Difficult terrain, John McCrystal

To Each His Own
Philip Temple
Hazard Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877161 51 9

At the limits of the mellow plain of memory, there stands for each of us a mountain range of sorts, glittering with a hostility that repels the faint-hearted approach of nostalgia. There is guilt there, and shame, and great, swooping plunges of grief and loss. We are divided from whole chunks of our experience by difficult terrain, to be picked through with care.

Philip Temple ventured there in his 1984 novel, Sam, revisiting his own childhood – his abandonment by his father, and his separations from his mother. It was a past he “buried”, as he put it in an essay contributed to Sons of the Fathers (1997) about his (non-) relationship with his father, when he emigrated to New Zealand. It is a past that has continued to draw the explorer in him, with its high, untrammelled regions of himself.

For Temple is an explorer. The first time I had occasion to admire his writing was three years ago. Crawling gingerly along a section of switchback ridge at 2,000 metres on the upper approaches to the Copland Pass, my breathing fast and shallow and my whole body rigid with the terror inspired by thousand-foot plunges yawning on either hand, I thought of the passage in the guidebook that warns aspirers to the Copland crossing that they may find the exposure “trying”. The understatement was very Hemingway.

The Copland guidebook is but one of many books Temple has written in a long, diverse and distinguished career. He has written on history, adventure, the flora,  fauna and even the politics of New Zealand. He has written for children as well as for adults. He is best-known for Beak of the Moon and its sequel, Dark of the Moon, in which he tried to do for that cranky Southern Alps crag-dweller, the kea, what Richard Adams did for rabbits.

In To Each His Own, he returns to more challenging terrain. Martin Stephenson is a New Zealand historian, in Berlin on a fellowship to research the backgrounds of 19th-century German visitors to New Zealand. Yet he is on a parallel mission. His father, a source of both guilt and pride to his son, was a bomber pilot who went missing in action over Germany during World War Two. Martin has come to Berlin to be near him. In a side-trip to England, he visits his stepfather, a tail-gunner in the same aircraft but who missed the fatal flight through injury. Martin’s exploration yields discoveries: about his father, his stepfather, his mother and about himself.

In Berlin, he falls in love with Uschi, his German teacher; and his marriage, left behind in New Zealand, is erased as the new relationship is written. Martin learns, however, that Uschi has a skeleton in her closet to rival his own. Uschi does not share his historian’s derring-do, and her distress and resentment at his urge to know her past threatens their relationship.

On the surface, this is a love story, narrated in an urgent present tense. Temple seems to have taken to heart the accusation of coyness about kea sex that Sheridan Keith levelled at him in a review of Dark of the Moon. There is no coyness here, and no shortage of sex. Indeed, at one point, an academic’s decision to break off his conversation with Martin, in order to slope off and have sex in another room, is puzzling, if not gratuitous. Otherwise, it works. Uschi as the object of his desire is appropriately complex – warm, vulnerable, confident; moody, remote and aloof – and the haunted, obsessed Martin is not over-analysed. The writing is beautiful, occasionally exquisite.

To Each His Own can hardly be called a New Zealand novel, since, as Temple gently chides, this is “a country where there [is] less a sense of living with history than of being part of its making.” Germany and England are in the spotlight, and New Zealand is incidental to the story. On the other hand, it is another example of a growing number of recent titles that show that New Zealanders are taking their place in the wider world, and grappling with a less insular history. For the eroticism is the narrative vehicle for a meditation upon the relationship between history and the present, the way “the busyness of the past [is visible] in the wet, slow silence of the present.”  Lives have been blighted, and the war is to blame. In a memorable scene, Martin’s stepfather takes him to meet his comrades in the RAF Association, where they gather to share their desire to forget the atrocity of which they were a part. Martin lost his childhood hero, his father, but must add to his grief the guilt he feels on his father’s behalf for the bombing of Germany. And Uschi, too, has led her life in denial of her father.  When Martin resolves to meet his dead father’s family for the first time, his stepfather shrugs and says resignedly: “To each ’is own.” When Martin and Uschi visit the extermination camp where her father was a guard, they read “Jedem Das Seine” on the gates, the same words in a different language and context, weaving holocausts both personal and national into the same fabric.

This is a deeply personal novel. It elides a trip Temple made on a fellowship to Berlin in 1987 to study German explorers and a detour he took to England from his 1979 Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in order to locate his (living) father. Temple’s father had a hand in the design of the Lancaster bomber, and his stepfather was aircrew on one. What is more, while he was in Berlin, Temple did indeed form a relationship that led to the collapse of his marriage.  This is a journey into very perilous terrain indeed, and it is every bit as compelling as Temple’s accounts of his adventures amongst the snow and ice.

John McCrystal is an Auckland freelance writer and reviewer.

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