Wrestling with the Patriarch, Otto Heim

The Uncle’s Story
Witi Ihimaera
Penguin, $34.95,
ISBN 0140298924


Witi Ihimaera’s eighth novel impressively rounds off his third decade in the market for fiction. Faithful readers will no doubt spot many echoes of earlier Ihimaeras in this latest work. Indeed, one might be tempted to say that there is a bit of each of his other novels of the 90s in The Uncle’s Story: the novel features another tyrannical East Coast patriarch of Bulibasha’s stamp; it shares the coming-out theme and some plot elements with Nights in the Gardens of Spain; and it is brought to us by a cosmopolitan narrator who sounds strikingly like Tamatea in The Dream Swimmer.

But a certain impression of déjà lu has always been part of the reading experience Ihimaera offers us and should not be taken for evidence of a slackening of the author’s creativity. Rather, it may remind us of the fact that Ihimaera has always been an “inveterate reviser”, as Dick Corballis and Simon Garrett already observed in the early 1980s. Ever since the success of his first books, Ihimaera has indeed drawn part of his inspiration from rereading his own work in the light of a changed cultural environment. Just as The Whale Rider and Dear Miss Mansfield dramatically revised some of his earliest stories, Bulibasha rewrote what already in Tangi was described as the “gypsy life” of East Coast shearing families. Even The Dream Swimmer, the massive sequel to The Matriarch, over long stretches reads more like another version of its predecessor than its continuation.

One effect of such textual cohesion is of course a familiarity between the author and his audience, based on the recurrence of a certain narrative tone and stylistic idiosyncrasies like a preference for the melodramatic flourish or operatic reference, by which the aficionado recognises authorship despite significant shifts in the writer’s orientation over time. More importantly, however, this continuity is the work of a literary imagination that cannot be contained in a single novel but inevitably projects itself in series, in each novel planting the seeds for the next one. Thus, for instance, we re-encounter Tane Mahuta, the gay Maori activist from Nights in the Gardens of Spain, whose function in the earlier novel was restricted to bumping into David Munro on his way to work and who now returns to act as a role model for Michael, the narrator of The Uncle’s Story. Michael himself is only the latest offspring of the Mahana clan, which receives an entire new branch in this novel, complete with grandparents, parents, sister, Auntie Pat and Uncle Sam. Nothing indeed better embodies Ihimaera’s literary imagination, spiralling out from the East Coast to take on the world yet continually returning to its principal source of inspiration, than that spawning Mahana family.


With The Uncle’s Story following Bulibasha and The Dream Swimmer, Ihimaera’s saga of the Mahana clan is definitely reaching Faulknerian proportions. What began in the 1970s as lyrical soundings of the intimacy between a son and his father has gradually developed into a tempest of passion, graphically evoked on the cover of the latest novel in the image of the slashing rotor blades of a helicopter. Betrayal, greed and abuse have been at the heart of all of Ihimaera’s recent fiction, where secrets loom like skeletons behind virtually every door, waiting to be brought to light and to bring down those who locked them away. The blame mostly lies with loveless grandfathers and weak fathers, who invariably leave their sons to expiate a guilt they can hardly fathom. In The Uncle’s Story it is Arapeta who cannot tolerate the fact of his first-born Sam’s homosexuality and therefore disowns him and after his death obliterates all traces of his existence. When 30 years later Arapeta’s grandson, Michael, too, comes out to his parents and is in turn disowned by his father, he inadvertently singles himself out as the one to recuperate his uncle’s memory and to set right the wrong done to him. The novel thus tells two stories: that of Sam’s rebellion against his father and the story of Michael’s own coming out and his assumption of responsibility for a repressed part of his heritage.

Arapeta is an elder of unquestioned authority, in the mould of Bulibasha whose younger brother he is said to be. In contrast to the Matriarch, whose power apparently derives from supernatural sources and is therefore more mysterious and open to challenge, Arapeta’s authority, like Bulibasha’s, is based on rank as well as a mingling of religion, sexuality and sheer violence. But while there remains something farcical about Bulibasha’s ritualistic exercise of power throughout the earlier novel, The Uncle’s Story goes further in probing the Maori patriarch’s power and its susceptibility to abuse. Arapeta’s authority demonstrates itself in the public recognition and approval of his leadership, as a veteran of the Maori Battalion and as a prominent speaker on the marae. In these roles he shamelessly exploits the prestige of high rank, which he claims as a birthright. The obsessive manner in which he turns every public event into a stage for his personality cult, however, indicates that his mana is in rather greater need of validation than is acknowledged. This may be because his is the junior line, but the novel also shows that Arapeta’s public assumption of the privileges of rank distracts from a more profound link between power, sexuality and violence.

At a wedding about two thirds of the way through the novel, Arapeta lectures the guests on the nature of male mana:

When a man takes a woman to be his wife he is re-enacting a tradition that goes back to the very first woman, Hine ahu one, she who was made from red earth. Through his woman, a man achieves his immortality. He has a son … And in this manner he conquers the formidable Goddess of Death herself.


The speech is designed to underline the importance of procreation and hence the exalted status of the first-born son. But Arapeta’s rather wilful enlistment of myth in the service of an ideology of compulsory heterosexuality blatantly veils the full sexual nature of male power. As anyone familiar with the story of Hine ahu one knows, the Maori myth of how heterosexuality entered the world is more complicated than Arapeta makes out, since the first child of Tane and Hine ahu one was a daughter, Hine titama, who in turn became Tane’s wife but left him when she found out he was her father and then became Hine nui te Po, the Goddess of Death. The story is rich in cultural meanings and clearly tells that there is more to (male) sexuality than the mere desire for procreation, but Arapeta’s glossing over of the disturbing details is characteristic of the way he assumes the authority vested in his rank. It also prefigures his violent reaction to the discovery of Sam’s homosexuality a few pages later.

“In traditional times,” Arapeta tells Sam, “people like you never existed … They would have taken you outside, gutted you and left your head on a post for the birds to eat.” I don’t know what the Maori attitude to homosexuality was in the old days, but Arapeta’s summary condemnation of his son reminds me of the warrior Haukino’s reaction to his discovery of a young priest’s homosexual relationship with the high priest Tawhiro in Heretaunga in Pat Baker’s novel, Behind the Tattooed Face (1975). Shocked by the revelation, Haukino immediately kills the young priest with one blow of his taiaha. The scandal of homosexuality is to draw attention to a connection between sexuality and power that exceeds the act of procreation. In Baker’s novel, the unmarried Tawhiro combines his teaching about the transference of mana with the gratification of his homoerotic desires; and in Ihimaera’s own work, it is Artemis in The Matriarch who teaches her grandson that “in sex is power”. For Arapeta, as for Haukino, such an acknowledgement presents an immediate threat to their own mana and therefore must be repressed. Like the young priest, Sam is buried in an unmarked spot and his entire existence consigned to oblivion.


The way Sam’s story dramatises the repression of a sexuality that precedes the mythic institution of heterosexuality makes this Ihimaera’s most Freudian novel to date. But if the diagnosis of the problem resembles a Freudian analysis, its resolution in the present departs significantly from Freudian practice. Michael’s coming out coincides with the break-up of his relationship with his Pakeha lover, Jason, and this lends the plot of The Uncle’s Story some interesting parallels with Nights in the Gardens of Spain, in which a Pakeha couple work through the consequences of the husband’s coming out. Jason indeed closely reproduces the course taken by Annabelle in the earlier novel, in that he sorts out his life with the help of a professional analyst and ends up going through the motions of a formal divorce in order to extricate himself from his dependence on Michael and to regain his self-confidence. Michael’s course, however, follows a path that the Pakeha David in Nights only glimpses in the figure of the Noble Savage, Tane Mahuta.

Although Michael suffers from recurring nightmares that clearly indicate an unconscious labouring under the weight of repression, he opts against Western-style analysis and seeks his new role in kinship with other gay and lesbian Maori who strive to define their place in Maori culture and society. In this context the recuperation of Uncle Sam’s story not only helps Michael to come to terms with his own place in his family, but also provides the gay community with an important precursor figure, since Sam, who fought in Vietnam, proves “that you can be gay — and a warrior,” as Tane points out. The Noble Savage, aptly named after the father of heterosexuality, is the driving force behind the project to establish a gay tribe, which consists in a practical reinterpretation of tribal tradition, ritual and myth so as to validate homosexuality as a Maori way of living. Apart from the recuperation of ancestral figures like Sam, the project involves a return to customary practices like the arranged marriage as a way to combine homosexuality with the possibility of having a family. At the end of the novel, Michael enters a new relationship with Carlos, which explicitly includes the possibility of marrying his lesbian friend Roimata.

By joining Michael’s personal destiny to the efforts of a group of Maori activists working within official contexts, Ihimaera places the struggle for the recognition of homosexuality as a part of Maori culture at the forefront of a new stage in indigenous politics, beyond the essentialism of traditional identity politics. Michael, Roimata, Carlos and Tane represent a new generation of Maori activists who master the postcolonial discourse of the oppressed as well as the traditional protocol that would seem to exclude them, but they do not depend on personal histories of victimisation to validate their status as spokespersons for Maori. Their objective is not to establish a counter-tradition but to open traditional venues to diversity. As a cosmopolitan set, they operate in an international network of indigenous representatives, unashamedly enjoying the perks that come with their official positions. As a team, the way they handle their missions is rather more realistic than Tamatea’s 007 approach in The Dream Swimmer. Their power is in fact not very different from Arapeta’s, in that they also rely on the mastery of ritual and rhetoric. The difference lies in their orientation: instead of veiling the sexual nature of power behind a show of discipline, they openly acknowledge the eroticism of public performance; and instead of silent consent, their enactment of traditional protocol is designed to generate controversy and dialogue.

As for the heroic Uncle Sam, his handsome American lover, Cliff Harper, and Auntie Pat with her love of old movies, I’m sure it will be only a matter of time before we will see them on the screen.


Otto Heim teaches in the Department of English at the University of Hong Kong.


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