Never trust the narrator, Nicholas Reid

Playing Waterloo
Peter Hawes
Vintage New Zealand
$24.95
ISBN 1 86941 323 7

The Whistler
Stephanie Johnson
Vintage New Zealand
$29.95
ISBN 1 86941 346 6

What a beguiling thing alternative history is. In my teenage and post-teenage years, I have happily gobbled up vast quantities of it as light reading. The Confederacy changes world history by winning the American Civil War (Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee). Hitler stays in good with his buddy Stalin and wins the Second World War (Sarban’s The Sound of His Horn; Brian Moore’s Hitler Has Won). Napoleon is born a British subject and wins an empire for England (The Eagle Flies From England – I can’t remember the author). And then there were two series of novels (of which I can remember neither the titles nor the authors) set in the 20th-century British colonies which had never become the United States, and the 20th-century Byzantine Empire which never fell because Islam never rose. (Instead the Arab “Saint Mahound” became a doctor of the Christian church.)

For armchair Bonapartists like myself, Peter Hawes creates a most attractive alternative history in Playing Waterloo. Marshal Ney and his cavalry smash through the British squares, squelching Wellington before Blücher can arrive to save his neck. So Napoleon wins Waterloo. Immediately fat, mad George III and his two disgusting eldest sons scarper for the furthest piece of land that has a vague British connection. It is pre-Treaty New Zealand. Te Rauparaha readily deals with this ridiculous trio as soon as they land. But when Napoleon himself lands, in hot pursuit of waddling royalty, Te Rauparaha at once recognises a fellow warrior worthy of the fighting. So around the southern part of the North Island there ensues a ferocious campaign between Te Rauparaha and “themperor Napoulo Ponopati” with his Armée de la Nouvelle Zélande.

I am happy to record that in their first encounter, Napoleon promptly outsmarts Te Rauparaha’s hidden trenches (so nuts to you, James Belich). But it does go downhill somewhat for Boney after this point. Quelquefois the humour of this section is un peu macaronic which can be bien agaçant. At the same time, while it has elements of the heroic geste, it says many true things about the nature of chance in history. After all, there’s many a true word spoken in geste. There are also many puns as bad as that one. There are also many apologetic notes drawing attention to the puns as bad as that one.

All this, at any rate, is the core narrative, but it is surrounded by a complex framing narrative – oops, sorry – “meta-fiction”. Napoleon, Te Rauparaha and replayed Waterloo in fact exist inside ARP, a huge computer programmed to play “cyber history”. Programming for Te Rauparaha is a nerdy American history professor. Programming for Napoleon is an arrogant French financier who believes he is Napoleon’s direct descendant. Both are desperate to win the cyber campaign because each has – um – an amorous interest in a film-star whom Peter Hawes has called, with hairy-faced gall, Tippi Voss.

Now how exactly do you evaluate humour? If I measure Playing Waterloo on a scale of guffaws and chortles, it certainly delivers the goods. But (to get all reproving over before the big finish) there are times when the chortles give way to schoolboyish snickers and facetiae. Tippi Voss is most decidedly given a brain, but she is to all intents and purposes a predatory, sexy bitch-bimbo available for male fantasising. The computers young inventor Douglas Tull has a pneumatic Hispanic girlfriend with whom he shares some moments of (tee see) explicitness. One of the computers programmers bridges the boring bits in the campaign (sea-voyages etc) with pornography. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. And I suppose it’s a matter of taste (or your partiality for funny graffiti) how funny you find such observations as Te Rauparaha’s “Romance of war, eh? Yeah, I can relate to that. Romance and war – you get pretty well f***ed in both”.

None of this would annoy me particularly were it not for Hawes’s tendency to lay ten bob each way in the novel’s final sections. Having led us on a very jolly military campaign, he suddenly kicks in with a moralising “horrors of war” routine, which creates some awkward effects. Consider the conjunction of the following two sentences (describing a woman’s corpse after a battle): “A plump girl lay on her back, legs spread upward in posthumous promiscuity. Caroline bent to close them and thus return dignity to the poor woman.” Surely the “poor woman” has only been deprived of her dignity in the first place by the metaphor in Hawes’s first sentence – the snicker before the moralising?

But I can’t pretend I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for with Playing Waterloo. The opening page has a gag about all Salvador Dali’s paintings being found to be forgeries (which doubtless is no less than the simple truth) and the Comic inventiveness rattles along at an agreeable rate. Pure malice made me enjoy the bits about Jacques Derrida’s “metahistory” fouling up Waterloo with post-structuralism; or the revelation that the huge computer can only tell lies “with 100% verisimilitude”, or, for that matter, the description of the computer, which has the real reasoning powers of a gnat, as “Moby Butterfly”. Whatever derides Derrida, or lessens the awe of computer technology, wins my biased approval, as my brain cherishes yet another alternative history in which Ned Ludd does actually bring the Industrial Revolution to a halt.

2

Like Playing Waterloo, Stephanie Johnson’s The Whistler presents alternative history, encloses fiction within meta-fiction, features a computer whizz-kid, is essentially a fantasy and has moments of conscious and deliberate wit. Unlike Playing Waterloo, however, its main purpose does not appear to be humorous.

The blurb tells me it is a novel about history, the forgetting of it and the rewriting of it. Fair enough for the themes that were intended. I detected a debate on the conflict of imagination and truth in the novel’s closing pages. I realised that the take was booby-trapped with warnings that we cannot entirely trust the narrator. All good post-modern fiction has such warnings. And I was fairly sure that something portentous was implied by the way one of the main characters is in quest of his lost father, a professor of history.

But none of this accounts for all the artistic choices that Stephanie Johnson has made. Her narrator is a “whistler”, a genetically-altered lapdog called Smooch, which is able to recall previous avatars and incarnations, able to commit its memories to computer disk and (quite late in the novel) able to converse with its young master. Smooch lives in Sydney 320 years hence. Smooch is owned by Verity (as in Truth?), a prostitute working for the sex-industry organisation “Reliefcorp”. But Smooch is mainly looked after by Verity’s mutant son Vernon (as in vernal, young, naive?). The ghastly future Stephanie Johnson creates is the novel’s best claim to satire. Australia in the year 2318 is a polluted nightmare, all marine life having been destroyed in the oil-saturated Tasman Sea. But this is not simply a greenie cautionary fable. Far more nightmarish is the way everything has been corporatised, poverty has spread, and human life is experimented upon in laboratories. Young Vernon has gills, and “lab. rats” (people who are the “mistakes” of genetic engineers) roam the streets. Plenty of modern trends there for the author to sink her satirical teeth into. The Whistler is at its best in the sequential narrative that reveals this dystopia.

But Vernon’s search (for his father) and Smooch’s travails are interspersed with the bitch’s memories of past lives – at the birth of Jesus; as a lapdog of the condemned Mary, Queen of Scots, on Kupe’s voyage to Aotearoa; in ancient China; in a future society of viragos with their own all-woman religion, and so on.

Just as Chico Marx once famously asked “Why a duck?”, I feel compelled to ask “Why a dog?”. I appreciate that (unless one were to choose flies, fleas or dust-mites as narrators) dogs are rivalled only by cats as humanity’s most ubiquitous domestic companions. Hence a dog makes a likely witness to human events. Even so, choosing a dog as narrator means taking on board a whole set of doggie values, perhaps to the detriment of the novel’s view of humanity. Often I recalled G K Chesterton’s Song of Quoodle (on “the noselessness of Man”) as the dog displayed its sharp and fastidious sense of smell. Thus, to the bitch-narrator, a baby is only “poop, piss, puke and squall”, the “stink of middens” permeates Queen Mary’s condemned cell; and the Empress Josephine smells of “cigarettes, Imperial cologne and sperm”. Indeed this is one of the stinkiest novels I know outside Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. It’s a dog’s life, too, in the way the dog recalls its previous deaths – torn apart in ancient China, once dying of a nasty disease, once being eaten and twice dying while giving birth.

No man is a hero to his valet, and no human being is more than a big animal to a dog. The physical grossness of humanity is always good for a satirical thrust (Gulliver among the Yahoos, or in Brobdignag, etc), but when it is combined with the doggie’s devotion to its beloved owners, the result is curiously sardonic, superior and unpalatable. In fact it is very like the sour contradiction one sometimes finds in sentimental pet-owners (especially dog-lovers) who idolise their animals but aren’t too concerned about people. I appreciate that each of the past “lives” has been chosen because it contains as much myth and legend as history, and hence feeds into a theme of the tenuousness of human recall. Even so, what the dog’s-eye-view gives us in each case is a severely reductionist view of people. As a result, I think the force of much of the intended satire is lost.

Stephanie Johnson has no dearth of ideas. Some she tosses off in tantalising asides. Her “Flickers” and “Drens” (besieged, housebound middle-classes and prole street thugs) could have been developed awfully as H G Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks, but they are disposed of in one page. This makes for passages of colour and variety, but sometimes (as in the brief tale of Neville, the gormless 1980s New Zealand man) it also makes for what appear to be unassimilated short-story ideas. Doggie-narrator remarks at one stage: “I will make no effort to give it a plot … I may play at being the original, ignorant post-modernist, relying on instinct and sensation. What is narrative? I have no consciousness of it.”

Maybe that explains it.

Nicholas Reid is a critic and writer who lives in Auckland.

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