History, challenge and succession, Chris Prentice

Bulibasha, King of the Gypsies
Witi Ihimaera
Penguin, $29.95

Witi Ihimaera’s writing has always been concerned in some way with the problem of history, this concern reaching its most urgent and dramatic consideration in the 1986 novel, The Matriarch. With its mix of mythic and historical pasts, Maori, classical, biblical and modern sources and reference, individual and whanau history, colonial, national and iwi history, this novel has participated in, as much as generated, critical debate in which the stakes are as high as truth, culture and identity themselves.

The Matriarch is itself now part of our national literary history and part of the history of Ihimaera’s own career as a writer of great importance. To that extent, it projects the problem of its own succession: whether or not Ihimaera produces an explicitly identified sequel to The Matriarch, it seems inevitable that his subsequent work will be to some extent read as coming after that novel. One effect of The Matriarch has been to identify fundamental questions of the politics and practice of reading itself in post‑colonial New Zealand/Aotearoa. In the light of this, I suggest it would be useful to position this reading of Bulibasha as a kind of sequel to The Matriarch, to read the two novels to some extent together for similarities and continuities as well as differences and reconsiderations of style and thematic concerns.

The Matriarch is presented, in the multiple fragmentations of the text/narrative itself, as dramatisation of the impact of colonisation. At the same time, it casts the reader into the role of actively choosing whether to read in terms of the visible fractures and disunities alone or for the possibility of reconstructing links between such apparently disparate elements or whether somehow to negotiate both the fragmentation and the possibility of reconstruction as equally important and real aspects of post‑colonial history and culture. Such a reading would collapse the apparent opposition between tradition and construction by proposing an understanding of tradition as (re) construction.

In Bulibasha, fragmentation is less visible or overt. It seems closer to the earlier novels, Tangi and Whanau, in style. Yet once again the prologue of Bulibasha sets the narrative on the fractured, ironic grounds of “knowingness”. It is framed by statements which strongly echo ‑ even syntactically and rhythmically ‑ the opening and closing statements of The Matriarch’s prologue: in the earlier novel, “It was Uncle Alexis who started it all ‑ this imaginative reconstruction of the woman who wore pearls in her hair”; in Bulibasha, “It was Tobio who gave the name Bulibasha to Grandfather”. Both statements allude to the construction of a myth of identity. Similarly, in The Matriarch, the prologue concludes with “Then came the pakeha”, Bulibasha with, “Soon after he left my conflict with Grandfather began”. Both conclusions are statements of ensuing fracture and conflict, the burdens of the respective narratives to follow.

The scope of history considered in Bulibasha is narrower: after The Matriarch‘s sweep of time from the creation through to the narrative present of the 1970s, this latest novel produces an effective evocation primarily of the first half of the twentieth century in this country, from the perspective of its adolescent male narrator, Simeon/Himiona and his cousins. Events in the novel are generated, bound up with, (over)shadowed by, world wars and the depression; the development of the New Zealand rural‑pastoral economy, the changing fortunes of the itinerant farm workers and the role of Apirana Ngata in securing degrees of economic stability for Maori workers in the rural sector; and the social and cultural changes wrought by the increasing influence of America in shaping popular‑cultural desires and imaginations.

Between them, the large Mahana and Poata families could almost comprise a pageant of motoring history, with the Mahana De Soto, Jaguar, Chevrolet, Rover, Austin, Ford and Pontiac procession, keeping the Poata Buick at bay. There’s even a reference to Riripeti (Artemis) Mahana’s Lagonda (from The Matriarch). Simeon/Himiona and his cousins and friends negotiate, and increasingly attempt to transcend, what they perceive as the limits of Waituhi reality with Hollywood western, action, and rock’n’roll movies. Gregory Peck, Audie Murphy, Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, James Dean and Bobby Darin are among those who engage the imaginations of this younger generation more successfully than biblical exemplars. Tamihana Mahana’s family hymns and psalms must compete with Bill Haley and Elvis Presley for the enthusiastic participation of his grandchildren. Himiona’s cousins Don, Sam and Charlie Jones are now the more flamboyant Donna, Cindy and Chantelle …

Despite its more manageable time‑frame Bulibasha, like The Matriarch, is framed by problems and questions of beginnings and endings. While recognisable images of rural and small‑town New Zealand society locate the events of the narrative, it is still haunted by more searching concerns of family history and individual identity. Again, while The Matriarch‘s centre of action comprised the strategic production of a whakapapa stretching back through the ancients to the creation itself, Bulibasha‘s account of the growth and fortunes of the Mahana family, ruled over by Tamihana Mahana in the manner of an Old Testament patriarch, is in many ways a less daunting prospect for the reader.

Yet even in the three generations focused on, it is an enormous family and the proliferation of Old and New Testament names (some transliterated, such as Tamihana’s first four sons, Matiu, Maaka, Ruka, and Hone), along with the manner of rule of the family, insinuate the whole of Judeo‑Christian time into the narrative. Other names and allusions of Greek Classical origin reach back even further to Olympus. Thus the Mahana family is understood in more like the epic scale familiar from the earlier novel.

In both novels, it is not simply the existence of the whakapapa or family history which is important, but the performance of it. In The Matriarch, Artemis teaches Tamatea to recite their whakapapa and this recitation becomes the crucial act at the centre of the novel. In Bulibasha, family history is learned and affirmed through the monthly family religious meetings, culminating in the October Thanksgiving meeting, where the joint narration of the family “saga” is enacted. The performance reinforces not only the unity of the family, but the strict sense of each individual’s place within it:

“Yes,” my Uncle Matiu said, “it was in 1919, straight after the Great War, that our family established itself as a shearing gang, and it was our father Tamihana who had the dream …” Uncle Matiu was meticulous in setting out the history. In so doing he was saying, We must never forget even the smallest detail, for it has its role in maintaining our memory. This is what those monthly meetings were about ‑ ensuring that we did not lose our memory, for otherwise we would also lose the understanding that in the beginning there had been only a dream. … Uncle Maaka coughed. It was his turn to take over the saga. (pp22‑23)

As the saga is narrated, the other members of the family remain kneeling, “in deference to Grandfather’s mana” (p22). But while on such Sundays and other family occasions, due respect is observed, the beginnings of dissent are emerging in Simeon/Himiona’s generation. In a “Three Musketeers of Waituhi” secret catechism, Himiona and his cousins Andrew and Haromi conclude their more colloquial rendition of the saga with “And because we were different … we were treated like shit.” (p49) Thus questions of the location and status of authority, and those of its subversion, weave throughout the narrative.

Then there is the issue of challenge. In The Matriarch Artemis Mahana was an accomplished swordswoman and dueller, more important, the novel comprised a range of character relationships which were fundamentally duels: those between Artemis and her husband Ihaka, Artemis and Tiana, and Artemis and Timoti. These duels condense in two ways: on the one hand the conflict is played out between Tamatea and Toroa towards the end of the novel; but there has also run throughout the motif of the character, “[p]ossessed of Maori and Pakeha blood … already at war with [him‑ or] herself” (p50). In Bulibasha, there is a sense of the two and divided worlds of Maori and Pakeha for the inhabitants of the small East Coast towns of Waituhi, (the fictional) Hukareka and the territory in between.

There is the contrast between te rori pakeha (sealed) and the dusty roads through the predominantly Maori townships. The general store is run by elderly Pakeha Miss Zelda and Miss Daisy with their brother Scott, the sisters seemingly nourished primarily by the small humiliations to which they could subject Huria Mahana in matters of literacy and store credit. The children are punished for speaking Maori at school, and “elocuted” out of any trace of a Maori accent. Himiona travels with his class to the Gisborne courthouse and experiences the shock of recognition that, as the only Maori member of the class, he is expected to thank the judge for allowing them to witness the workings of a “justice” system in which all the defendants that morning are Maori. And these are the mythic days of “egalitarianism”.

At the same time, the narrative presents life in the Waituhi itself as series of tournaments: much of its energy lies in the description of the hockey, rugby, and even cultural competitions, through which they come together as whanau, with all the humour and ferocity of family pride.

“Hit the ball,” Aunt Sarah interjected. “And if you can’t hit the ball ‑” “Hit the player,” Aunt Sarah said. (p147)

Indeed these events, along with such apparently tribal contests as the race for the bridge over the Waipaoa after their respective church services and the culminating competition for the inaugural Golden Fleece award for shearing, are the grounds over which a deadly serious rivalry is being played out. This rivalry, between Tamihana Mahana (and by extension his whole whanau) and Rupeni Poata (and his whanau) underscores the momentum of the narrative action, but also the very questions of history and identity with which the novel is more broadly concerned.

Having established the comparable sporting prowess of the two patriarchs in their younger days, what is the source of their current profound antipathy? A competition of egos, which isn’t surprising in a nation which puts godliness at best second to sporting accomplishment in its weekly observance of worship? A sporting wrong wrought by one of them on the other in their youth, still being avenged? A question of religious differences (Tamihana Mahana is Mormon while Rupeni Poata remains Ringatu)? Perhaps even old rivalries which go back past living memory?

The narrative focuses on the continual encounters generated by this rivalry, keeping the answer to its origin in the marshy territories outside of official family history. The urgency of the contests is kept alive by continually deferring the question of a single and determinant winner, there are variously draws, different ways of winning, or victories of pyrrhic or mordant accent (where Simeon/Himiona’s part in a victory over the Poata team represents an ambivalent confirmation of Tamihana Mahana’s authority). This is the crux of the matter; underneath Rupeni Poata’s overt challenge to Tamihana Mahana’s supremacy has worked, throughout the narrative, the more subversive challenge from within the Mahana whanau itself ‑ though very much in the margins of its structure of relative mana ‑ issuing from the adolescent narrator Simeon. His questioning of the authority of Tamihana, the Bulibasha, prefigures in the form of adolescent rebellion, the revelation of the false grounds of that authority and the functioning of family history in sustaining its mythology.

Finally, there is the issue of succession. Like their engagement with questions and problems of history, Ihimaera’s novels have both generated and participated in debates around the issues of power and succession. Often there is the question of the establishment of the identity and mana of the chosen one who will receive the mantle of an earlier leader. in The Matriarch, Artemis has inherited the mantle of leadership and the (contested) right to speak on the Wellington marae, while the duels in which she engages with other characters such as Ihaka and Tiana similarly concern the vital issues of succession. She has chosen Tamatea but he must assert himself and win over his grandfather’s choice, Toroa.

“I claim no mantle from my grandfather. I have the mantle of Artemis, and that is enough … Give Toroa your mantle, you foolish old man, I have no need of it. But cease to place him above me. Next time, I will kill him.” (The Matriarch, pp401‑2)

This has been a controversial and problematic feature of that novel for reasons which go beyond the concerns of the strictly literary, and enter the realms of debates within Maoridom and its representation more generally. in Bulibasha, Grandfather Tamihana had received a visitation in 1918 by a Mormon angel who offered prosperity to his family in return for raising that family in Mormon church, observing its conventions of godliness ‑ and tithes; within the family, Tamihana asserts the privilege of the first born son and mana is conferred in descending order from there (daughters, younger sons, and their husbands and wives having little status at all, and Simeon’s family gains a piece of land only through the sacrificial gesture of Grandmother Ramona).

Yet this apparently divinely‑ordained supremacy is still subject to the onslaughts of Poata rivalry, something is not as absolute as it should be. The flaw is foreshadowed at the very start of the novel, with the conferral of a new status by the trickster‑figure, the gypsy Tobio.

“In my country,” he said, “all the gypsy peoples, they go to the monastery in Bistrita … There, all the gypsies agree who will be their leader. We crown him King of the Gypsies. Bulibasha.” He took Grandfather’s hand and kissed it. Then he was gone. (p7)

The significance of his conferring on Tamihana the title of “King of the Gypsies” does not become clear until the revelation towards the end of the novel. At this point, Tobio’s mischievous explanation, (“We never steal and never take pretty babies ‑” He gave a sly look at my youngest sister Glory. “Except now and then!” p5) resonates above all the other “gypsy” allusions throughout the novel.

Tamihana’s rule has proved to have been founded on very dubious claims. Yet has his status as worthy competitor for Rupeni Poata been any less real? What is the nature of leadership, where is its authority, what are the consensual myths that sustain it? Where is its ethical ‑ even moral ‑ basis? Is it true that “The family comes first and it comes last. The family is forever“? (p289) Ihimaera has not been afraid to suggest in much of his work that the leaders of the future may be drawn from unexpected quarters, that the demands of leadership in modern Maori society may require new modes of selection and recognition. However, the eventual conferral of a decision‑making role for the family on Simeon raises questions about the nature of leadership itself:

I flushed and had to hide my face in the shadows. Yes, I was ashamed. My manipulation had changed the course of family history forever. There was something arrogant in the notion, something God‑like in the assumption … But underpinning it all was a new emotion, a reckless disregard for the rightness of things. I could play with people as if they were toys. There was not so much difference, after all, between me and my grandfather, the Bulibasha. (pp282-83)

Peter Beatson once suggested that The Matriarch was “this country’s first real ‘problem novel’ since it contains no internal indication of how it should be interpreted.” I suggest Bulibasha, considered in these terms, presents similarly problems and similarly extends them beyond the novel itself: while it defers the problems that would inhere in a decisive resolution regarding the mana of the two patriarchs (and by extension their whanau and iwi), it keeps the debate alive and projects it beyond the scope of the novel itself into the broader arena of its constitutive concerns:

And the decision? I’ll let you work it out for yourself, though I’ll give you a clue. It has become yet another reason why, today, the Mahana and Poata families are still fighting each other. (p291)

Chris Prentice lectures in English at Otago University.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
Search the archive
Search by category