Reviewing a new novel by – notoriously controversial – Alan Duff is not only a daunting, but also a somewhat futile exercise. Judgements regarding Duff’s work tend to be firmly in place: there are those who love him, and who will read any new work regardless of what a reviewer might say, and, conversely, there are those who loathe him, and who won’t be moved to pick up another of his books no matter how glowing the review. And then there is Alan Duff himself, who once, when asked whether there had ever been any meaningful, useful criticism of his work, replied, “Well, one woman called me a genius.” That does not leave much scope for a reviewer. And yet, when I agreed to review Szabad, I did so with a sense of anticipation, wondering whether this new novel, set in Hungary, might shake up entrenched views a little, or at least spark some curiosity.
After four novels detailing the plight of poverty-stricken urban Maori and hammering home the message that the answer to their problems lies in self-help and education, Szabad comes as a welcome surprise. An Alan Duff novel without Maori – without, consequently, the messages we have come to know so well – offers Duff (potentially at least) the opportunity to move beyond the polemics and write a serious work of fiction. This would challenge us as readers to suspend our preconceptions regarding Alan Duff the “Maori-bashing columnist” and reconsider Alan Duff the writer.
Szabad’s central character, Attila Szabó, is loosely modelled on the heroical “barbarian” Attila the Hun. The historical Attila gained notoriety not only through the murder of his brother Bleda (in other accounts Béla) but, above all, through his many successful attacks on 5th century Rome, which saw Rome obliged to bestow the honorary title magister militum (master of soldiers) on this ruthless but ingenious warrior. Like his historical model, Duff’s fictional Attila not only has an ambivalent relationship with his conformist brother Béla, but is also “born to fight”; growing up during a time of violent unrest in Hungary’s history, he finds ample opportunity to prove himself just the magister militum, the fierce and unrelenting fighter that Attila the Hun was.
The novel opens with the boys’ father returning to the family a broken man after two years’ imprisonment under Prime Minister Rakosi’s repressive communist regime.
While Attila waits for his father to change back into his former self, he himself gradually turns into the man his father once was: “rough and tough”, “a warrior”. Picking fights to prove his masculinity, he is fully initiated into adulthood when he has his first sexual experience at barely fourteen: “She made me a man”. By the time he is sixteen and the revolution comes along, Attila has met the love of his life, the beautiful Aranka, and is ready to use the gun he picked up years earlier. Spurred by a shared sense of anger and need for revenge, Aranka and Attila become “lovers in arms”. The novel is then taken over by a string of graphically depicted slaughter scenes until – many pages later – revenge is finally taken, and Aranka and Attila have to flee the country. The last chapter is set in Australia, eight years later. Representing the antidote to the horrors of communism, freedom itself, Australia offers Attila a natural home: “They’re a physical race, a nation of warriors”.
As this brief plot summary indicates, Szabad, despite the non-New Zealand setting, is not all that different from Duff’s earlier work. As such, it is a waste of a good opportunity, for rather than challenging his readers’ ready judgement by exploring new territory, Duff obsessively revisits the same material – sex and violence as the ultimate definition of masculinity.
Duff claims that he doesn’t “have a strong autobiographical urge”, but the sentiments and concerns that preoccupy him in his memoir Out of the Mist and Steam are clearly written all over his entire oeuvre. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that his protagonists tend to be mirror images of himself. Though often slightly distorted, and highlighting different aspects of his personality, these images invariably reflect Alan Duff in his own idiosyncratic blend of raw anger and sensitivity, insecurity and vanity. Szabad’s Attila is consequently little more than yet another incarnation of the character we first met as Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors, and who reappeared as Charlie in State Ward and as Jimmy in Both Sides of the Moon. It is as if Duff can neither imagine a character outside his own experience nor give it a voice that doesn’t essentially sound like himself.
In Szabad, this problem is exacerbated by the first-person, present tense point of view. Attila’s interior monologue forces the entire narrative world under its singular control. Other characters’ voices, rarely even allowed to punctuate the dominant monologue, don’t provide viable alternative points of view from fully rounded individuals, but function as mere sounding-boards for Attila’s (Duff’s) governing consciousness. To a certain degree, this dominance of a single consciousness could be accepted as a successful attempt on Duff’s part to recreate typical adolescent fantasies of omnipotence: Attila is the undisputed ruler of his world; other characters are condemned to a surface existence.
What is problematic, however, is that Duff does not stick to the strict limitations that this point of view demands, with the result that both minor characters and Attila himself emerge as unconvincing from this treatment. When Attila utters sentences that are precocious for even the most mature twelve-year-old, omnipotence blurs into a (temporal) omniscience for which disbelief is no longer willingly suspended. The idea, presumably, is that of an almost filmic “of the moment” memoir largely without a reflective consciousness. Yet because this narrative strategy is unskillfully crafted, it comes across as sloppy writing, with occasional lapses in tense or diction:
Even so, seeing him like this is painful beyond endurance. Out on the street I thought I’d spill over. But when we hugged I felt through his emaciated frame, a telling, which I must get in this instant or I’ll never again have the same understanding.
Attila’s voice not only resonates with Alan Duff’s own rhythm and diction, but also articulates his creator’s ideologies. In interviews and commentaries, Duff has never made a secret of his political positioning – “I despise left-wing people. Despise them” – which translates into Attila-talk as “Fuck the Russian Communists, fuck all authority”. Though Duff’s fiction has been informed by the ideologies of the New Right (a central defining feature of which is this hostility to socialism or communism) from the outset, such allegiance is here for the first time made explicit.
And yet, while we are well accustomed to the flavour of Duff’s rhetoric, it is nonetheless the political aspects that I find most intriguing in this novel. For what this novel calls “freedom” (the English translation of “szabad”) is not only a rage against the evils of communism, but also, in its last chapter, a brief reflection about different forms of liberalism. When the protagonist asks himself, “Attila, that word you kept in your mind as you struggled for the border fence, szabad, szabad, free, free. Free to be what?”, he implicitly draws a distinction between what theories of liberalism refer to as negative and positive freedom, freedom from (constraint or coercion) and freedom to (achieve self-realisation). Escaping the authoritarian communist regime, Attila achieves negative freedom (freedom from); but the question of positive freedom (freedom to) is raised – and left open – in the novel’s final words, “Free to be what?”.
This question reverberates long after Attila Szabó and his heroic deeds are forgotten. It opens the interesting possibility that Duff may have moved further from the New Right’s firm embrace of negative freedom than is usually assumed; that he is now moving towards the exploration of what is traditionally the domain of those on the Left (whom Duff, as we know, “despises”), namely positive freedom and its associated policies of state intervention, social welfare, etc. Quo vadis, Alan Duff?
Simone Drichel is a postgraduate student in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.