Colonising impulses with flair, Iain Sharp

Paradise to Come
Michael Morrissey
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86950 252 3

Although he has also been a prolific poet during the past three decades, Michael Morrissey is known chiefly as the author of quirky, “experimental” short stories influenced by Barth, Borges, Beckett, Barthelme, Marquez, Calvino and other revered avant-gardists of the 1960s and 1970s. With the emphasis more on narrative than technique, Paradise to Come represents a new departure. Neither of the two novellas which comprise the book is lengthy (66 pages for the first, 104 for the second). Nevertheless they are the most extended fictions Morrissey has so far published. In my estimate, they are also his strongest work to date.

Together, the novellas span the history of colonising impulses from the voyages of Magellan to current commercial engulfments. “Terra Incognita 1526” takes as its starting point the suggestion of maverick historians that the Spanish caravel San Lesmes (part of an ill-fated fleet under the command of Garcia Jofre de Loaysa) visited the Bay of Plenty more than a century before Tasman. “Captain Nemo’s Child” recounts the adventures of Siew Yen, a young Chinese Malaysian, during her first few months in this country. Shared themes of travel, cultural exchange, interracial marriage and the perception of New Zealand through foreign eyes connect the two tales.

Catholicism — or, if one prefers, theological aggrandisement — provides another, less expected, link. “Terra Incognita 1526” is narrated by Father Juan de Bolivar, chaplain of the San Lesmes and, at least initially, an eager evangelist. Although a Buddhist, Siew Yen has received a convent education. Her lover, Jordan Bailey, is, like Morrissey himself, a pakeha New Zealander with a Catholic background. Although he has abandoned his faith, it remains one of the forces that shaped his thinking.

At first glance, the book’s title looks heavily ironic. It derives from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Following Fitzgerald’s eccentric spelling and punctuation, the stanza reads in full: “‘How Sweet is mortal Sovranty!’ — think some: / Others — ‘How blest the Paradise to come!’ / Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest, / Oh, the brave Music of a Distant Drum!”

Critics have often remarked on how unlikely a figure Fitzgerald was to render into English a paean to wine, women, song and other worldly pleasures. Shy, abstemious, homosexually inclined but too prim a Victorian to act on his inclinations, he was an implacable misogynist. In 1856, in a misguided gesture of loyalty, he married the daughter of a dying friend. A disaster from the start, the union (if one can call it that) lasted only nine months. Fitzgerald consoled himself by translating Persian quatrains. He never set foot in the Middle East.

Awareness of the doleful circumstances in which Fitzgerald assembled his version of the Rubaiyat adds piquancy to the title Paradise to Come. So does familiarity with Morrissey’s earlier writings. In New Zealand — What Went Wrong?, a long poem published as a booklet in 1988, Morrissey wrote: “New Zealand you used to smell of green. / Now you just smell. / New Zealand what went wrong? / When are you going to be paradise? / I’ve tried leaving you but I can’t / You’ve got me by the short and curlies.”

Paradise to Come defies expectations, however, by being a surprisingly sunny-natured book. Yes, there are there ironies aplenty. And, yes, danger, mayhem and violent deaths feature in both novellas. Yet both conclude happily — nay, nudging bliss. Realising how much he loves this land “with the brightly lit enchantments of its hills and the mystery of its green shadows”, Father Juan elects to remain (with legendary Te Arawa princess Hinemoa, no less) after his shipmates sail on. Having achieved fame as one of Auckland’s most stylish new architects, Siew Yen marries Jordan. Their relationship is depicted with greater tenderness than I can recall elsewhere in Morrissey’s oeuvre, perhaps because the author is himself married to a Chinese Malaysian and fond personal memories might infuse his tale.

As part of the book’s connective tissue, each novella is prefaced with a reference to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The epigraph to “Terra Incognita 1526” reads: “Bet-ween Europeans and savages, it is proper for the Europeans to parry sharply, not to attack.” The speaker here is Verne’s fallible, unconsciously racist narrator, Pierre Arronax, a professor at the Paris Museum of Natural History. Having been granted permission by Captain Nemo to explore the terrain of New Guinea, he is soon surrounded by hostile Papuans. That Verne intended his readers to view the professor’s insistence on propriety in an ironic light is indicated, I believe, by an earlier exchange in which Nemo rails at Arronax: “So you are astonished, professor, at having set foot on a strange land and finding savages? Savages! Where are there not any? Besides, are they worse than others, these whom you call savages?”

A complex and profoundly contradictory figure, Nemo shuns society yet uses the gold he retrieves from sunken ships to benefit the world’s underdogs. The arrogance of colonial powers infuriates him, yet he is not without colonising instincts of his own. In one chapter of Twenty Thousand Leagues he even claims possession of the South pole. Nemo means nobody in Latin. The inventor of the world’s first submarine, he continually roams the globe, but his mode of transport renders him invisible.

Siew Yen, who dreams of Nemo and imagines herself to be his descendant, identifies primarily with his facelessness and loneliness. “Captain Nemo’s Child” carries two epigraphs from Twenty Thousand Leagues. The second is the famous scene just after Nemo’s craft has rammed and sunk an English man-of-war. Arronax discovers the demented submarine commander sobbing over “the portrait of a woman still young and two little children”. Nemo’s background is not explained in Twenty Thousand Leagues. It is only in the sequel, The Mysterious Island, published five years later, that we learn of Nemo’s Asian origins. He is in fact an Indian prince forced to flee his homeland after the unsuccessful anti-British Sepoy mutiny of 1857.

The presence of Nemo’s restless, angry ghost in Paradise to Come points towards colonialism at its worst — the might of one nation enforced on another, resulting in slaughter, vengeance, lasting bitterness. Yet Morrissey’s vision is far more benign than Verne’s. Although “Terra Incognita 1526” begins with a few satirical thrusts against conquistadors that might remind readers of Werner Herzog’s cinematic masterpiece Aguirre:Wrath of God, Morrissey’s Spaniards are really not such a bad bunch. The single villain in their midst is swiftly punished. Embraced by Te Arawa, the Spaniards fight alongside their Maori brethren in intertribal conflicts.

Siew Yen initially faces racial hostility. A brick is flung through her window with a message attached: “Fuck off home slant eyes.” But by the end of the novella she is not just accepted into the community but celebrated by it. “Captain Nemo’s Child” concludes with a cheery multicultural mishmash. Financed by a Jewish entrepreneur and given emotional support by her blond, blue-eyed lover, our Chinese Malaysian heroine reconstructs an Arabian Nights pleasure palace (the model is Auckland’s Civic Theatre) on an island in the Waitemata harbour.

Power struggles and political friction seem not to interest Morrissey all that much, except when they take place in the sexual arena. What fascinates him in Paradise to Come is seduction. He draws continual attention to the close connection between the erotic and the exotic. Indeed, parts of his text read like male fantasies. Almost as soon as they step into the forest, the Spaniards encounter Hinemoa and four of her nubile, young, female companions bathing in a hot pool — “naked and brown-skinned they were, with long, black hair flowing from their brows like fine waterfalls of ebony water”. Given the vulnerability of their situation, one would expect the women to be terrified by the sudden arrival of weirdly dressed strangers. But, no, they are soon giggling and inviting the Spaniards to join them in their natural jacuzzi.

“Captain Nemo’s Child” begins with Siew Yen gazing into a mirror and assessing her allure. Throughout the novella we are repeatedly assured of her physical appeal. Often she is depicted in the shower (on one occasion masturbating to the recent memory of a pornographic video). Her friend, Bee Leng, says: “If I were a man, I’d eat you up. You’re a delectable morsel.”

The narrative reinforces this notion by progressively removing little pieces of Siew Yen in a manner reminiscent of Sade’s Justine. She cuts her heel on one of her frequent vists to the shower. While working in a butcher shop, she slices off the tip of her forefinger. Then a would-be rapist chops off her little finger with a cleaver.

When he’s not drooling or slicing, however, Morrissey portrays Siew Yen’s plight as a new immigrant with considerable sympathy and insight. In one scene she watches a news broadcast in which a politician says: “We want a New Zealand which is first and foremost for New Zealanders, not wealthy Asians.” Siew Yen’s savings at this point total $365.

On the whole Morrissey also captures Father Juan’s voice convincingly. He seems to relish the opportunity to show off his extensive knowledge of Spanish imperialism and to mimic the orotund flourishes of Renaissance syntax. There are occasions, though, when the satirical jibes (particularly those aimed at the Dominican clergy) too patently issue from Morrissey rather than Father Juan. The ventriloquist’s vigorously moving lips distract our attention from the brightly painted dummy.

Sometimes, too, Morrissey forgets his narrator is supposedly a Spaniard. At one point, Father Juan remarks: “At night there were laughing owls and birds which constantly asked for cooked pig.” But “morepork” is significant only to English speakers. Spanish for cooked pig is carne de puerco.

One riddle is never satisfactorily answered. We are Morrissey’s audience, of course, but who is Father Juan’s imagined audience? Is “Terra Incognita 1526” a written account that he has left behind for posterity in the hope that Europeans will some day rediscover the far-flung island he has made his home? Or is he addressing his Maori companions? Or are we supposed to be entering directly into Father Juan’s thoughts and eavesdropping on his internal colloquies?

Determined to give his book a memorable launch, Morrissey spent a small fortune hiring a sailing ship and a team of actors to impersonate conquistadors. The re-enactment of a Spanish landfall (staged not at Tauranga, Maketu, Whakatane or elsewhere in the Bay of Plenty but at Narrow Neck beach on the Waitemata harbour’s northern shore) was disrupted, however, by Maori protesters. Some Europeans — not parrying sharply enough, perhaps — received minor injuries.

Morrissey has a taste for theoretical debate, as can be seen from the lengthy examination of postmodernism with which he prefaced his anthology The New Fiction. I think he would welcome a discussion of his latest book’s place in postcolonial literature, with, say, Edward Said’s Orientalism, Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem and Homi K Bhahba’s seminal essay “Signs Taken for Wonders” as key points of reference. But the protesters at Narrow Neck beach were not acting in the capacity of literary critics. Indifferent to Morrissey’s text, which they seem not to have bothered perusing, they were apparently propelled by anxiety over proprietorial rights to the beach. Nevertheless the question remains: Does Paradise to Come provide cause for Maori umbrage?

I doubt if Te Arawa will be seriously offended that Hinemoa is made coeval with the conquistadors, although they might be a little perturbed by the absence of Tutanekai. Maori women might not care for the lubricious manner in which they are portrayed. Maori men might object to the implied slur on their forefathers’ vigilance that the Spanish caravel should manage to slip into New Zealand waters undetected. Overall, though, I think Morrissey’s goodwill and playful intentions are clear in “Terra Incognita 1526”.

Ditto with “Captain Nemo’s Child”, but here one could reiterate Hone Tuwhare’s old query, “Where have all the Maori gone?” The owner of the butcher shop tells Siew Yen: “If you work here, you will have no headaches, periods, indigestion, birthdays, breakdowns or Maori holidays.” Siew Yen’s attacker is mistakenly assumed at first to be Polynesian. Otherwise the tangata whenua go unmentioned in this novella.

But a pakeha reviewer like myself should beware the hypocrisy of striking too censorious a pose on Maori matters. Had Maori characters not featured so prominently in the first half of Morrissey’s book I probably would not have noticed their absence in the second half. Taken as whole, Paradise to Come is a highly readable entertainment that touches on many cultural issues within its short compass. Now that Morrissey has demonstrated his narrative flair, I look forward with interest to his subsequent fiction.

Ian Sharp is an Auckland writer and critic. 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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