Scabrous and spot on, Vincent O’Sullivan

Leapfrog with Unicorns
Peter Hawes
Vintage, $25.95
ISBN 186941 2842

Harvey had heard of New Zealand. “Noo Zeelan’?” he exclaimed. “You come all the way over here to talk about Noo Zealand? – Noo Zealand ain’t banana and it ain’t republic, but it’s all the res’ o’ that phrase.”

Ten years ago, when the corporate high fliers believed Christmas would last forever and that even intellectual investments might turn a quick penny, Challenge Corporation — among others — funded Barry Barclay to direct a documentary on the world-wide politics of seeds. The result was The Neglected Miracle, which examined the touchy issue of who exactly controls what seeds are available where? What is the part played by conglomerates and market forces in what is — and is not — available for cultivation?

The film was clearly a hot political potato. Close on the film crew’s heels another production, funded by oil companies, was proposing to tell the same story from a more “acceptable” angle. Barclay’s completed work, alas, became tangled in New Zealand films” complicated enmities and possibly “other factors” came to be as well. The upshot was that the film has never been released. Its relevance for the moment is that The Neglected Miracle’s associate-director, interviewer and field translator in Spanish-speaking countries happened to be Peter Hawes. His new novel links directly with that experience. It is a satire on the shabby world of those whose business is to profit on what the poor, particularly, are allowed to grow. It is the farthest cry from the staple of New Zealand fiction of anything I have read for years. And it has, happily for satire, already proved richly offensive to a number of reviewers.

I suppose if one were asked to say what genres we don’t as a nation do well, political memoirs would be top of the list and political satire not far behind. The deftly-controlled self-confidence of one (a form at which British cabinet ministers excel) and the irreverent intellectual poise demanded of the other, seem not to gell with the earnest, quietly prideful modesty we like to exalt as a national trait. The thinness of our satirical writing surely has to do with our covert conviction that to be publicly witty is in itself neither nice-natured nor quite couth and simply not serious, as we should be, about life in general. (And so Bill Birch noses on towards the sempiternal, while David Lange moves offstage into showbiz.)

When we do laugh at ourselves, as we do with Roger Hall, or did with Billy T James, it usually is the softer edge of satire that diverts us, the good-natured one-liners, the final assurance that after a good laugh at ourselves we remain quite a daggish lot in our way and so our human qualities are never really called before the bar. In certain areas, such as rampant sexism or domestic smugness, a group like Hen’s Teeth can mount a fair whack yet even there the audience, whether jubilant reprover or flushed reprovee, feels rather complimented by the lash. Theatre, admittedly, sometimes does more — the Topp Twins, Fiona Samuel, the takatupai Mika.

But there is another kind of satire, harsher, more deeply fuelled, less convinced that basically you can rely on human nature for good sense. It is much rarer, much more likely to provoke discomfort than heart-warming solidarity. It moves in the long shadow of Swift. Or in Wilde’s phrase, it provokes the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the glass. In our comparatively small literary world, Peter Hawes to my mind is the only satirist who stands equally at ease on either side of such moral anger and excoriation.

The first thing of Hawes to remain clearly in my memory is Colin McColl’s production of his musical Aunt Daisy, with a gigantesque Carmel McGlone in the diminutive shoes of Everyperson’s garrulous aunt and with the Six Volts pushing the lyrics in quite undaisylike directions. I had read but not seen the earlier play Goldie — also done by McColl at Downstage — where Hawes played with our history in a way which already unsettled pieties. A little later, in reviewing Alf’s General Theory of Relativity at the Depot, I expressed the view that although the play may have wobbled as a complete dramatic work, there was simply no-one I knew of in the country who could hold one with such sustained, linguistically adroit set pieces. However sharp his individual lines, Hawes as a dramatist operated on quite a different level than that of one laugh added to another, or the situationally comic. He elaborated ideas with a kind of manic prodigality.

There is a direct link between such dramatic flair and the moralist of this new novel, for whom the smoking barrels of political correctness are merely another challenge. Here is a long and energetic narrative that presumes to cavort on the sacred sites of racial identity, land claims, the ethics of market forces, sexual politics. And behind the jokes stalks an unsolemn but intense rejection of the fact that in a complex capitalist ethos, the control of food resources is regulated not by need but by profit. Miss that and you miss the novel as ineptly as did the logophobe reviewer on the Kim Hill show who thought, to begin with, that Hawes used too many big words. The rarity and value of Hawes is that a fiction driven by a hard-nosed moral perspective is also so crammed with inventiveness, the bizarre, with linguistic brio — scabrous, provoking, spot on.

Only a quarter of the narrative is set in New Zealand. The geographic reach of the story — north America, central America, then us — allows for some virtuoso stuff in parodic idioms and a deluge of disparate facts and minute accuracies of the kind Hawes excels at. This opting for expansiveness rather than for conventional in-depth characterisation is what packs together so divertingly the fantasy, the melange of screenplay effects and the vividly precise.

Within the meshing of impetus and intricacy such fiction is after there do occur odd lapses, some flatter moments. But what I so admire in Leapfrog with Unicorns is its vivacity and sheer gall, its quirky and often brilliant perceptions, its carnivalesque liveliness and pace as the story unleashes its major deceivers and petty crooks. (Most of the cast are scaled somewhere between those two.)

The narrative’s easy command of the fabulous, the unstrained presence of jungle and desert, the fabricated genealogies bring more Latino procedures into our fiction than we’ve seen before; the reek of particularity, whether New York or Honduras or Palmerston North, locates the novel in the realism where the best of our fiction still operates; the satirical insolence pushes the borders of our literary politeness.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment I might pay the novel is that I so easily hear the ping-ping as our cultural boundary riders take a bead on this maverick text. The effectiveness of satire is precisely that capacity to unsettle assumptions, to provoke the wish in some that this had never been said.

Vincent O’Sullivan is professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington

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