Double life, Lauris Edmond

The Blind Impress
Michael Jackson
Dunmore Press
$29.95
ISBN 0 8646307 9

Supposing that one of a reviewers tasks is to interpret, I begin by imagining how a reader will first encounter The Blind Impress in a bookshop. The cover is a pattern of grey on white vertical stripes, apparently based on a photograph of corrugated iron, with a roughly made lock and chain attached to one side. The brown lettering giving title and author is obliged to some extent to compete for attention with the design. To add to the mild bafflement this creates, the title, when you have extruded it, is itself no simple matter. What on earth is a blind impress?

The Philip Larkin poem “Continuing to Live”, partly quoted as an epigraph, is there to tell you. It is tantalising, if not one of Larkin’s most luminous unravellings of meaning: “in time, / We half identify the blind impress / All our behavings bear, may trace it home.” Jackson quotes these lines again later, informally (though I think not very comfortably), incorporating them into his story of Joe Pawelka, run-away criminal and notorious anti-hero of the early years of the century: “[Perhaps] Joe Pawelka nursed resentments and grievances … Yet it is seldom possible to half identify, let alone trace home, the blind impress all our behavings bear”. Joe at least would have put it very differently.

What then did he say of himself? Not very much; the nearest thing to a self-definition, a note left in a neighbour’s milk billy during one of the police chases after their elusive quarry, fits Jackson’s description of him (as seen in a “mug shot”), “the gaunt face is both bewildered and belligerent”:

To my fellow-men … I am supposed to have burned down a house in town last night … I do solemnly swear before my God Almighty that it is an untruth … I might also state that a good many of the happenings of late that have been blamed on me are false … Excuse this writing, for I have only a pointed bullet to scrawl with. Signed, J. PAWELKA, a man against the world.

There are other definitions. Joe is a liar, an arsonist, but when in hospital with typhoid fever “a marvellous patient”, though many thought him afterwards “deranged”. He is an ogre to frighten children with, a monstrous presence against which doors must be locked at night, a thief, especially of household goods, and later of food, tobacco, an overcoat, a bicycle – the materials of a survival kit for a man on the run.

In a preliminary outline of this perplexing history, Jackson sets the scene:

In 1910 a young man called Joe Pawelka was arrested in the Manawatu and remanded on charges of housebreaking, arson and theft. His escape from police custody triggered the most intense manhunt in New Zealand since … Te Kooti. During the weeks that Pawelka was on the run, two men were shot dead, buildings were set on fire, shops and homes burgled, and panic engulfed a province.

But there is more to Joe than this. He is also a man who tries to maintain links with his mother and family (“Dear Mother, / I suppose you are wondering … Dear Mother my best love to you and Agnes and Jack / from / Your loving Son / J Pawelka”); he has fallen in love and is a family man, albeit a failed one. He is remembered as impressively strong physically, though slight of build. Most poignantly, he is perceived by those who knew him, and by his present chronicler, to be driven by a wrenching grief and disappointment; his brief marriage has left his wife pregnant, but suspicious and out of love with her erratic young husband. This is the loss from which Joe never recovers.

In later chapters Joe’s descendants speak of enduring a family connection which became for some a crippling burden. However, as the generations pass, it is easier for family members to shed the objectivity. Once Joe’s family agonised at their shame before small village communities possessed of what Jackson calls “deep and parochial loyalties”. Now it’s simpler. It’s history.

But like all history, it has to be searched for. The gradual unearthing of Pawelka’s story creates a drama in itself. The story is already ripe with conflict and contradiction, and Jackson’s leisurely, graceful, careful narrative allows it to unfold scene by scene, so that we come upon it as it were piece by piece, and move on with it. Many of the details of time and place are, appropriately, put into the present tense, so we are there watching as it happens. Winter weather besets the fugitive, neighbours see sinister figures moving about in the dusk, police shudder and fantasise.

Of course for this process to be convincing we need a narrator, and instead of adopting the position of anonymous observer and researcher, Jackson has chosen to put himself into the tale as a full-scale character. It is Jackson the individual who visibly moves, pauses, ponders, working to uncover the known facts of Joe’s life, to make reasonable guesses at the truth of what is unknown, and to re-discover himself in his own past in the Manawatu.

He begins with his own story. On the first page we meet his grandfather; the old man has bequeathed stories to his grandson, and Pawelka’s is one. From then on, alternate chapters follow the progress of each, the investigator and the investigation. The little towns, the often tempestuous weather, the hills and trees, the road, all yield associations for Jackson himself, as well as reminders of Joe’s desperate journeys.

This is a structurally promising device, and yet there is something uneasy about it, a sense of contrivance, though it’s difficult at first to know why. I realised gradually that as my awareness grew of the irredeemable frustrations of Joe’s life, I became less and less attracted to Jackson’s account of his own largely satisfying encounters with the land, the seasons, with old friends who welcome him back. He is a skilled and experienced researcher, he is at home in archives and libraries, he writes with grace and fluency. He holds all the cards.

One small incident sharpens the contrast. Returning to Palmerston North he revisits old landmarks. One is a main street bookshop where he enquires about a local history which will help him to trace Joe’s movements. The shop assistant doesn’t know the book, and doesn’t try very hard to find it; in fact she is useless. Jackson quotes the whole small exchange between them; he is making fun of her, and suddenly this trifle looks like a clue to a more pervasive tone.

On the surface this study of another life and time, and the reflections it casts on our wider history, looks detached, sympathetic, compassionate. So it is, but behind its scrupulous facade there are recurring hints of another tone altogether: condescension.

The problem lies, I think, in Jackson’s decision to allow so much space and attention to his own history. It’s not a new phenomenon. One might ask indeed if the practice of telling one’s own story along with someone else’s has become almost a genre. It is said by some that one of the tenets of post-modernism, that most elusive of -isms, is that the writer must begin with the self. Certainly in the last ten years or so writers both here and in Australia have often favoured dual biographies, sons writing about themselves along with their fathers, daughters examining their relationship with their fathers, sisters reflecting on sisters. And there are advantages in this kind of observation; it’s not exactly that you get two for the price of one, but that one person seen relating to another is closer to the living action. Such a view is – or can be – more vivid, more accessible, though it may also be more limited, exploring only one facet of the subject’s personality.

But Jackson’s connection with Joe Pawelka is simply that he grew up in the same part of the country and knew the Pawelka legend. Associating himself with it gives him a neat and convenient structure, but the parallel has to be continually and consciously constructed. Only the weather and the landscape can provide essential links with the terrors of the man-hunt, the escapes, the local panic that attend the earlier story.

However, it’s fair to say that this bringing together of past and present, flawed as it may be, also yields the historical and social reflections which in the end give The Blind Impress its greatest weight. At first these come in the form of astute definitions of Joe’s motives: “if he cannot prove his innocence, he will perversely embrace his guilt. If he cannot love, he will attract hate … Condemned by others, he will now condemn himself.” Later Jackson speaks of “deep divisions in New Zealand (society)” and quotes George Santayana’s famous dictum that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Today New Zealand is one of the most punitive societies in the world – only some of the Southern States of America lock up more people, proportionally, than we do. At the same time we are readily caught up in the excitement of trying to protect those who escape from custody; there have been several George Wilders to capture the popular imagination. What do these contradictions mean? Can Jackson’s lucid and thoughtful examination of Joe Pawelka’s fate take us closer to asking our own hard questions? I believe it can.

Lauris Edmond is a Wellington writer.

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