and everyone who strolls before his path. He is the type of nauseating teenager who sticks their face in yours and tries to tell you the answer to life.

I think I may have forgiven Virtue this slip into ad nauseam if it wasn’t for the fact that it was all so goddamn unconvincing. I couldn’t place the novel in the 1960s on narrative or dialogue, although we are told on page 81 ‘That it was the 1960s’, and a few pages later we do have a hippie girl with flowers in her hair. So maybe I’m being unfair. Lola (aka Antony) is the most convincing of Virtue’s ensemble of characters. Lola, born from The Kinks’ hit of the ’60s, is the drag-queen to Antony’s straight-gay persona. Her wrestling with and eventual succession over Antony, for both body and soul, is the highlight of the book.

Taylor’s and Virtue’s novels couldn’t be further apart, not only in setting but also in manner, though both writers deal with a similar theme, that of life for the young in a city. Virtue gives a freedom to Toby Todd that only luck and a friendly writer’s hand could produce. Taylor pushes his characters harder, making them work for their existence. Both authors reflect an influence by Charles Dickens in their use of episodic form; this is especially true of Virtue. The success of Taylor for me is less in the story of the novel than in its continuation of the debate between a fractured, individualistic New Zealand and its diverse, cohesive opposite. I wonder where that debate will be in 2040.

 

Brett Mason is studying editing and publishing at Whitireia Polytechnic, Porirua.

 

 

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