Engaging with incoherence, Chris Else

The Small Change of Silence
Michael Henderson
Longacre Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877135 25 9

Some years ago, in a radio talk, Jonathan Miller made scornful reference to people who thought that Shakespeare’s greatness lay in his Language (with a capital L). Miller’s point was that Shakespeare was first and foremost a dramatist and after that a poet and that, in either case, to talk about his brilliant use of Language was perhaps no more helpful than talking about his brilliant use of ink or of history or of the acting talents of the Chamberlain’s Men.

I feel that our judgement of Michael Henderson risks similar criticism. Reviewers and commentators describe his work in phrases such as “a linguistic virtuosity (which) offers an alternative energy” (Roger Robinson), “his ear is a national treasure” (Maurice Gee), “masterly control of language” (myself in a 1991 review), “original, exultant language” (Owen Marshall). Such comments suggest that the L word is the key to appreciating Henderson but they do little to nail down the precise quality of his unique talent. They say all and nothing at once. Henderson is a writer of fiction. If we are to speak of his Language, in any meaningful way, we should relate it to the broader enterprise of creating fiction.

When he died last year, at the age of 57, Henderson had produced two books. His third, The Small Change of Silence, published posthumously, brings the sum of his work available to us in volume form to one novel of 143 pages and 29 short stories. This is a small oeuvre on which to build a reputation and seems a tiny output for someone who made writing his major focus for almost 30 years. The lack of productivity suggests a difficult talent; an exhausting wrestle with the imagination or a demand for perfection which made writing a wasteful business. Perhaps Henderson, like others before him, spent much of his writing life on longer works which he could not complete to his satisfaction. If so, on the evidence of these stories, the failure would be understandable and the attempt unfortunate. Henderson’s strength is not in the building of conventional narrative.

The Small Change of Silence is misleadingly subtitled “thirteen tales”. If a tale is a piece of fiction in which things happen and which depends for its primary interest on the unfolding of events under the control of a skilled storyteller, then with one or two exceptions these are not tales. Most of the stories contain only one event or significant action and are limited to a short time-frame: a prisoner chalks a name on a blackboard; a young man goes to fetch a cup of water from a mountain stream; an army deserter hijacks a New Zealander driving in the United States. The focus is on a situation with little narrative development which carries the story beyond that situation. Shape and closure are achieved not with the help of resolutions in the action but through stylistic and formal means. Three examples follow, one a failure, the other two brilliant successes.

A central character in “The Circular Saw”, is Mr Tierlinck, a Dutch Jew who has experienced imprisonment in the Treblinka concentration camp. In a startling image, in which he links the ordinary world of farming with oppressive political events, Henderson compares the tattoo on the sawyer’s arm with the stencilled numbers on a wool bale. Tierlinck survives the loss of this limb in an accident to become one of the town’s main attractions: a one-armed barber who displays his severed body-part, preserved and complete with tattoo, on the wall of his shop where he regales his customers with reminiscences of the concentration camp.

Somehow this story, with its potential for ghoulish humour and its picture of the bloody realities of rural life, does not seem to have been enough for Henderson. He fails to give it shape and development and, instead, surrounds it in a futuristic frame in which towns and people all have numbers rather than names and squads of defenestrators hunt down the uncooperative for the entertainment of a TV audience. The ending is achieved by the narrator, a victim of these dystopic forces, echoing the reported words of a victim of Nazi oppression. It is as if the ambiguity in the tattoo image proved more powerful than the tale itself and forced Henderson into a device that would make it the axis of the story.

In one of the best pieces in the collection, “The Place Where They Make You Walk”, the horrors of torture under the Shah of Iran’s SAVAK police are recounted by an Azarbaijani poet who has been arrested for possessing forbidden books, in particular a copy of Gorky’s Mother. Here the presentation is impressionistic and the shape achieved more by a subtle development of key images and the almost incantatory repetition of the torturers’ curses than by the events of a plot.

The narrative flow is further framed by a formal structure. Henderson divides it into sections of varying length by interposing the phrase “PA BEZAN!” (Stamp your feet!). This command derives from a particular torture that is linked to the story’s title. In the place where they make you walk, they whip the soles of your feet with plaited wire and then make you stamp them until they become “doughy loaves of brick-red clay” or “jam pulp”. The penultimate section of the story is one of the narrator’s poems in which “Pa bezan!”, alternated with its English translation, forms a refrain to lines which cry out in protest. This formal device makes the whole story one with the poem, which ends with the words:

Only when my stanzas
no longer stamp
their feet
are they ended!

The pun on metric feet and human feet turns the story back on itself. Irony and poetry defeat brutality and ignorance because the defiant spirit is ultimately out of the torturer’s reach.

“The Place Where They Make You Walk” is Henderson at his best. In stories like this, plot, character, milieu, style, formal structure, emotional force and thematic intention are all wound tightly together in a concentration of energy that hums with significance. One is tempted to call the values here “poetic” but I think this underemphasises the significance of the narrative elements. It seems to me, rather, that Henderson’s work exemplifies nothing so much as a demand for meaning. This is not meaning in the sense of objective understanding or intellectual formulation. It is instead a passionate engagement with incoherence, a refusal to accept an easy or an incomplete answer or to adopt an ironic, postmodernist stance that turns aside from any commitment to its subject. Meaning, in this sense, is not found in the world. It is fought for and achieved in the face of the world’s, often hostile, intransigence.

In “The Two Tooth in the Thicket”, an adolescent boy is savagely beaten by his father for failing to recite verbatim the Genesis text in which God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. The biblical story provides a source of resonance and ironic comment for the events in the narrative present. The brutality of the farm is linked with broader themes of oppression and with the harshness of a universe ruled by a jealous God who will have nothing from his subjects but obedient and undivided attention.

“Twenty minutes,” he said. “In twenty minutes, I’ll be back. There’s no other choosing, not from them that’s chosen!”

On the edge of my bed, in the cold bare room, every book but the one book being an abomination, – the Arabian Nights most abominable of all, holding the one like a suicide’s boulder dragging on my neck as I recited Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land, and offer him as a burnt offering as I heard him wedging the wood, then the handle of the milk bucket and his hobnails were back steamy with the froth of Brindle’s milk as I cried, “That wasn’t twenty minutes, it couldn’t of been!”

Have been,” he said. “Say have been.”

The element in the story which finally makes sense of it for its young protagonist, which breaks the deadlock and provides the means of escape, is not, in this case, poetry but cricket. The boy imagines himself to be Bert Sutcliffe defying the ferocity of South African fast bowlers on a vicious pitch. Inspired by this identification, he takes the carcass of the two-tooth of the title, which his father has slaughtered, and puts it in his bed. He lets loose the dogs and he goes off into the pre-dawn night:

I did not stop to close the gates. I kept walking. The milky whiteness turned to rosehip. Collar-free, the dogs gambolled around me, nudging my elbows and chin, their shadows darkening, lengthening, shortening. Bert Sutcliffe and I drove Heine through the covers and flayed Adcock mercilessly. Effortlessly, I ducked and swayed under his bumpers. They flew harmlessly by, as harmless as the fernbirds.

Cricket is not here simply an image of defiance. It is a means by which the boy absorbs and accepts and ultimately returns his own flaying. It is a game in which style and skill can be set against violence and which provides a manageable and comprehensible alternative to the overpowering continuity of divine with paternal wrath.

This focus on a search for meaning explains, I think, the unique quality of Henderson’s use of language. He is a hugely skilful and often daring stylist and as, Maurice Gee points out, his distinction is based, in part at least, on his ability to tune in to the cadences of other people’s speech: a Scots immigrant farmer, an Azarbaijani poet, a black American murderer, a post-apocalyptic, bible-thumping redneck. He does not, however, merely reproduce these voices but infuses them with irony and metaphor and rolls them into rhythms that are often musical and sometimes hypnotic. Thus, the deserter in “Bad People, Bad Stuff”:

“Our own service issue revolver issued for use, it’s here,” he said, patting. “A mite better’n Uncle Jacob B’s pissdrop pistol. Our own Case knife, it’s here, the blade buckled some on the last dude we got no choice but to larrup and slice. Our own tyre iron and ball-peen, it’s in here, you bet, roly-poly man. Don’t make us do bad stuff bad as we hate to, we been long ’nough to break an fire things with li’l pinkies, the either of them.”

This is more than presentation of a character. It blends the vernacular with a more heightened, more literary style.

The story “Deadwood” addresses the question of language directly. A creative writing teacher discusses the relationship of language and ideas with a class of long-serving prison inmates. Ideas by themselves are nothing, he says. They are “dead as dead can be unless you let imagination run away with them, turn them into monsters, mutations you get by writing, not thinking, something fantastical that turns around and bites your head off …”

It is the act of expression that brings the ideas into being. Language is not a vehicle for thought, a medium for communicating understanding or for simply telling a tale. In quite a literal sense, it is the meaning. Form, sound, image, thought and feeling are all properties of the words. A successful fiction draws together the mind of the writer and the world of the story so that the act of writing (and, by extension, reading) is itself the achievement of a coherence and, perhaps, the only form of coherence worth having.

The best of this collection demonstrate this coherence. For “The Place Where They Make You Walk” and “The Two-Tooth in the Thicket” alone, this book is worth buying; and there is enough in most of the other pieces to stimulate and satisfy. The pity of Michael Henderson’s early death is that there will be no more.

Chris Else is a Wellington writer. His novel Brainjoy was reviewed in our August 1999 issue.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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