A habit of story-telling, Dennis McEldowney

The Best of Albert Wendt’s Short Stories
Random House, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 392 X

The title might have been Most of Albert Wendt’s Short Stories. It includes all the stories in his two previous collections, Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (1974) and The Birth and Death of the Miracle Man and Other Stories (1986), as well as two later stories published in periodicals and six previously unpublished. At nearly 400 pages, it looks as well as is a major work. Wendt was 35 when he published his first collection, omitting a number of apprentice stories written up to ten years earlier. For this reason only, and because a few published later in periodicals are also absent, this book is not the Complete Stories. The history accounts for the maturity and control of even the earliest stories here. One can the more confidently say this because, unlike some of his contemporaries, he has not rewritten extensively. The small changes are largely verbal and some of them probably editorial.

For all their author’s confidence, he was still, then and for some time later, in the process of finding out how best to write Samoan stories in English. Some of his experiments were with language. A monolingual papalagi reviewer can only be tentative about this. The dominant style from the beginning has been a traditional almost literary narrative, which however incorporates many Samoan words and phrases. Many of his earlier books had glossaries, which patronised the language as well as the readers. This has none: we are expected to accept the language as part of our own. The context usually makes the meaning clear anyway. Several narratives are evidently in a Samoan translated literally into English, rather than having narrators speaking broken English. (One begins: “Mine neighbourhood I to you must tell about.”) In other stories the Samoan influence is more subtle. Wendt had learned from older New Zealand writers, who had learned from American ones, not to attempt to render speech phonetically. He worked with vocabulary and syntax. “I shake the head,” says the narrator of “Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree”. “Please excuse the very poor grammar,” the narrator explains. “You see, I did not have much formal education.”

Even in late stories the fact that a character is speaking Samoan is occasionally indicated by syntax, especially the omission of prepositions. Wendt’s voice is varied throughout in ways unrelated to language. There are first, second and third person narratives, men, women and children as narrators or protagonists. Yet there is a recurring characteristic tone that reads as if it is unadulterated English and yet may be the most Samoan (of a chiefly sort) of the lot, a kind of gravitas, deliberation, formality. It is the way Albert Wendt speaks himself, as I was reminded at the Auckland Writers’ Festival last May. Afterwards, I found I was reading the stories as if he were speaking them.

The search for Samoan story extends far beyond language. The earliest of the stories here, “A Descendant of the Mountain”, first published in Landfall in 1963, is disconcertingly reminiscent of European south sea romances, of lagoons in the moonlight, although it has an elegiac tone most of them lack. At the time his more usual voice was closer to papalagi social realism, with richer imagery (“A twisted breadfruit tree threw a fungus of shadow over the boy”) and more affection for his characters than was common among other practitioners. Among New Zealand writers the one he most resembled was Maurice Shadbolt. The numinous or supernatural was late in appearing, except in the beliefs of the characters. The stories are not to be thought of as expressing opinions, or revealing social structures, but that may be the first thing one looks for and finds. Papalagi characters are nearly all paper cut-outs, and this may indeed be true to Samoan perceptions: seen but not known. The few examples of Europeans in the round, especially Baker, the trader in several stories set in the 1890s, are those with whom Samoan characters share a life. The impression given is that colonial officials had little impact on the essential life of the people. The German interlude, from which Wendt’s own name comes, hardly exists, even in stories looking back.

What does still exist is the influence of the missionaries, although they are no longer there. Pastors are Samoan and the message has been thoroughly internalised, and adapted to support the authority of the matai and of the social structure, and to incorporate, sometimes surreptitiously, pre-Christian beliefs and customs, gods who live in trees, ghosts of the dead, healing powers. A conflict of allegiance sometimes arises and people are destroyed in consequence. Wendt writes of this, even in the early stories, with wry detachment rather than the indignation one might expect. It is the given producer of both comedies and tragedies, and even in detachment from it some proprieties are observed. One of the few stories with explicit rather than implicit sex, a late one called “The Eyes Have It”, is appropriately about the emasculation, both physically and socially, of an immigrant in Mangere made redundant, vainly seeking work, cooking meals and doing the housework while his wife and daughters work and bring home the money.

The disruption brought about by the New Zealand connection is everywhere. It is at its most allegorical in an early story, “The Coming of the Whiteman”. Peilua, “youngest, most intelligent and favourite son”, is sent to New Zealand “to work during the day, attend night school, go on to pharmacy school, and return to Samoa a brilliant pharmacist”. He returns instead as a deportee, having attempted to kill his papalagi lover and the man he found in bed with her. He brings with him a marvellous suitcase from which he takes a silver razor, red toothbrush and handmirror, an unlimited supply of sports shirts and trousers, silk socks, a gold wristwatch: “He became a highly esteemed house-guest, treated by the Tomasis like an important papalagi visitor.” One night the suitcase disappears, and with it his mana: “If you want to see him, you’ll find him sitting on a filthy canvas chair under the breadfruit trees in front of his family’s fale. He is only thirty-five years old but he looks like a wizened old man.”

Samoa takes revenge in a recent story, “The Bird”. In Auckland Iona is honoured for the thoroughly Samoan way in which he maintains his grandparents and supports his entire aiga. It is not relevant that he does it by drug-dealing and running protection rackets. His efforts receive supernatural blessing from an atua in the form of a carved wooden owl:

He stands at the railing. Above him the heavens stretch up and up in a mix of white cloud and haze and blazing sun. Below him, tumbling away into the harbour and the bridge and Rangitoto and the Gulf, the city. His city. His hunting ground … All around, the air starts trembling with the heart-like beat of the Bird’s hooting and slow flapping of wings …

This is one of the late incorporations of magic – magic realism if you like.

Wendt’s striking talent has been from the beginning the thoroughly writerly one of inventing, finding, remembering, shaping stories, by turns comic, ironic, bizarre and deeply moving. Their personal sources can only be a matter of conjecture and probably should be left alone, except that now and then he seems to challenge you to make a connection. Wendt is a tease. He indulges in small teases: the man in “Waiaruhe” who sees his wife reading “a novel, Ola by Albert Wendt, a writer he’s never wanted to read”; a street in “The Don’ts of Whistling” named Michael Neill Street, presumably in honour of Wendt’s Auckland University colleague. And bigger teases. Virtually everything I know about his private life comes from reference books, one of which names his children. “Birthdays”, which among other things is the narrator’s apology for never having written a poem for a daughter, as he has done for her two siblings, certainly reads like a confession, and, sure enough, the names of the three are his own children’s.

“A Genealogy of Women”, first published in the 1991 issue of Soho Square edited by Bill Manhire, is (apparently) even more personal. The narrator reclaims the generations of women in his life whose memory has been tainted by his wife’s “betrayal”, and here are the names not only of Wendt’s daughters, but of several forebears who are also public knowledge. “A Genealogy of Women” is the first of two previously uncollected stories given the general heading “From Journals”, and it could feasibly be a long journal entry isolated and perhaps shaped into a story. But what about the second under the “journal” heading, “The Don’ts of Whistling”? The narration is in the third person, but, yes, the protagonist, a boy of nearly fourteen, has the name of Wendt’s son, Michael. He experiments with his father’s razor, makes his mother’s breakfast, goes to school, to the elderly woman who teaches him whistling. It is an affectionate and engaging picture. But some things don’t fit. Michael has no siblings. His father is absent from home except for eight weeks every year, and Michael must never ask why. In an Auckland apparently of the present, which you could walk through with him, Mt Eden prison is called the Reordinarination Centre, the national leader who appears on television is a President, and a massive neon sign on top of Godrake Enterprises Building reads the presidents and their corporations exist for you. It is a puzzle, unless you are able to make the link with Wendt’s 1992  “allegorical thriller”, Black Rainbow. When “The Don’ts of Whistling” first appeared, in the December 1992 Landfall, it was described as “Chapter 1 of The Guide to Whistling, a sequel to Black Rainbow”, a novel that evidently remains unfinished. But whatever the degree of Wendt’s personal involvement, there is no doubting the reiterated claim of his narrators that they inherit not only the accumulated stories of their aiga, but the habit of story-telling itself.

In the group of late stories there are two that are wholly papalagi in character and setting. These are not enough to show how Wendt might be when not focussed on Samoa. In the very last, “Waiaruhe”, the Remuera characters read as if just too neatly packaged from Metro, but naturally the main character escapes from it, in an entertainingly bizarre fashion – she, after all, is the woman who was reading “a novel, Ola by Albert Wendt”. Escapes to Samoa? Who knows.

The relation of the stories to Wendt’s novels is close and complex. Characters and their ancestors, localities and themes recur. There is even some crossover of texts. The novella-length “Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree”, from the book of the same title, became Book Two of Leaves of the Banyan Tree, and is here a stand-alone story again. Two stories from The Birth and Death of the Miracle Man, also reprinted here, became sections of Ola. The stories as a group nevertheless have a quality quite their own, deriving from their multiple entries into the Wendt-created world.

Dennis McEldowney is an Auckland reviewer and diarist, and the former Editor at Auckland University Press.

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