Fantastic account, Heather Murray

Tasman’s Lay
Peter Hawes
Hazard Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 908790 52 X

Tin Nimbus
Geoff Cochrane
Victoria University Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 86473 279 1

The Warrior Queen
Barbara Else
Godwit Publishing, $19.95,
ISBN 0 908877 61 7

Remains of a Family
Elizabeth Sheppard
Vintage Random, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941246 X

Tasman’s Lay is a fantastic account of what might have happened on Tasman’s voyage to the South Seas in 1642 during which he found New Zealand. Peter Hawes starts from the supposition that Tasman falsified his log for philosophic reasons. He reconstructs the “real” account of the journey as written in journal form by a Javanese linguist named Nyoman, but so outrageous is the story that the reader soon gives up wondering what is real and what is invented. It does not seem to matter. There might well be sea monsters big enough to stop a ship, or a lodestone mountain which throws compasses into a spin and draws the nails out of ships, sending them to the bottom.

Hawes has a truly inventive and original mind; he loves the quirky detail and esoteric lore (the cure for syphilis is not for the squeamish). Sailors were a sturdy breed. There are some wonderful characters on board: the enigmatic Tasman himself as commander of the expedition, and his fraught relationship with the Dutch East India Company representative. And “Lord” Romsay, a younger scion of an aristocratic British family who as ship’s carpenter lives his life below decks, pallid to the extent that his eyelids are so transparent that his pupils show through the lids while he sleeps and follow movements in the room.

The narrative is broken into segments of varying length corresponding to journal entries, each given a heading, such as “How We Discovered Dry Rot”, “A Terrible Moment” and “My Thoughts Whilst Sipping Tea”. It skips along at a good pace; Hawes tells his story with great skill and there is a delightful and unexpected twist at the end. I regretted the lack of a good map; no doubt Tasman regretted it too. A glossary of nautical terms would have helped. And the publisher has been stingy over size of typeface.

There is a serious purpose behind Hawes’ witty narrative: he is harsh on the materialism of Dutch commercial enterprises. The Dutch will sell anything, he says, even cannonballs to their enemies. They roam the world, not out of any genuine desire for adventure, but to find new supplies to mine to exhaustion and to discover gullible new customers for Dutch products. Tasman sees the cynicism and moral bankruptcy at the heart of it, compared with the spirit informing the natives of New Zealand, who make only what they need:

“We can’t have people having only what they need, because then they don’t need anything from us. We can’t let them persist with handmade tools, handmade clothes, ornaments, houses ‑ we can’t let things have a purpose; we have to take the purpose out! We extract purpose in order to survive!”

Tasman falsifies his log to put the company off the scent: nothing useful is to be gained from New Zealand, he writes. And since the emphasis of the journey was entirely commercial (there being no desire to convert the natives to christianity lest they become more knowing about the value of their property and the Dutch did not intend to share Heaven with coloured folk anyway), Tasman quickly passes by. The implication of this is that whatever forests stand yet in New Zealand, whatever raw materials remain, we have Tasman to thank for keeping the Dutch out.

Tin Nimbus is an impressive first novel from Wellington poet, Geoff Cochrane. The storyline does not sound promising: young drunk down on his luck decides to take cure, signs into mountain clinic, decides against cure, resumes youthful drunkenness. But Tin Nimbus is a profound study of alcoholism, a poetic evocation of a distinctly unpoetic state. It grips, fascinates, delights and ultimately puzzles. By not revealing all, leaving an enigma at the heart of man and novel, Cochrane’s work proves all the more satisfying than would have been the case if the whole thing was laid bare, solved and neatly parcelled away.

Sean Angell is anarchic, an upsetter of neat theories, drawn to “the reverse of principles, inversions of clichés”. He genuinely loves alcohol as an arsonist loves fire: “Sean lifted the Gordons from the floor and unwound the silver, plastic cap. Even the squeak of plastic on glass was dear and stimulating.”

It takes an alcoholic poet to see that gin shines and bears images, that it has “an elastic, mirroring skin which could be tilted and caused to bend, to creep”. He is asked, “Do you have any hobbies?” He replies, “My drinking keeps me busy”. His girlfriend has cast him off: the end of their love “was all a slow dissolution. Like a photograph fading. Like being in a room with someone until there was no more light left”.

The peripheral characters, Charlie the drunk, Professor Berquist also drunk, a European linguist sacked from his post at Victoria University, Doctor Sternberg at the clinic, are well drawn and subtle. The setting and atmosphere of Wellington seascapes are beautifully created: few New Zealand cities have been so well presented by poets and fiction writers ‑ Mansfield, Wedde, Edmond, Gee, Wilkins come to mind and now Cochrane. The Midland Hotel opens earlier than other hotels, “a first‑aid station for drinkers of the night before, for drinkers of even earlier in the morning, for drinkers represented on only the most arcane statistical charts”. The sea is all‑pervasive:

At this particular corner, always here, the odour of the harbour was at its frankest. It chilled and dampened Sean’s cheeks. There were oceans in it, green and tragic, and cities, distant and ice‑bound.

But it is the character of Sean that is the chief delight. He is multi‑layered and elusive. Facing only death by slow self-destruction, he achieves true nobility by never falling into self‑pity, and always seeing the beauty of the moment. His life has been worth living. At the end, arrested for burglary and waiting to be photographed, he is already plotting the course of his new day: “Sean had friends ‘the world knew not of’ with pantries and cases of plonk, spare beds and new Vivaldi records. He would go where he could hear the Eagles on headphones”. As the camera flashes Sean notices “the blueness in it, and infinite, airy space”, reminding him of the sky light at the mountain clinic: “… the light above that nameless, frozen mountain. Perhaps in the icy sizzle of the flash there had been a fleck of cerise”.

Geoff Cochrane has made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Some new novelists make tentative beginnings, but others such as Cochrane seem to arrive fully formed and in command of the genre. Another such is Barbara Else, who with The Warrior Queen, leaps to the first rank of novelists. There she joins a kin group of powerful female subversives. Well brought up, they are, well‑modulated, discreet of manner and appearance ‑ until they take up the pen. No moving object is safe from them, for the other thing they have in common is a deadly eye for human frailty and speed with the trigger. Barbara Else is now up there with Fay Weldon, Barbara Trapido, Barbara Anderson and Marilyn Duckworth.

Fortyish Kate has made a career out of marriage to her doctor, Richard, and motherhood to a pleasant group of teenage children. She loves them all and what does it matter if she had to put aside her music and nursing career? Marriage is a commitment and, having made it, she will remain faithful to the end, even if it means she is the last virtuous woman of the twentieth century.

Does she really mean it? If ever a man failed to deserve such fidelity it is Richard, a rat of the first order, who exhibits none of the finer points one usually looks for in a lifetime’s mate. He is poison from toe to the barometric bald spot atop his swollen head. Richard’s moods dictate the weather in his household and everyone has learnt to check the bald spot for an indicator: mottled, he is in aggrieved mood, victimised, set upon by uncaring colleagues and/or family, blotchy red, Richard is in “full organising mode so stand back please, dogs and small children at the rear for safety, well back, thank you”.

Richard has not prospered in the world of medicine. Not his own fault, of course, he just doesn’t get the breaks. Consequently, he is denied the worldly goods a man of his standing is entitled to expect. Kate comprehends her man’s nature and oversees all its manifestations with wry amusement (her saving grace) ‑ until she discovers a receipt which suggests Richard has not always been playing squash on Thursday afternoons, but giving his declining libido an illicit work‑out in a motel.

That was not part of the bargain, and the shock of such betrayal turns mild Kate into a warrior queen wreaking vengeance. Her besting of Richard and his lover makes for delicious reading. If you want one witty and sophisticated novel to take on holiday this summer, then buy The Warrior Queen ‑ wonderfully inventive hints too on how to deal with an unfaithful husband. Else marvellously deconstructs the middle‑class ethos of yuppie Auckland ‑ its foundation in acquisitiveness, its gospel of success, its half‑absorbed new age quackery, its truly terrible dinner parties and destructive sexual mobility. Post‑Else there may not be much enthusiasm for dinner parties or affairs.

Elizabeth Sheppard at the age of 70 publishes her first novel after a career as a journalist and charity worker among people displaced by war. Remains of a Family puts in fictional form the experiences of three generations of a middleclass Laotian family forced out of Ventiane by Communist soldiers. After privations, indignities and general loss of morale in a Thai refugee camp they arrive in west Auckland. The contrast between their comfortable old style of living and the rawness of a new housing subdivision is extreme. New Zealand extracts its toll as well. Only the fittest survive. The future lies with the young.

In the Auckland subdivision, there are local refugees too: young hopefuls, newly married and with few options, buy into the denuded landscape, the concrete boxes and pathless sections. Such a couple are Wayne and Debbie, victims of a shotgun marriage, who after a year or two living with Debbie’s mum and a second baby on the way, secure a foothold with their own concrete box. It’ll look bigger when the walls are up, the developer tells them.

No doubt many will enjoy Sheppard’s novel: her descriptions have the ring of authenticity, and perhaps the story is one that needs to be told; Sheppard clearly thinks so, but I think the piece would have worked better as non‑fiction, or a TV documentary. Fiction is a deceptively hard taskmaster, requiring more than just an issue or a story upon which to hang the work. Anyone may buy oils and a piece of canvas and have ideas for a picture but few have the vision, the imagination and the technical skills to transform all the component parts into a work of art; it is the same for writing a novel. How often also a reader is forced to question the motives of the writers of “issues” novels, the novels which depend almost entirely upon the strength of the storyline and the commitment of the writer to a cause.

Too often these writers seem like early christian missionaries, afire over humankind’s awfulness and the need to save the world from itself. They rub our noses in the latest fall from grace and urge us to be better, kinder, more humane. Well, I’ve had it with the guilt thing: no longer will I assume responsibility for the evils of the world. Yes, as a species we are awful and we don’t seem to get any better. Victims lie all about and it is as well we know it. But to write the wrong is not to cure it and in the case of this battle-hardened reader, a certain imperviousness ‑ bloody mindedness if you like ‑ seals off the portals to any residual decency and malleability.

I sidestep the missionary moralists, cursing their earnest naivety, their concept of victim and victimiser, their desire to make me better. Yes, things have come to a pretty pass and I only hope for writer’s and publisher’s sake that there are still youthful idealists out there who will be swayed by the rightness of Elizabeth Sheppard’s story.

Meanwhile ‑ as I do more and more these days ‑ I reach for Jane Austen, and re‑read chapter 1 of Pride and Prejudice. You’ll know the one, beginning, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. With consummate skill and art a whole culture is demolished. The wit. The lightness of touch. The setting of wrongs to right. Jane, you show the way.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin writer and editor. She coedits the Journal of New Zealand Literature with Lawrence Jones, and this year they edited From the Mainland ‑ an anthology of South Island writing.

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