Lord of the Rings in Waituhi? James Ritchie

The Dream Swimmer
Witi Ihimaera
Penguin, $34.95,
ISBN 0 140 27240 2

In so large and complex a work as this – more than 400 pages – with many characters and interwoven plots and sub-plots, there are many levels to be assimilated. For this reason alone the reading of it is a rich experience, worthy of the time spent.

At its simplest level this is a tale of how a young man negotiates the tangled history of his clan and upbringing to emerge as the bearer of the mana of his haps. In this it is a fictional biography of the narrator and the web of familial forces around him, of past events and the mysteries surrounding them, entrapping them and him till he wrests his identity and freedom from them. It is a story of a life, perhaps the authors, perhaps not.

It is also a mystery novel of how an awesome curse was finally removed after hanging over a family for many generations. The Gothic attributes at this level give the novel a strong sense of predestination which is somewhat at odds with the simpler tale of a man reaching maturity, transcending the external pressures and forces of this personal and familial history. It is as though this story was written backwards, from the end to the beginning and the contrivances of making the narrative work creak a little as a result. At another level it is the fictional story of a real land claim. Ihimaera draws into his story vignettes of actual, past and current, Maori struggles, the snapshots reminiscent of the technique Dos Passos used in USA.

Yet again it is a fuller epic from the chronicles of the Mahana family so passionately portrayed in his earlier books, Tango, The Matriarch and to a lesser degree Bulibasha; another journey into the human and physical territory of Waituhi, that other land of the mind .and the heart which we are invited and permitted to enter in most of Ihimaera’s writing. At this level readers familiar with the earlier works will have a strong sense of return – as though attending a hui and meeting with those one has not seen for a long time. There is a warmth in the writing and portrayal that gets entangled with the violence, the terror and the earthy realities of the encounters. Families may sometimes be sweetness and light, but at other times they may be living hell.

No novel can be entirely explained in terms of the author’s background, nor should it, yet reflexively, the work is the life is the work. To appreciate this novel at its most complex, it needs to be read as the culmination of the author’s entire writing career and what we may determine of his abiding, as well as his changing, preoccupations and intentions. Tricky territory this, for interpretation is necessarily subjective. However, in speaking of this work, Ihimaera has been quite explicit about how the book emerged from his earlier work and what his intentions in it were.

To place this book in the author’s work generally, it continues to have some of the direct charm, simplicity and nostalgia of Tangi. That slight snapshot was a longing, loving reminiscence of rural Maori life as it was lived in the 1950s, a lifestyle already long gone when Ihimaera first wrote of its people and their ways. There the author is seeking to reconnect with a tradition that he sees slipping away with great rapidity. He wants to fix his life experiences there as a weta is preserved in the golden glow and clarity of kauri gum. The writing is elemental, clear and polished, drenched with warmth but also with loss and regret.

This was Ihimaera’s first excursion into the debate between modernity and tradition, one which is central to The Dream Swimmer and indeed to all of this work, and which rages unresolved in every culture in Aotearoa, as elsewhere. As a novelist Ihimaera does not preach or lecture, there is no political theory, but constant political reference and implication. He just reflects where the debate now stands in the tensions, the identity struggles, the cultural clashes and confrontations that are the stuff of his narrative, a preoccupation indeed for every Maori who is politically aware. He cannot separate being Maori from being political, and so this is a very political novel.

He does sometimes analyse what is happening to, within and around, his characters but it is through them reflecting their various intelligences and experiences rather than with some detached literary device of the external voice or commentator. It is clear that his personal views have changed. This shows as one surveys the corpus of his work. It changes as he and his characters change, reflecting the powerful shifts in time and circumstance, mirroring the strength and clarity of the emergent Maori voice on the national scene.

If Tangi had a whiff of assimilationist regret, of smoothing the dying pillow, it was swept away in the next major work. The Matriarch, which appeared after a long arid period in this author’s publishing, if not in the act of writing itself, reflects the full flush of the radical decade, the 1980s. It takes the Mahana family and the author’s voice, Tama, into the anguish of rapid transition, the anger of protest, the confusions of modernity, of people tumbled by circumstances not choice. It is, in a sense, a very modern story. Ihimaera corrects the traditional historical record of our nation’s story, inverting the received canon, that which made villains of Maori cultural heroes, and which strove to find justification and explanation for Pakeha authority and dominating colonial power. The writing is swept along by currency, immediacy, and if, at times a trifle shrill, so much the better for that. Here the tradition/modernity dialogue runs right through the writing, gaining in relevance and force. Now it emerges as this author’s major underlying preoccupation, as is the case within Maori life generally right now.

In this most recent book we hear the voice of the author in post-modern mode. Ihimaera is no less Maori, but now writes carrying his ethnicity as a doyen of the world, transcending time, history and culture to fashion a collage of experience, imagined events and people, historical snapshots, invented eyewitness accounts, current affairs in what might have become a mosh-mash in less experienced hands. The anger is there still, as are the long lingering glances back, but now the author is liberated from entrapment by labels and his past. This book demonstrates a phenomenal imagination selecting at will from many traditions and times, sometimes leaving traditions behind altogether, or reshaping them to a personal perspective, and transposing us into a world derived from none – or from all.

At another level The Dream Swimmer is an extraordinary psychological excursion into the imaginative creation of a world that must carry the torments and triumphs of the author/narrator, and of our times. Huge characters stride, swim, fly through the landscapes and events he creates, archetypical yet fully fleshed. Again the reflective question must be asked. When we know what we know, how can we tap creative sources, themes and energies without seeming to manipulate our constructions in self-serving ways? C G Jung and Joseph Campbell have laid open the dramatic personae of the collective unconscious. When an author, fully aware of these writings chooses to people his or her drama with such images, is this trick or technique? The imagination, fed with our knowledge of how creativity works, is not invalidated by such turning inward upon ourselves. It lifts our awareness to a new level of consciousness. By my reading, Ihimaera knows this, shows this, as he orchestrates the cultural references and symbols available to him through all of his contacts and contexts, regardless of place and time.

I could turn this another way. Take the central personality of Tama’s mother, a demonic vagina dentata myth-like figure, terrible in love and violence, battling her son in the woodshed, slashing at him with knives and bull-whips. Is Ihimaera twiddling the knobs of our putative universal archetypical consciousness? Remember that death remained a fact of life, of this world, once Maui tried, as a little green worm, to re-enter the vagina of a female archetype, to reverse the process of birth and eliminate death, and was crushed between her thighs. How’s that for reflexivity?

Or take Tama himself, striving to emerge as the leader of this clan and re-enacting the universal transit of the Hero following in the grooves of the human career (male). Or the wonder-witch Riripeti into whose identity are compacted a variety of matriarchal characters. Ihimaera is portraying characters essential to his story yet he is trying for something more, larger than life, transcending culture, seeking universality.

Tama himself flickers from one persona to another in his search for identity, finding no single tradition that will do for him all that he needs to construe a resolution for himself. Maori he most certainly is but he is also the existential man, wandering lost upon the mountains of his choice. Even at the end of this novel, as he has achieved the recognition he seeks, we are left wondering if his journey is really over. Has he reached a plateau rather than a peak in his quest? Again one is reminded of Campbell’s linkage of the mythical Hero theme with that of the Quest and of Eternal Return.

All of Ihimaera’s characters have this larger-than-life quality. The novel is myth as well as story. As we meet each, in their careers, we have a feeling that we have met them before somewhere, that we are being taken into the author’s confidence, that background is taken for granted, that we too are being drawn into this extraordinary family, that a new normality (including paranormality) is just there, assumed. Is this skill or device? The Dream Swimmer is also a tale of terror, of a murderous mother, of blood and injury and death, of sexual and every other kind of abuse and subjugation, of atrocious power exerted in life and after death, of believed-in malevolence and Gothic horror, of dreams more terrible than realities and realities more awful than nightmares of the worst possible portent.

Shots of reality enter the veins of his writing in brief vignettes of historical and contemporary “fact”, lifting the writing to even more powerful effect. Prepare yourself for truths, half-truths, flashes of history, analogies, metaphors, dashes of classical mythology, Greek, Roman and Maori, scraps of operatic libretto, fantasies, imaginative travel in time and space, allusions, illusions, dreams and drama. All this Ihimaera weaves with masterful control into this compelling novel. It takes formidable skill in the craft of writing to encompass all of this, and bring the story safely home.

Ihimaera is not one to avoid risks but deliberately takes his readers to the edge of credibility, then bungy-jumps into the abyss. He predicates this novel exactly so, quoting Nietzche’s “When you look long into the abyss the abyss looks long into you”.

All novels arise from the peculiar psychology of particular persons, and it is tempting to me, as a psychologist by training, to launch into analysis on that basis but it is a consummation that (this time anyway) I choose to resist. That would be too self-indulgent. Yet Ihimaera is inviting the reader to that sort of orgy: “Psychologists are going to have a field day with this book,” he is reported to have said. Well, this one will not!

This is part of his risk-taking behaviour as he pursues his personal agenda in his writing and there is a twinge of self-absorption that occasionally detracts from the flow of the novel when one is tempted to ask whose voice it is that we are hearing. As with Nights in the Garden of Spain (which, incidentally, this author regards as his best book), we never know what is autobiographical and what is invention. “The aim is to make readers believe in a kind of fictional universe that has its own internal logic”, he has said. Well, that he does, and does it well; Lord of the Rings in Waituhi? The temptation to engage in psychologising is easy to resist if to indulge in it destroys the spell, the captivation that comes from one’s suspension of ordinary belief and entry into the novelist’s world.

Enter then into the magical world of this story. Tama was raised by the matriarch Riripeti (otherwise named Artemis from her spell living in Europe). Why does Ihimaera use the identity of a mythical Greek female to merge with his image of Maori matriarchy? Artemis, the untouched and untouchable, chaste and fair. The huntress of Arcadia with her hounds and quiver; goddess of moonlight and brilliance, yet of vengeance, swift and terrible, she who presides over childbirth but who has never had a child; she of sudden death but of living beauty.

Ihimaera wants to utilise some of the characterological parallels with Maori female power; But why Artemis? And in making this amalgam is he also drawing us into a view of female power that we might ponder on for our own times? Yes, indeed! Nothing in this author’s world of symbols is without depth of intent and message; nothing is just straight imagining (if there is such a process).

Tama’s attitudes are shaped by her and especially her proud struggle and protest stand against those who would deny health services for her people, during a terrible epidemic which is killing her tribe. Tama, lodged in his own struggle, tries to free himself by his own efforts from the fierce attachment which his remote, yet powerful, mother, Tiana, exercises over him. She is the Dream Swimmer who seizes power from Riripeti and becomes a personification of maternal violence, re-enacting that which she herself has endured. With discussions into historical events we follow the working out of Tama’s destiny to become the leader of his whanau.

The dramatic personae and setting of the story revolve around real events involving Maori people, their recent history and cultural beliefs. Outside of the now denigrated genre of poetry, non-Maori New Zealanders are not prone to indulge in fabled symbolism involving mermaids, time- and-space-flying, mystical people/spirits, supernatural influences and similar mythical matters. Or are we? When Pakeha pare things to the bone, we do not find a tupuna or a taniwha. Maori, language and people, handle such themes with greater comfort. Yet here is a novelist, writing in English, who cheerfully expects us to accept such things, not out of mere political correctness, but as his addition to the fibre of our national literature. Fiction is its own arbiter. We are being asked to recognise not just the bicultural fact of different traditions, but the inter-culture of a new kind of national identity. Just us, being ourselves; it is time to stop “othering” each other.

Maori culture fundamentalists will not like this book any more than the archpriests of Islam liked Salman Rushdie freewheeling with their icons. But literature is freely drawn from whatever inspires an author. It should raise questions about cultural uses, about origins, purity, destiny, the validity of symbols, about iconoclasm as well as iconography. The essential question is not about validity but quality. This is a well-written book which sweeps along on its own course and creates a world for us right alongside our own, parallel to it.

Let me be bold. This book should not be characterised as Maori literature. It should not be boxed in or circumscribed in that way. Nor is it an artefact of biculturalism. What is important about this book, about this author, is that through it he speaks of local experience and circumstance, builds upon a local history and yet reaches up and beyond, like the Dream Swimmer herself, so that the book shall stand as an expression of the human condition.

If Ihimaera does write his next major novel, as he has intimated he will, as an identity mystery set in New York, with never a mention of Waituhi, Queen Street or Lambton Quay, pohutukawa or mana, the point will be well-made. But he does not need to do that. Already he has arrived in a place of secure eminence as a writer and one of our best. He can do as he pleases. He writes as he stands, mature, technically in command, able to draw into his web whatever his spider’s eyes perceive and entrap. Ihimaera snares us in the sticky web-like cat’s cradle of his imaginings drawn from the whole wide world around.

James Ritchie is Emeritus Professor at Waikato University.

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