Ships that can sink without trace, Roger Robinson

The Faber Book of Contemporary South Pacific Stories
C K Stead (ed),
Faber & Faber, distributed in New Zealand by Penguin, $39.95

This is the riskiest review I’ve done since I got stuck with The Satanic Verses. Worse, really; I’d rather take my chances in Tehran as a defender of Rushdie than Auckland under a fatwah from C K Stead. Yet I accepted this job (I have witnesses) with no prior knowledge of the controversy or the identity of the editor. As he says here in his “Note on Absences”, the critic’s duty is to ” [apply] the same standards of judgment to any work in the English language that [comes] before him [sic], irrespective of … the author”. I will obey that wise edict. I’ll deal with the book, its editing and its editor in that order.

Epeli Hau’ofa and Bill Manhire have stories in this collection which scrutinise, satirise and lament the modern history of the South Pacific. In Hau’ofa’s “The Glorious Pacific Way”, an aspiring scholar of his country’s oral traditions is reduced to a self-seeking pawn of politically-correct aid schemes. Manhire’s “Cannibals” is a mock adventure yarn about exploration, exploitation and dastardly natives (half of them French). Both are very funny. Both cut through the pretensions of the colonial past and postcolonial present with a sharp but poker-faced comedy. Both teeter earnestly on the brink of the absurd.

Yet they are more honest than most realists about the faults and follies on both sides of colonial experience. Both write with a just-comic formality which employs, rejuvenates and simultaneously subverts the region’s dominant literary influences ‑ the Bible, the prayer book, nineteenth-century boys’ adventure stories, public service prose, oral narrative. Both, with cunning self-consciousness, deal with “the Pacific”, exposing the inevitability, the potency and the futility of such a denotation of a quarter of the globe. And in both the great human absolutes ‑ religion, sex, shit, survival, power, greed ‑ pulse under the jewelled sunlit surface. Neither could have been written anywhere else.

There’s more: the way Hau’ofa and Manhire deal with names ‑ a hero called Ole Pasifikiwei, a coral island called Mrs Llewellyn Davis; titles too ‑ the Bureau for the Preservation of Traditional Culture and Essential Indigenous Personality, the Priests of Rome; their dialogue which is so nearly yet not quite real, their poised mastery of tone and the wicked twists of their unpredictable comedy. And there is the sadness, the dying fall, the hint of an almost incantatory lamentation, with which each story ends: “He has since shelved his original sense of self-respect and has assumed another, more attuned to his new, permanent role as a first-rate, expert beggar.” (“The Glorious Pacific Way”) “That is how it is, adventure and regret, there is no getting away from it, we live in the broad Pacific, meeting and parting shake us, meeting and parting shake us, it is always touch and go.” (“Cannibals”)

Epeli Hau’ofa is a Tongan born in Papua New Guinea, educated in Australia and Canada and now living in Fiji. Manhire has migrated all the way from Dunedin to Wellington. My intention is not to make them identical, but to say that new illuminations can be gained from collecting South Pacific stories and including New Zealand. That note of lamentation is one. You move away from these two stories with a sense of having glimpsed paradise but somehow stumbled into a void.

Then you recall that the same note has echoed down around the region since Erewhon and Island Nights’ Entertainment. You recognise having heard it now in Mansfield, Frame and Wendt. Hau’ofa and Manhire have crafted narrative and tonal microcosms of one of humanity’s great lost opportunities. Putting them together helps imaginatively to understand our place and time.

There could be other such connections: that hovering between solemnity and absurdity, for instance; or the matter of the “oral”, the encounter throughout the Pacific between a literate and laconic immigrant idiom and resonantly eloquent indigenous ones. Or the interaction of images of brutality and disease with romance and order. Or the shifts in scale, shuttling from repressive domesticity to settings of incomprehensible vastness and beauty. Reconciling those is a daily task, whichever Pacific island we live on. It’s there, mystic and vast, under my little suburban window as I write.

In all these, to connect New Zealand and the South Pacific can bring fresh clarity to the vision of both. But I am writing now of the book that might have been. The way this book lays its frame on the map seems legitimate and potentially important, especially with the Faber label. So much the sadder that the opportunity has been wasted.

Whether conspiracy, carelessness or ignorance caused that waste is a matter of opinion. I must deal with the absences, however. An Irish anthology that lacked Joyce, Yeats and Heaney would require comment. A South Pacific anthology without Grace, Hulme, Ihimaera and Wendt simply should not have been allowed to proceed.

Stead justly insists on his superiority to double standards, yet here presents this region’s fiction to the world as a mix of highly accomplished European New Zealand writers and secondary or novice indigenous ones (Hau’ofa apart). That is a grave misrepresentation. The very writers are absent who have established themselves by the highest standards of judgment. Apirana Taylor, John Puhitatau Pule and Emma Kruse Va’ai can earn a place in such a book but not as top billing for their cultures. It’s misleading when the best story about being Samoan is by Graham Lay or when Stead’s “Short History of New Zealand” version of Maori and Pakeha is unchallenged by Patricia Grace’s subtler subversions. Faber has nodded.

Even sympathising with the editor’s nightmare of those withdrawals, the choice of stories seems makeshift. No argument is provided for including Papua New Guinea but omitting the Solomon Islands. Some of the New Zealand stories seem chosen because they look outward. Others do not. If du Fresne’s “Farvel”, Lay’s “The Jacket” and Tarrant’s “White Soracte” represent immigrant experience, if Koea’s “The Woman Who Never Went Home” and Were’s “Levuka” represent tourist experience, why include a Gee story which is wholly local and domestic (“Joker and Wife”)? For the exoticism of the wetas in the dunny? If Marshall’s “The Tsunami” somehow places New Zealand in a Pacific context (which is a stretch for a story that takes place wholly inside a car), wouldn’t something from Lloyd Jones or Peter Wells work fruitfully with it? Especially Wells’ “The Encounter”? I’m not playing Make Your Own Anthology; just raising questions about this one’s rationale which are not addressed within its uneven and seemingly random pages.

The arrangement is merely alphabetical. The reader is left alone to make connections. I think overseas readers need more help. They might compare Marjorie Crocombe’s “The Healer” with Apirana Taylor’s “Carving Up the Cross” as treatments of spirituality in a context of cultural encounter, but I think they should be told that the stories are from different cultures, by writers of different generations, writing 25 years apart.

The furthest Stead’s Introduction goes towards committing itself is to say that Frame’s “The Headmistress’s Story” is included because it shows “the wonderful traditional literary inheritance” changing from a protection into a concealment. OK, but what has that to do with the South Pacific in particular? How is it different than for Stephen Dedalus, say? How can the reader place this autobiographical story, or fragment, against a writer now famous for autobiography without the courtesy even of a date?

Stead has often cross-examined other anthologists, Wedde and McQueen for instance, in such terms. It is disappointing that here he scurries for cover behind “personal taste” in his second sentence.

So the meaning of “South Pacific” is left unclear, as is the meaning of “contemporary”. Vincent Eri’s “Village, Church and School” dates from the 1960s and was incorporated into his novel “The Crocodile” in,’ 1970. No hint is given to differentiate it from new work by a young writer, like Pule’s “Letters”. Similarly, Raymond Pillai’s “The Celebration” was published in 1974 and, with Crocombe’s “The Healer” was included in Albert Wendt’s expert and scholarly anthology Lali in 1980. Wendt, Crocombe and Subramani have worked for three decades to foster and describe literature in the region. I think these things should be acknowledged.

The faraway reader new to these wide waters would benefit from their guidance, for instance, on the country of origin of each story, and on important matters such as the distinction between Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. The literary implications of these distinctions have been known here since Subramani, Ken Arvidsen and Wendt each wrote so well in the first Mana Review (1976), but few Faber readers will have access to those essays.

So the reader is thrown on to the biographical notes, where Stead exposes himself at his weakest. The information there is uneven, partial and sometimes inaccurate. Hau’ofa has not published “two collections of short stories” but one collection and one novel. The note on Vincent Eri is lifted virtually verbatim from Lali. Is there nothing to add since 1980?

Perhaps some notes were provided by authors, which might explain why Apirana Taylor has his tribal affiliations listed but the other Maori do not. But many notes are only too palpably Stead’s. The New Zealand ones take on the tone of a school prize-giving as he dishes out the marks and rankings. Manhire is “one of New Zealand’s most notable poets” but Wedde comes top as “the most talented New Zealand poet of his generation”. Gee similarly is “one of New Zealand’s major writers”, but Janet Frame is “together with poet Allen Curnow, New Zealand’s most honoured writer”. How did Curnow get in there? Has Stead read Hau’ofa’s novel after all? It’s called Kisses in the Nederends.

Most gauche of all is the claim that J C Sturm was “first anthologised in World’s Classics, New Zealand Stories, Second Series, edited by C K Stead, 1966″. Actually, the title is wrong, but what does that note really say? “I was the first to put a Maori on my team”? There is no mention of who was first to anthologise other writers: usually Wendt or Ihimaera, sometimes Manhire or O’Sullivan, for the record. It is a vain and silly thing to put in a major international book, one of many errors of judgment unworthy of Stead’s past editing record.

He has done much better as a prefatory essayist, too (on Duggan, particularly) than in this weak introduction. It deals in platitudes (“There was a time when New Zealand and Australia were close”) and trivial personal anecdotes (“our house was full of photographs showing semi-naked brown men…”). The amateurishness of the editorial procedure exacerbates the embarrassing sense that he just wanted to lift his leg on somebody else’s gatepost.

I have had to move from editing to editor. The book insists on it. The “Note on Absences” explains that Stead offered “to resign as editor”, but the publishers refused to proceed without him. The book is wholly his. The “Introduction” and “Note on Absences” and even the biographical notes (as I have shown) are insistently personal. I must therefore end in personal terms.

Stead finds himself guilty of “neither insult nor attack” in his dealings with Maori writers and Wendt. He has applied only those “standards of judgment” which I quoted at the beginning. Fair enough and partly true. But only half the truth. He wrote courageously of the “imaginative complicity” in violence in The Bone People, but went on to attack and insult Hulme for claiming Maori heritage for fashion and profit. He disparaged Wendt’s scholarship when he was appointed to a chair.

And here, even while disingenuously playing the dispassionate scholar, he is at it again. Ihimaera is clobbered for “protecting Maori values by fax from the South of France”, Hulme for waxing rich in London, Grace for parading as a “female icon” in Suffrage Year, Wendt for being a professor. If you like blood spilled in your anthologies, this is the one for you. It’s like Karl running berko round Parnell with the AK47.

Let it be said that C K Stead strikes with speed and venom. For spleen, detraction and the threatening rattle he has few equals. As an admirer of Smollett and Pope I don’t object to that, for it is a kind of literary skill, though Stead’s rarely rises to wit. I only wish he would stop deluding himself that it is all “the proper stuff of intellectual debate”. The fax and the female icon are not proffered as debating points. They are crowbars slammed into the shin of a rival.

For Stead seems now to have become the Tonya Harding of New Zealand literature. He has worked and dreamed and risen and turned literary triple axles in every possible outfit. Yet the gold eludes him. Others, privileged by ethnicity or gender or talent, win the favour of the judges. Frustration turns to rage ‑ and blam goes the metal bar on the kneecap.

The version Stead presents of himself here is the judicious scholar, pained at the criticism he has received and generous to the last in giving praise where it is due. Let him speak for himself. Hulme has “stunning directness and force”. Wendt’s short stories, “before his two recent novels … which suggest some kind of collapse of his talent, represent … some of the best in Pacific Island writing”. Ponder that “some of” and judge whether it is debate or attack.

Resigned that his denigrators “have gone off in their little boat”, Stead consoles himself that “the ship sails on”. In the South Pacific context that is a naive use of a multi-edged metaphor. Ships in these seas have carried bullies, pirates, land-grabbers, bible-punchers and nuclear-polluters (the lot at once in Manhire’s story). Little boats can grow into great mutinies. Tyrannical captains may themselves writhe under the lash.

Perhaps we should beat the lali and talk for a while rather than sail on regardless. These blue waters can be treacherous to those who lack local knowledge. Ships, even those registered in London, in this, of all oceans, can sink without trace.


Roger Robinson teaches English at Victoria University. He has most recently published on Patricia Grace, M K Joseph and Katherine Mansfield.


[See also issue 17, New Zealand Books, Apology to C K Stead.]


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