The Hard Light
ISBN 0 14027505 3
ISBN 0 140273808 4
Burn my head in Heaven
ISBN 0 14027374 3
Last year I read Drowning, a wonderful collection of short stories by a Dominican writer. Junot Diaz was rightly celebrated for “delivering a fresh voice”. The migrant voice has earned its place in US literature. It sits well with other official myths of America, offering refuge to the homeless and dispossessed. It sustains such myths, and to that extent I suppose it curries favour. But it also adds a new chapter to the old story of uprootedness and exile. And new responses to a consistent set of questions: Where are you from? How do you find this place? What can you tell us? And what have you brought us?
New Zealand literature does not so self-consciously dredge for this kind of news. I’m not sure what that oversight says about us. Unless it’s yet another footnote to New Zealand’s reputation as happy campers, complacent wherever they pitch their tent. I know, however, that when I was coming of age in the 1970s one did not think of “home” the way my mother did – who, bizarrely as it seems to me now, assumed a migrant’s loss even though she was born here. Nor did one have any sense of having come from somewhere else. The gorse-covered hills felt like they had been there for centuries. The ordered streets, the regime of City Councils and austere State housing seemed so logical and organically attached to place that one did not think of “transplanted culture”. My generation felt completely home-grown. Children of broken homes ferrying between different households were the closest that my friends came to experiencing the immigrant conundrum of juggling places and loyalties.
Indeed, what is remarkable about two of the above books is that these migrant stories have taken so long to be told. Maurice Gee’s portrait in Live Bodies of a Viennese Jew interned on Somes Island is only now getting out in the public domain 50 years after the event! To adopt the American position on this matter, what does this say about us? That we don’t give a toss about anyone who isn’t prepared to fit in and play the game? That’s the old school of thought pertaining to citizenship in Enzed. In recent times we’ve become more enlightened. We have decided that we like difference, after all, and that we’re even prepared to celebrate it, and so the timeframe between arrival and the stories told is shrinking. John Pule’s characters are comparatively fresh off the boat. Even the lives of the Italian and Hungarian immigrants of Stuart Hoar’s The Hard Light strike the reader as newish material. Again, what does this say about us? It says that for the most part of our history we have demanded that people – that is prospective citizens – arrive ready-made, as if assembled from kitset, accent in place, taciturn gaze narrowed on the paddock/ field/ posts. And that we don’t want to know about their pasts, especially if their pasts happen to be better than the present. Perhaps that’s why we settled for eating all that burnt and roasted meat while the Italians were secretly whipping up pasta in Island Bay. And while the Greeks in Kilbirnie enjoyed honey cakes, we made do with doughy tasteless scones. Food, in other words, made a subversive link with old ways and old countries.
Stuart Hoar’s saga begins promisingly enough with the arrival of a Hungarian woman, Katerina, and her son, Nathan, to work for the Dowlings, a grim and seriously dysfunctional and childless Dunedin couple. The foreigners are without country. The Dowlings are without progeny. In time, the Dowlings come to think of Nathan as “their own”, whereas the oddly estranged and incommunicable figure of Katerina is merely tolerated. The one time Katerina floats the idea of leaving the Dowlings, her domiciled son is flabbergasted, asking:
‘Where? Where would we go’?
‘I don’t know.’
‘But this is our home.’
‘We don’t have a home. This is just where I work.‘
We nod, and set ourselves to enter the imaginative realm where Katerina might sustain thoughts of an alternative “home”. But it doesn‘t arrive. Instead, we are left to dwell in a cold, humourless Dunedin. One of the disappointments of Hoar‘s novel is its failure to enter into the imaginative lives or even the thoughts of Katerina or Lucia, Nathan’s Italian lover in the latter part of the novel. They remain flat and one-dimensional. It‘s almost as if their origins are incidental, or that the author has simply fitted his characters out with foreign parts to make them more exotic. Then when the foreign parts are admitted, they frequently don’t ring as true: as when Nathan‘s girlfriend tells him he can‘t come home to meet her parents because he “looks too Jewish” or, again, when a soldier, jealous of Nathan‘s attentions to his girl, insults him with “Jew boy cocksucker”. Here, the grafting on of Old World prejudices, even the language of insult, feels more prescriptive than real.
The attraction of New Zealand as a destination is more pointedly dealt with in John Pule‘s Burn my head in Heaven: The very act of pronouncing the two words meant a few coins in the pocket. The novel begins in Niue, and before we arrive in Auckland the reader has been put through the mixer of Niuean whakapapa. Niue is all exotic, lush rhythms. Pakeha Auckland is comparatively orderly, structured. The repressive white resident administrator on Niue is writ large in Auckland. Niueans on their way home from a dance rehearsal are picked up by Auckland cops and thrown in a paddy van. The Niueans have committed no wrong other than being there.
The author‘s note reminds us that Pule was the first Niuean to write a novel (The Shark that Ate the Sun). At different times his new book almost strains under the burden of passing on Niue‘s history, sociological footnotes, myth, all this while squeezing a family story of migration between the cracks. So we learn that the conditions of Niuean travel to New Zealand required a return fare, arrangement of employment in advance, testimonies of “good character”, and insistence that married couples travel together. Pule is on rich turf. Especially his portrayal of Loeb, the archaeologist, sifting through stories and measuring Niuean skulls: “Small carnivorous animals in the past have disturbed the bones. So it became a game, a puzzle for him to guess which bones belong where.” You can almost see the Niueans standing around amused, and sniggering behind hands at the white archaeologist sweating away in his odd pursuit of fitting together different skull fragments. This, too, is the task of Pule’s novel.
Memory. What to hold on to, what to forget. The question goes to the heart of the migrant experience. “The reason why we exist is memories,” says a Niuean domiciled in Auckland. “Without them we are just part of the landscape.” Asked why these memories get forgotten, he answers: “Why we forget, simple, either we are taken away, migrate or the land is removed.”
Pule’s novel is a bulwark against forgetting. Remembering is a palliative. Remembering can also provide embarrassment. Such as when a Niuean dance group in Auckland composes a song for an ear-piercing ceremony. The song recalls the time the family of the ear-piercing initiate tried to boil a pair of white man’s shoes to see whether they offered any culinary value. The detail is funny. The larger point is that if they don’t remember, no one else will on their behalf. Take the palagi man married to Sifa. He possesses the gift of work but not the language. He could only laugh. Married for 18 years, with two short trips to Niue under his belt, the palagi could only communicate easy words: “Yes, no, okay, tomorrow, eat?”
Much of Pule‘s narrative is taken up with unravelling the family background of Aifa‘i. His mother, it turns out, was a European schoolteacher appointed to a school in Niue. The father, a Niuean, remains more of a mystery figure. So, as with Hoar‘s book, the matter of parentage is a culture consideration. For all its humour and colourful language, Pule‘s novel would have benefited from a more disciplined approach with a few more signposts of where the narrative was headed. I would hate to see his imaginative flights reined in; rather, if the thickets around them could be cleared away, we‘d be better positioned to admire the view.
With some relief and eager anticipation I turned to the latest offering by the old master, Maurice Gee. Live Bodies takes its title from an unfortunate term describing World War Two internees. It neatly describes the official position towards “suspect” foreigners – alive and irritatingly present, and in need of speedy warehousing: Somes Island provided that warehouse; for most of the war years the island in Wellington’s harbour was an internment camp.
The island also provides Gee with a wonderful metaphor – a part of the harbour and apart from it, of the landscape but also outside it. The island is always there, on the fringe of Josef Mandl‘s perspective, occupying the view from his Wadestown garden – or, in the metaphysical sense, its outsider status hovering in his thoughts and to the side of every transaction with wider New Zealand society.
Mandl, an Austrian Jew, finds himself “German” by annexation. The crazy anomalies of nationalism and identity are farcically reinforced when on his arrival at Somes Island he is asked if he’d like the German Government .to be notified of his presence. In New Zealanders Mandl discovers a lazy brand of anti-Semitism. They simply don’t know Jews well enough to produce the kind of virulent hate which Mandl has fled: “They do not know how to say the word ‘Jew'”. Even after a. trip to National Archives turns up a report card filled with standard anti-Semitic clauses regarding the “shiftiness of his race possibly pliable under the offer of money”, Mandl benignly concludes: “They were not bad men. They were simply stupid”.
On occasion the set pieces demonstrating this stupidity seem exaggerated. Such as when the oafish father-in-law tells Mandl: “We’re not keen on foreigners in Masterton.” This may be true, but New Zealanders, as I think Mandl is aware, are nothing if not duplicitous, and even the most stupid of us know that what we should say and what we actually think run on different tracks. Again, the simpering explanations from another set of in-laws as to why Mandl’s son should change his name to Mandell with its Anglicised possibilities seem too brash and more out in the open than I think the case would ordinarily be. But these are small gripes in a book full of superb writing. Here is a war-time view of the city from Somes: “It had turned grey and silver and looked like a broken shelf of stones at the edge of the sea. It did not seem possible that people lived there, only creatures that had learned to lie flat with the wind and rain.”
Through Mandl we experience the meagreness of our post-war life. There are few comforts. The food is appalling. These same deficiencies, however, present Mandl with opportunities. After the war we see him become a successful baker. Manfully, he attempts to wean New Zealanders off the white pap they are familiar with to the grainy European bread. The mutual distaste described here is actually very funny. At one point he invites his wife to draw up a list of all the things she hasn’t tasted – Dutch cheeses, salami, snails, yoghurt. Mandl soon prospers. He sets up three delis and through a food-importing venture attains a comfortable life for himself and Nancy and their brood. Mandl achieves a kind of contentment. We know that – through Mandl’s description of his bowling companion:
Dennis is a flashy fellow. He grins a lot, showing his nicotined teeth. He lays his smoking cigarette down when it’s his turn to play, leaving brown scorch marks, like freckles, on the grass, then sets off, bent-legged, tracking his bowl, and stops halfway, repudiates it with a fling of his arms, comes back hissing and takes his cigarette from Clive, who has picked it up to save the green. Or, now and then, he’ll follow it into the head, high stepping like a swamp bird.
Such lovingly observed detail leaves us in no doubt that Mandl has found his place. The novel appropriately ends at the same bowling green with Mandl enjoying a drink with his bowling mates, Clive and Dennis. Ever the outsider, Mandl suspects: “I’ve an idea, though, that when I left Clive and Dennis were on the edge of bowls and religion. Perhaps I’ll share those arguments next time. There’s a thing or two I can say.” Alternatively, Clive and Dennis might buy the book.
Lloyd Jones is a Wellington novelist. His most recent book, This House has Three Walls, was published last year.
Maurice Gee won the inaugural Deutz Medal for Live Bodies at the 1998 Montana New Zealand book awards.