Ironies with wry detachment, Iain Sharp

My Name is Paradiso
James McNeish
David Ling, $24.95
ISBN 0908990278

On the back cover of his seventh novel, there’s a head-and-shoulders photograph of James McNeish taken by his wife, Helen. The author has been caught midway through the process of lighting his pipe. His big cupped hands and the box of matches he clutches partially obscure the lower left side of his face. It’s an image already familiar from several of McNeish’s earlier books. Given the frequency of its recurrence, McNeish must surely approve of the likeness. Yet the longer I look at this photograph the less certain I am how to decipher the facial expression it captures.

Is McNeish’s gaze furtive, expectant, glum, mischievous or cross? Is he eager to resume a conversation that he’s been enjoying or irked to be snapped unawares? What’s the reason for his heavily furrowed brow? Is he concentrating on some tough conundrum or just straining to get his pipe lit on a windy day?

Although I’ve met McNeish, interviewed him and read most of his work, I couldn’t put together a convincing psychological portrait. I know the curriculum vitae and the dominant authorial themes but I don’t know the man. Some writers feel constrained to bare their souls in every paragraph. McNeish does not. I come away from his books impressed by the intellect but without much sense of a personal encounter.

As a journalist and broadcaster of more than 40 years’ standing, McNeish appreciates at a deep level the difficulties involved in the interrogative process. Although he clearly dislikes being interviewed, he’s civil to interviewers and he tries hard to answer their questions honestly. But the central core remains private, elusive, inviolable ‑ in the end as mysterious and solitary a figure as the semi‑mythic New Zealanders he has chosen to write about ‑ Mackenzie, Fairburn and Lovelock.

In 1977, Hodder and Stoughton published As for the Godwits, a collection of articles which McNeish originally wrote for the New Zealand Listener about life in a remote coastal settlement near Kawhia, which he chose to call Godwit Bay or Te Kuaka (simply the Maori for godwit). This collection has been described as “an autobiographical diary” but McNeish is an unusual autobiographer in that he seldom looks inward. His diary is not an occasion for self‑analysis. He’s not interested in mapping his moods or teasing out the nuances of his temperament. He focuses instead on the practical problems faced by the inhabitants of a tiny community.

The Man from Nowhere, published by Godwit Press in 1991, has also been defined as a collection of autobiographical writings, but again this is autobiography of an exceptionally reticent, outward‑looking and non‑ego‑driven kind. As well as a further taste of Godwit Bay, the volume contains an essay on the difficulties of researching the life of Olympic runner Jack Lovelock (the hero and narrator of McNeish’s fifth novel), a profile of the Kanak independence leader Jean‑Marie Tjibaou (who figures briefly in McNeish’s sixth novel, Penelope’s Island) and a description of Cammarata (renamed by McNeish “Montalbino”), a village in western Sicily, as it was in the early 1960s. The author is present in these pieces as an observer, a documentary‑maker and a detective but he’s never the centre of attention.

The epigraph to The Man from Nowhere is a quotation from American painter Georgia O’Keeffe ‑ rather clumsily expressed but close, no doubt, to McNeish’s own sentiments:

“Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

Reviewing My Name is Paradiso with his customary high spirits in the Listener (22 April), David Hill observed: “In some collections of NZ Lit Crit, you find Louis MacNeice mentioned more than James McNeish. Our man’s profile stays low as well as leonine: he just keeps creating away steadily in what the media call obscurity ‑ ie, outside Auckland.”

McNeish has a peculiar standing in this country. When critics bother to reflect on his output, they generally applaud his achievement, but they don’t bother all that often. He’s accorded a few entries in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature (amounting to about a page all told), but one searches in vain for McNeish in Patrick Evans’ Penguin History. Nor is he mentioned in Cherry Hankin’s Critical Essays on the New Zealand Novel or Mark Williams’ Leaving the Highway (although Williams finds time for an aside about the eighteenth-century Scottish bard James Macpherson). Even in Lawrence Jones’ Barbed Wire & Mirrors, which contains a penetrating study of his first novel, Mackenzie, McNeish’s surname is misspelled in the index.

Born in Auckland in 1931, McNeish worked as a reporter for the New Zealand Herald in the 1950s. Not long after the publication of his first book, Tavern in the Town (an illustrated history of New Zealand pubs), in 1957, he embarked for Britain as a deckboy on a Norwegian freighter. Apart from a short trip home in 1964 to visit his sick father, he was out of New Zealand until 1967. During his time abroad, he worked as a fireman and electrician in English theatres, he taught in a comprehensive school in South London, he recorded folk music in 21 countries for the BBC archives and he freelanced for the Observer and the Guardian. Most significantly, in terms of his subsequent literary career, he wrote Fire Under the Ashes, a biography of the pacifist reformer Danilo Dolci, who has been dubbed “the Gandhi of Sicily”.

In 1949, instead of establishing an affluent livelihood for himself as an architect, having graduated with distinction in Milan, Dolci joined a Catholic community in northern Italy which cared for destitute orphans. He moved to Sicily in 1952. He has dedicated himself with monastic zeal ever since to alleviating the island’s poverty, backwardness and violence. Over the years, he has clashed frequently with the government, the Catholic church and the Mafia, none of which welcomes change. He first became a focus of international attention in 1956 when he was imprisoned for four months after he encouraged a gang of unemployed Sicilians to repair a broken‑down road without permission. He was arrested again the following year on an obscenity charge when he published an account of young boys who became prostitutes in return for food.

McNeish visited Sicily as part of his folk music assignment. Impressed by Dolci when they met in the winter of 1960, he became affiliated with (although never quite a member of) an international community of helpers based in Partinico, a bandit town in the extreme west of the island in the hills behind Palermo. He lived in Sicily on and off for four years, helping Dolci with research, working on the biography and occasionally taking part in fasts and protest actions against governmental neglect, bureaucratic apathy and mafiosi violence.

Fire Under the Ashes (the title derives from the Chambers Encyclopedia‘s description of Mount Etna) was well received by European reviewers when it appeared in 1965. McNeish might have become an internationally recognised roving reporter, like Peter Arnett or even like Alan Whicker. Instead he opted for his own brand of monasticism, coming back to New Zealand and living as a semi‑recluse for 14 years in Kawhia.

He discussed the reasons for his choice with gruff candour in an essay published in the Listener on 13 September 1971. New Zealand, he noted, is a place where “3 million people live in a sort of geriatric situation with, as Fairburn, I think it was, said, hot water, fresh butter and first‑grade toilet paper and a look of total boredom on their faces”. But at least it provides a writer with “time to think and time to digest”. McNeish evidently prizes thinking time more highly than international renown.

“New Zealand is one of the few remaining societies in the world,” he advised the Listener‘s readers, “where you can live remotely and, for a time at least, anonymously.” On the Tasman coastline he lived very remotely indeed. (“I have no electricity, no road access, the nearest neighbour is half a mile off and the nearest library a day’s journey by foot, sea and road.”)

Visibility plays an important part in the promotion of literary careers and generally McNeish has kept out of sight. While other authors hobnob at book launches, arts festivals and other literary soirees, he has preferred to ruminate in self‑imposed exile. Now and again, to coincide with a new publication, he consents to an interview. On these occasions he sometimes comments on New Zealanders’ shortcomings, lamenting our inarticulateness, political naivety, lack of moral courage, low standards, willingness to settle for mediocrity and so forth, but the tone of his pronouncements is rueful rather than hectoring. Moralist though he is at heart, he mounts the soapbox only with reluctance. He has no desire to set himself up as a spokesperson or guru figure like James K Baxter ‑ or, indeed, like Danilo Dolci.

“I suppose I’m in the position of an ex‑pat who has come home but who is half a stranger,” he told Ruth Nichol in an interview published in the April 1995 issue of Quote Unquote. “But being an outsider isn’t at all bad. In fact it’s almost essential.”

The central characters in all of McNeish’s novels are beleaguered outsiders. A victim of the highland clearances, James Mackenzie is a Scottish visionary at odds with the grasping, unimaginative, predominantly English settlers of Canterbury. Denounced by the teaching fraternity as a delinquent and perhaps even a killer, John Marsh in The Glass Zoo is a gifted child whose gifts have gone unrecognised. Dr Falk in Joy is a German‑Jewish immigrant, hailed for a while as a saviour by a Kawhia‑like community but later spurned. Apart from himself, nobody picks Jack Lovelock ‑ a gauche, taciturn Kiwi in baggy shorts ‑ to win the 1500‑metre race in Berlin. Born in Hungary and raised in England, Penny, the narrator of Penelope’s Island, fits with neither the Caldoches (French settlers) nor Kanaks in New Caledonia. Near the beginning of the novel she says of Felix, her muddled husband: “We had, we discovered, one thing in common ‑ we were both outsiders.”

In considering the lasting impact of McNeish’s encounter with Dolci, it’s important, I think, to bear in mind that the Gandhi of Sicily is not a native Sicilian but an outsider. He was born in 1924 at Sesana, a village near Trieste. His mother came from Yugoslavia (as it was then known), Danilo is a Slav name and as a boy Dolci spoke Slovenian. The family moved to Sicily in the summer of 1941 when Danilo’s father, a railway employee of mixed Italian and German blood, became a stationmaster in the village of Trappeto, a half‑starved village in the southwest of the island. They headed north again soon after the Allied invasion in September 1943. Nine years passed before Dolci returned to Trappeto full of reforming zeal. Sicilians have always eyed Dolci with suspicion, labelling him (as McNeish reveals on the first page of Fire Under the Ashes and repeats in My Name is Paradiso) “the professional misery man” and “the defamer of Sicily”. His strongest support comes from foreigners.

When Joy first appeared in 1972 reviewers were quick to spot the similarities between Dr Falk, who seals off the novel’s eponymous, ironically named, little town after it is smitten by a mysterious epidemic, and George McCall Smith, the feisty and autocratic Scottish surgeon who arrived in the Hokianga in 1914 and battled typhoid, diptheria, the 1918 ‘flu, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis and other maladies in the town of Rawene for more than 30 years, often at loggerheads with regional hospital boards and government bodies (both local and national). They also pointed to the parallels between Falk’s treatment by hostile authorities and the SIS harrying of the eminent economist W B Sutch (tried, unsuccessfully, for spying and treason three years after the novel’s publication). I have no quarrel with these reviewers.

I’m sure their judgments are correct. But I would add that there are also traces of Danilo Dolci in Falk’s make‑up.

One of the minor characters in Joy is a lumbering pundit named Professor Thompson, who uses the town as his primary example for a tedious sociological tome which he calls The Moral Basis of an Isolated Community. This satirical invention is partly informed, I suspect, by McNeish’s memories of the fieldwork he did in Sicily for Dolci (and sometimes also for Stockholm University). Perhaps one reason for the mockery was that he feared in himself a tendency to become as pompous as Professor Thompson. The morality of isolated communities is one of McNeish’s central preoccupations, discussed in book after book, although the settings vary from a school to a coastal settlement, an island and a nineteenth century New Zealand province. On the one hand he sympathises with the struggles such communities have to survive in a larger world which cares not a whit about them. On the other he knows how likely small societies are to become small‑minded, distrusting strangers, persecuting non‑conformists, scything down tall poppies, crushing talents which seem oversized.

The most incisive interview with McNeish I have seen in print is the one which appeared in the Autumn 1983 issue of New Outlook, not long after the publication of Joy. At one point in the dialogue McNeish told the interviewer (Russell Haley): “All over the world small communities, small groups are under threat by the machine. The machine takes different forms. At the moment it’s taken the form of big government. Bureaucracy. People waving a stick. Censorship. Fear of people being muzzled and so on.”

When Haley compared the town in Joy with the school environment in The Glass Zoo, McNeish responded: “I think the point you touch on, the question of community, has always interested me. If you know The Rocking Cave [a play by McNeish which was written in 1973, produced at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre in 1973 and published by Playmarket in 1981] ‑ what interested me in that was the reaction of a group, a community. The severest punishment they could inflict on an individual was social ostracism. So the group thing has interested me ever since I worked with Dolci in Sicily.”

It was perhaps inevitable that McNeish, a writer fascinated by the ethics of small communities, would return for another look at Sicily, an island with a powerful identity of its own but without political independence. Chiefly famous around the world as the home of organised crime, Sicily is a place where nothing is ever quite what it seems and where ambushers, adulterers and backstabbers talk incessantly of honour while eyeing one another with spiteful cunning.

The publisher’s blurb beneath the cryptic photograph on the back cover of My Name is Paradiso claims that “the book ‑ what a young New Zealander sees when confronted by an alien and violent culture ‑ is the nearest McNeish has come to autobiography”. Yet in a prefatory note McNeish assures us: “None of the characters in this book, with the obvious exception of the reformer Danilo Dolci, is related to a living person. Montalbino and its environs where Ivo’s story is principally set cannot be identified on a map of Sicily.”

An autobiography unrelated to a living person? What a singular prospect! And surely McNeish has not forgotten that four years ago he identified Montalbino for us in The Man from Nowhere: “I subsequently moved to Agrigento province, to a house in the village of Cammarata ‑ the ‘Montalbino’ of this section ‑ which became a kind of sociological outpost for the Dolci organisation as well as a base for my own writing and BBC work.”

There have been autobiographical elements in McNeish’s fiction before now. The Glass Zoo clearly draws on his experiences as a teacher in London. Ralph Stanton, the narrator of that novel, is a New Zealander who changes a comprehensive school’s main sport from soccer to rugby, just as McNeish has reported in interviews he did himself. The author’s note to The Glass Zoo observes: “It is easier to fictionalise reality than to realise fiction, and I should not fall into the usual pretence that my characters are, as they say, ‘entirely fictional’. Pure fiction, like pure honesty, does not exist.”

I think these comments can be applied to My Name is Paradiso too. Like The Glass Zoo, it is partly a detective novel, for McNeish has always loved mysteries. (“I am, like most writers, as Graham Greene points out, simply a bloodhound manqué,” he remarks in The Man from Nowhere.)

Captain David Mulberry, a New Zealander who has joined the British army after graduating from Oxford, parachutes into Sicily during the Allied invasion of 1943 and then disappears. Has he deserted? Has he assumed another identity? Has he been killed by the Fascists or slain in a Mafia vendetta? McNeish does not inform us.

Twenty years later Mulberry’s son, Ivo Painter (he has taken his stepfather’s surname), arrives in Sicily and searches for information about the missing soldier. Not that this is Ivo’s sole or even his primary reason for coming to the island. Rather promiscuous in his desire for father‑figures, he has fallen under the sway of Danilo Dolci after a brief meeting in England. Sponsored by a lover, Ulrike, the wife of a wealthy Swedish diplomat, he initiates an Alice in Wonderland‑like scheme to send white New Zealand rabbits to Sicily to improve the peasant menu.

There are problems, however. Starving or not, Sicilians believe their all‑important honour will be compromised if they eat rabbit. The first consignment is delayed at Naples, where the animals die of hyperventilation. A second is misappropriated by a regional politician for a banquet for a visiting EEC delegation. (Sicilians don’t care much what foreign dignitaries eat.) An Irish vet accompanies a third consignment, but he soon absconds with one of Dolci’s female helpers.

Frustrated by these developments and bored anyway by married life after only a short acquaintance with it, Ivo leaves his young wife and baby daughter in Britain and heads to Partinico to enlist in Dolci’s camp. He discovers that nobody in the shambolic “organisation” has heard of him and his services are not really required. Eventually he is employed in Montalbino as a kind of apprentice sociologist cum village spy by Dolci’s assistant, Lionel Smith‑Bower, a grumpy, snobbish and uncommunicative Englishman who is compiling a treatise on the Sicilian sense of honour, particularly in regard to sexual matters.

Ivo, meanwhile, is attracted to Lionel’s earthy Danish wife Elisabeth, whose bottom wobbles in an enticing manner, we are told, during her not infrequent impromptu renditions of Verdi arias. Geographical separation denies them the opportunity for adultery but they exchange amorous letters.

The British consul in Palermo ‑ an insipid character named John Major, whom one would like to identify as the current British Prime Minister ‑ tracks down Ivo with the news that his wife is divorcing him. She has photographs of his dalliance with Ulrike as evidence of his infidelity. The novel ends on an ambiguous note with the hope of a more satisfactory relationship between Ivo and Elisabeth, who has left her husband.

The mystery of Captain Mulberry’s disappearance remains unsolved but the possibilities proliferate as the book progresses and other characters, including Dolci, are revealed as also having problems with their progenitors. One afternoon, when he is exhausted after attending a church procession, Ivo has a conversation in his lodgings with his father. Is this a dream, a hallucination or a real encounter? McNeish keeps us guessing.

Does the novel take place in a Paradiso, Purgatorio or Inferno? An epigraph from a nineteenth-century travel book explains that Sicilians who breed rabbits often give them fanciful names like Desiderata, Perpetua and Paradiso ‑ a habit “symbolic of a desire to dispel the grimness of life, at which Sicilians excel”.

Two rabbits named Paradiso feature in the novel, neither of them New Zealand whites. Belonging to Lionel and Elisabeth, one is a “giant … imported from northern Italy”, like Dolci. The other is a meaty, blue‑furred beast owned by Matteo, Montalbino’s carpenter and coffin‑maker, who swears every Sunday he’s going to eat it but never does. Wearing a top hat, this Paradiso appears to Ivo in a dream sequence and assures him that Captain Mulberry is a master of disguise. Does this mastery extend, one wonders, to transforming himself into a giant talking rabbit? “All rabbits in Sicily are called Paradiso,” says the dream‑creature. “It is part of the process of illusion and self‑deception we Sicilians live by.”

To research the book, McNeish returned to Sicily in 1992 and met Dolci again after an absence of 28 years. He found that much had changed on the island but not the corruption, apathy and propensity for homicide. During his visit, two Palermo magistrates prominent in prosecuting Mafiosi, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were assassinated.

Readers of Fire Under the Ashes and The Man From Nowhere are bound to conclude, however, that My Name is Paradiso draws heavily on McNeish’s personal experiences in Sicily in the 1960s. In the Quote Unquote interview mentioned earlier, McNeish revealed that the scene with the British consul was based on his own divorce proceedings. (“My first marriage broke up there, and a lot of my time in Sicily was very unhappy, so reliving those experiences was difficult.”) He also shares the same birthday with Ivo (23 October) and the same prematurely grey hair. I don’t know whether McNeish ever tried to improve the peasant diet but I note with interest that from a bygone Listener that in September 1964 he presented a radio talk about his Sicilian adventures called “Frank’s Rabbits” on the national programme.

He is also, like Ivo, the son of an army officer, but, as far as I know, McNeish senior did not go missing in Italy in the mid‑1940s. Captain Mulberry seems modelled, at least in part, on the author of Man Alone, Lieutenant‑Colonel John Mulgan, an Oxford graduate who parachuted into occupied Greece in September 1943 to direct a guerilla campaign against the Nazis. Although Mulgan survived his encounter with the Greek underground, winning the Military Cross for his valour, he died in mysterious circumstances a few days before VE day. The reasons for his suicide in Cairo with a massive dose of morphine remain controversial. McNeish was the producer of A Man with Two Countries, a documentary about Mulgan, broadcast on National Radio on Anzac Day 1994. Lines from “Odysseus”, a poem written by Mulgan while a student at Auckland University, are attributed in My Name is Paradiso to Ivo’s father.

Enjoyable as such identifications are for the armchair detective, in the end they add little to one’s appreciation of the novel. Just as McNeish has never cared much for self-analysis, he’s not much concerned with probing Ivo’s psyche either, except insofar as Ivo represents New Zealanders of his generation. The last paragraph of My Name is Paradiso reads in full: “He had made a circle after all, a kind of circumnavigation of the heart. He was back where he started, with a season of promise in front of him.” The cadence, the mythic resonance and the echo of the final stanza of “Little Gidding” are splendid, but I don’t feel that I’ve ever been made very familiar with the state of Ivo’s heart. Or the author’s.

McNeish has always been better at depicting a society as a whole than in portraying its individual members. He’s good at the broad sociological sweep, less convincing with psychological interplay. Regional traits interest him more than personal foibles. His characters have a tendency to become caricatures, ciphers, stock representations of their nationality and race.

My Name is Paradiso provides McNeish with the opportunity to comment on the characteristic failings of several nationalities. Thus Lionel, the quintessentially repressed Englishman, comments at one point about his uninhibited, opera‑loving, Danish wife to Ivo, the quintessentially reticent New Zealander. “She can spew out Verdi like tapwater, she knows how to spew out the emotion. I wish I could. I can’t. You can’t either probably. You and I, we have the Anglo‑Saxon habit of mind.”

And later Ivo tells one of his Sicilian acquaintances: “New Zealand is a beautiful country, Sasso, full of absences. And the greatest absence, the greatest lack, is passion.”

McNeish has always had trouble depicting credible female characters. Elisabeth, the Verdi‑spewer, is one of his more sympathetic creations, but she’s not much more than a bovine sexpot based broadly on Frieda Lawrence. I think McNeish has been lucky so far to escape feminist scrutiny, for the women in his novels are usually presented as being very limited in their understanding. Embittered by their incomprehension, they often resort to destructive forms of revenge on their menfolk. Ivo’s wife, Jessica, fits into this mould (most forcibly exemplified by Frances Polson in Mackenzie and Celia in Joy). “I don’t understand you,” she tells Ivo early in the book and a page later she exclaims, “Oxfam, do‑gooding, saving the universe. It’s so boring. Oxfam ‑ you said it was just temporary. God, they don’t pay you anything. When you asked me to marry you I reminded you I liked having a good time…”

It’s a pity the female characters are so unimaginatively rendered and My Name is Paradiso lacks a fully developed psychological dimension, because in other ways the novel is a considerable achievement ‑ McNeish’s finest, I think, to date. Alert as ever to moral complexities, he refrains here from taking sides. He stands back instead and records the ironies with wry detachment. Even Dolci, “the fat man who fasts” (whose very surname, indeed, is the Italian word for sweet almond cakes), is not exempt from his critical gaze. The great reformer’s so‑called organisation is portrayed as an utter shambles and Dolci is too preoccupied with his visionary projects to notice just how unhelpful some of his helpers are. Ivo, for example, for all his professed altruism, remains a self‑centred loner, too lumbering and inarticulate to have much chance of enlightening the wily, quick and expressive Sicilians.

Iain Sharp is an Auckland writer and critic.

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