Pure Broadway, Roger Robinson

Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Witi Ihimaera,
Secker & Warburg, $34.95

On the way home years ago after seeing Waituhi (the Witi Ihimaera/ Ross Harris opera), I remember remarking that Witi could someday write the book for a great musical. Nights in the Gardens of Spain might almost be it – not the Maori extravanganza I envisaged (for he is often canny and surprises us), but the story of a gay coming out that is pure Broadway in concept and sentiment. It’s daring, moving, has spectacular scenes and solos, passion and pain, it tells a good story of conflict, growth and reconciliation, with subplots heroic, political and tragic. It wears its throbbing heart on its shoulder (for in many scenes no-one’s wearing much else you could put it on).

Let me show what I mean. The great conflict for David Munro, the hero and storyteller (these are the right terms) is not one of acknowledging his sexuality, but doing so while retaining his claim on the love of his two daughters, “my princesses”. Miranda, the younger, seriously asthmatic, holds at bay the crisis of her parents’ separation and anger by her childish belief in magic. So her inhaler and her wand are inevitable props in all her scenes. Their big moment is coming. One day of further crisis, this time for her father’s new relationship with his lover Chris, a ballet dancer, she loses the wand at the beach. That night, after David and Chris have sadly parted for (they believe) the last time, David learns that Miranda is dying of respiratory complications. He rushes madly to the hospital, to find the tiny brave girl at her last gasp. She is wheeled along the corridor to surgery, family and nurses as accompaniment. Suddenly from the lift emerges a glittering apparition, “a figure dressed in dazzling gold”, shimmering, star-spangled, flowing, floating, swirling, twirling, dazzling, silver, luminescent, “dancing towards us”. All those words are there. He proffers a “wondrous gift” to Princess Miranda. He is Neptune, King of the Sea, and comes to return the wand found by mermaids of the southern ocean. Silver glitter rains about him.

Her spirits restored, the child survives and David and Chris, sparkles still in his hair, are reconciled.

“Oh Chris – “

Tenderly, he takes me into his embrace.

Tableau. Music. Curtain.

 

It is a literally brilliant scene, a second-act closer, a skilled concoction of visual, verbal and emotional effects. It adroitly plays the oldest trick in the sentimental book, the child who we think is going to die but doesn’t. Dickens worked that one to perfection with Tiny Tim, which reminds me that this kind of theatrical-scenic-sentimental narrative was much more common in those proto-film days than now. But Ihimaera can stand tall and proudly look Spielberg in the lump in the throat.

And he is doing more. With its lavish language of dazzle the scene affirms one of the main messages of the book – the sheer beauty of gay men, the joy they take in each others’ bodies and, above all, performances. The book is full of performances. In this key scene that self-displaying beauty comes out of the steam room and performs a public act of charity and salvation.

This is not a novel where you will find the psychological or verbal subtlety of Maurice, Boy’s Own Story or Duration of a Kiss, but it claims its own more populist territory with great charm. The hero is a film studies specialist in Hollywood B movies of the 1950s. So at moments of crisis he thinks in Hollywood analogues. Bette Davis measures the scale of passion in the greatest love of his life, Jacqueline Bisset articulates the inevitability of ageing. AIDS, too, is a Hollywood SF monster, King Kong crossed with Queen Alien, “This Thing rampaging through his blood stream … This Creature stalking his bones, sucking out their marrow, snapping him in two.” It’s not profound or subtle, but it’s vivid and memorable, like Return to the Lost Planet as a version of The Tempest.

Fairy stories are the narrative’s other great allusive resource, particularly Peter Pan, which provides the chapter titles and a great many quotations and references, especially to the resuscitative Tinkerbell (whom David Lange might call Tiny Tim in drag). The narrator-hero’s head is full of fragmentary terrors derived from them, and like mantras they help him through every crisis that Hollywood can’t. Actually it’s often the Hollywood versions he knows. So in the anxious nights when he loiters outside the house where his princesses are asleep, his fears for them surface in terms of “something evil, something harmful with jagged teeth. Something bearing red apples or poisoned needle.”

The campy stylised exaggeration of such phrases, of course, conceals more than it confronts about the real dangers threatening little children whose parents are separating. Confusion and psychic shock don’t announce their coming with jagged teeth. Dramatising yourself as the protector of princesses may be a way of suppressing guilt. I will develop such possibilities later. Meanwhile, we’ll stay on the Broadway stage. The reassurance of wolf, apple and needle makes possible the happy hopeful ending that closes the personal story, the little princesses framed in the window as Daddy blows a kiss from the car and Miranda waves her wand over him. So to sleep, sailing with their father’s blessing to the stars, straight on till morning. That is the last paragraph of the book, and it indeed comes close to lyric. Only nudge the rhymes and you get “Oh Rebecca, you must hold Miranda tight. The stars are far, it is so dark out there in life’s long night.”

True to the Broadway mode, true suffering scarcely touches the main characters. We see glimpses of the girls’ pain, but it soon subsides, soothed by their father’s heroically persistent love. Their mother gets herself through to be wooed and won by the eminently eligible Barry, every deserting husband’s fantasy. David can enjoy a sexy little twinge of jealousy while the reality of conscience about how loss, loneliness and disillusion might affect her is suppressed. Even the plot bends to serve the purposes of this beguiling narrator.

Pain and tragedy afflict only the minor characters. There is a glimpse of anguish in David’s mother, but she is kept safely out of sight. The dark side of male homosexuality is confined to David’s friends, who are mostly given only titles rather than names – Always a Bridesmaid, Oh My Goodness, The Love of My Life. Sometimes they emerge, get names and lives and those moments are good, but remain moments. When they suffer, we do not much care, for we know them only sketchily. One gets beaten up by queer bashers, falls for a sadist and commits suicide. Another dies horribly of AIDS. David is immune – a fortunate gift in contemporary gay life.

He tests negative. He has enviably good looks. He is admired in the shower and a prodigy in bed. He is called “a legend in your own lifetime”. As autobiographical fiction, this clearly has a good element of wish-fulfilment. David is tender yet tough. At school he outslugs the bully in a shower room scrap and has heroic “prowess” at rugby. As an adult, he can overpower and terrify the sadist. He jogs well, excels at the gym. He outfaces his father. He inspires his students. He is politically impeccable. He is daringly generous in a good cause, risking his whole financial future to secure a stock of old films for the university. Thus he even triumphs over dour, sour academic bureaucracy who for some reason object to university rooms being ripped apart for storage without anyone being told.

It may be apparent that I have mixed feelings about this hero. A novel that seeks above all to show beauty, compassion and joy in the gay lifestyle is wise not to become too bleak or self-excoriating. Leave it to somebody else to write the gay Once Were Warriors. In this cold age of ours, Witi lhimaera’s voice has a welcome warmth and belief in the positive.

At the same time this text lays itself open to be remade in other ways. One is to read this hero as a monster of self-deception, pitilessly manipulating his daughters to deny them any freedom from his demand for love, a parental parasite on their youth, a man who professionally accepts a good salary without even considering that it might involve responsibility and loyalty, whose philosophical moments are at Forrest Gump level: “Being gay is about being a whole person”, “All men play power games”, “No two men are alike”. He penetrates life in a slick impervious condom of platitude, charm and good luck. Even from the terrible suicide of a friend he emerges with a Picasso. I don’t advocate this counter-reading, but it simmers beneath the surface.

And another. Why, I wonder, are Munro’s thought processes so dependent on cliché and catchphrases – the Empire strikes back, something old, something new, “my eyes narrowed with anger and fear”? (Do you know when your own eyes narrow? Or is that cliché lifted from third-person pulps?) Why does he, a highly educated scholar, misquote even “creeps in this petty pace from day to day” and think it was Diana who carried the golden apples in a race? Why is Munro so ethnically vapid? Is his cultural paucity, like his need to win and his essential irresponsibility, a devious narratorial subversion of the Pakeha? Ihimaera is cunning enough to do it. He is at least cunning enough here to use a Pakeha narrator to say plenty of approving things about Maori, especially the “new tribe” of Maori and Polynesian gays.

Other questions impinge on the nature of the book as autobiographical fiction, particularly the curiously obvious errors about divorce procedures in New Zealand. The book has been presented and received as a personal fiction, but autobiography is rarely pure and never simple, to quote history’s most tragic literary sodomite, whose condemnation to prison reaches its sad centenary on May 27 this year. To think of Oscar Wilde is to see how smooth is David Munro’s passage by comparison. It is also to be reminded that it is still important for public figures to declare themselves as Ihimaera has courageously done in this most public form. And Wilde may remind us, too, how new and precarious is the freedom to write of sex in such explicit detail as Ihimaera does here. It is very well done. At a time when heterosexual males are scarcely permitted to refer to sex without being condemned as pornographers, it may be through gay writing that the freedoms gained since the Lady Chatterley trial will be preserved until the clouds of repression pass.

I learned a great deal from this book’s explicitness. To put it frivolously, I always wondered if cocks collided. They do. The nude male beaches which from time to time I accidentally run through will now mean more to me, even if I do still gaze at the horizon and think of England. To put it more seriously, it’s no small achievement to take this material off the grubby walls of public toilets, free it from sleaze, write it with vivid passion and through it affirm and celebrate a way of life of which most of us know almost nothing. Ihimaera, like Stevan Eldred-Grigg and Peter Wells before him, deserves praise from the whole, not only the gay, reading community.

Celebration of their lifestyle brings me back to where I should end, with Nights on Broadway. There’s a nostalgic farewell to the Gardens of Spain, the steam parlour, a scene of sadness, mirrors and fragmentations that would work well on film, but needs the lyric, too. Then Fade to Finale, the Hero Party, grand full-company spectacle with all the effects. Opening with powhiri and haka (maybe my Maori musical idea was not so wrong), then lasers, lights, Enigma and a gorgeous Chris descends by trapeze, a wondrous angel in feathered wings and diamante jockstrap, agilely circling in a shower of glitter, “muscular beauty … a radiant angel, an icon of hope”. It’s La Cage aux Folles and Angels in America and Cats (“Up, up, up, to the Heavyside Layer”) and every Broadway finale that ever was with dance and shimmer, pulsating music and a crescendo of hope. What a brilliant coup de théâtre, to import all that into the dull depressing old New Zealand novel. “The phoenix is born”, the chapter ends. May it soar and blaze. Nights in the Gardens of Spain is a great show. Go see it.

 

Roger Robinson is professor of English at Victoria University,

 

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