Four to tango, Lawrence Jones

Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance
Lloyd Jones
Penguin Books, $34.95,
ISBN 014308183

No reader of Lloyd Jones’s last novel, The Book of Fame, Winner of the Deutz medal in 2001, would have been able to predict from it the subject of this one. But then no reader of Choo Woo in 1998 would have been able to predict from it the subject of The Book of Fame. In his eight books of fiction in 17 years, Jones has shown himself to be our most protean creator of imaginative worlds, with his subjects ranging from several generations of family life in Lower Hutt, to contemporary Albania, to internees on Somes Island in World War 2, to sexual abuse in Masterton, and to the 1905 All Blacks in Great Britain, among others.

In Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance, he makes imaginative leaps to the West Coast and conscientious objection in World War I, to Argentina between the Wars (and after), and to contemporary Wellington, all connected by the motifs of the tango and obsessive romantic love. The unpredictable range of subject, place (although most of his stories have at least one foot in Wellington, Lower Hutt, or the Wairarapa), and time is great. But despite this seeming heterogeneity, all are recognisably related, revealing what C K Stead in “Narrativity, or the Birth of Story” (1993) calls the “intangible, unmeasurable inflexions, quirks of intelligence, turns of narratological sequence, tone – that authorial voice … which marks the presence of the individual writer as certainly as fingerprints and blood group and DNA codes mark the presence of the particular criminal.” No reader could have predicted any one of the books from its predecessors, but any sympathetic reader would note the family resemblances among the diverse texts.

Jones’s essay in Landfall 203, “Notes Towards a First Novel”, reveals some of the characteristics of his literary DNA as he tells the story of how he came to tell stories. The final step in his movement towards becoming a published novelist was his study of journalism, where he learned what one might expect to be the first lessons for a realist writer – that successful stories “had to be assembled and constructed” according to “building codes” and that he needed to “engage the everyday world and … write accurately what [he] saw and heard”. What had first attracted him to writing was not such realistic mimesis, but rather the love of stories and storytelling, and the first lessons he learned were some of those emphasised by postmodern narrative theory: that “the world was not really as real, as sure of itself, as it was officially made out to be”, but rather that it involved role-playing, stories we impose on others; that successful stories involve “small rearrangements, certain things have to be tweaked to make them more powerful”; that there is “a complicity between the observer and the observed” in storytelling; that there is an important relationship between storyteller and audience (a lesson that he missed at first and saw in retrospect), and that “voice, with the appropriate register”, is the means by which the writer “convinces the reader that everything that they are engaged by on the page is truth”; that “texture … that special weave of place and voice” is crucial to convincing the reader that the characters are “individuals reacting to circumstance, time and place, each with their own mysterious chemical mixture of humanity”. Realism, then, was not a goal but a tool towards the goal of telling a successful story. This interest in storytelling as process and in the relation of the story to the storyteller’s imagination, to the raw material from which it came, and to the audience – these came to be both exemplified by and represented in the stories he told.

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Jones’s first novel, Gilmore’s Dairy (1985), was very much a young man’s novel, a bildungsroman about accepting one’s provincial origins, a book perhaps not, as he confesses in his essay, “cast out to the world with fresh news and borne on its own sense of necessity”. But it anticipates the later novels in its narrative inventiveness, and the concern for story is there indirectly in the way that the transformations of Gilmore’s Dairy become something of an historical allegory of the movement of New Zealand from a provincial to a post-provincial society. In Splinter (1987), story and history moved to the foreground, as we see Nick Freear imaginatively reconstructing his grandmother’s and Lower Hutt’s stories from her letters and documents, coming to see that her public version of her story involved the hiding of her secret, the existence of her illegitimate son, and that Lower Hutt’s public version of its story involved hiding the “secret” that it was based on, the dispossession of the Maori of their land.

Jones’s collection of short stories, Swimming to Australia (1991), dealt with history and storytelling in a variety of ways. There was a splinter from Splinter; there were stories of other dysfunctional families telling stories to each other; there was a George Wilder story and a story about a writer in Menton trying to write George Wilder stories; there was the story about protesters bringing back to life the history of the land on which a shop is built, while the shop had its own history; there was a story about the roles played and the stories told in carrying out or being reluctantly complicit in adultery; there was a story about holding on to trash as a museum of one’s own life story; there was a story about a man imagining he is telling his victim the story of how he killed him in World War I; there was the story of the creation of a painting which tells the story of a family. “Journey through a painted landscape”, in Sport 6 the same year, continued those interests as a fictional “travel essay” ostensibly about a man tracing his recently deceased father’s footsteps through a South Canterbury landscape where his path crossed that of the real Theo Schoon, there to study the Maori rock drawings (and to paint the narrator’s father).

Biografi (1993) was where the concerns with history as a constructed story, role-playing, and imagination came together. A fictionalised travelogue with a real map, real photographs on the cover, and real historical sources, it juxtaposed the dictator Enver Hoxha’s imposition of his imagined version of history on his people (the secret police enforcing his rule by collecting “biografis” of everyone) with the fictional story (or “metaphor”) of Petar Shapallo, his stand-in. This “Albania” is juxtaposed with the fictional story of Cliff Dalziel in the Wairarapa constructing an imagined “Albania” in his own mind from what he could pick up of Hoxha’s propagandistic radio broadcasts. This should have been Jones’s breakthrough book, but implicit in the UBS price label on my copy is the “story” of why it was not – “NZ NonF. Trav. Writ.” is crossed out and “NZ Fict” is printed next to it. Discussion of the book got sidetracked onto the question of its fictionality or factuality, and the concerns central to its “faction” were not addressed.

This House has Three Walls (1997), a triptych of thematically-related novellas, foregrounded the concerns of imagination and storytelling by putting them into the stories themselves: a professional storyteller helps an unimaginative Wairarapa market gardener enter into the imagined Russia of his wife, with an imagined lover; a New Zealander from a German family is made into an “imaginary Nazi” (like the “imaginary Jew” in John Berryman’s story of that title) by the government and his neighbours, and finds himself interned on a real Somes Island that the Italian internees treat as an imaginary Sardinia; a German literature lecturer imagines himself back to Heinrich Heine’s deathbed and then imagines Heine into a Ukrainian pogrom.

Choo Woo came at these themes in a different way. A Wairarapa father imaginatively reconstructs, from the stories he has been told, his daughter’s actual sexual abuse by his estranged wife’s boyfriend, an abuse that itself involved the abuser drawing the imaginative daughter into role-playing in his staged sexual fantasies. The Book of Fame, on the other hand, is not so much a book about imagination and storytelling as a demonstration of imagination’s workings, with Jones taking the story of the 1905 All Blacks and, as Michael Ondaatje had done with the story of the jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden in Coming through Slaughter, filling out a sparse, mythologised historical record with intensely imagined detail. Thus the book (this time carefully subtitled “A Novel”) is a kind of fictionalised rugby tour “as-told-to” book, done as a collective first-person plural account by the team.

In all of these books, Jones has been not so much implying a romantic or utilitarian attitude towards imagination as exercising it through telling stories in which he examines it, turns it over interestedly to look at different sides, the ways it is used to make stories that may make sense of our lives or help us to escape them: stories that may impose our vision on others, or give us a private parallel world into which to escape, or allow us to share a world. In most of them, he has found the right voice to win our suspension of disbelief, whether it is the first-person narrator of Choo Woo (who constructs his daughter’s story in the third person but tells his own story of the story in the first person), the adolescent narrator of some of the best stories in Swimming to Australia, the poetic yet vernacular group narrator of The Book of Fame, or even the urgent, invisible narrator of “The War in Sardinia” in This House has Three Walls, who refers to the protagonist as “you”.

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Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance takes us to some places and times Jones has not dealt with before (as well as to a familiar Wellington), but it is yet another story about storytelling and the imagination, and again Jones has found a convincing voice for his story. The voice is that of Lionel, a West Coast farmer looking back a few years to his student days when he worked at Rosa’s Argentine restaurant in Wellington and carried on an affair with her. He does not emerge as “I” until the fifth chapter, when we discover that his has been the voice in the third-person account of Rosa and her grandparents in Argentina with which the book opens. Gradually we discover that Lionel has pieced together the story of the love of Paul Schmidt, Rosa’s grandfather, and Louise Cunningham, his New Zealand lover, from Rosa’s stories, which in turn came from her family’s stories, and that he has used his imagination to fill the gaps in it. The narrative of Louise and Paul develops in parallel with that of Lionel and Rosa, but not in the regularly alternating, chronological time-levels of, say, Maurice Gee’s Plumb. Rather, events in the more recent past, such as Lionel and Rosa’s visit to the West Coast town that Louise had come from, lead to the filling in of further details about Louise and Paul in the distant past, and there are chronological leaps and suddens shifts. But the voice of Lionel carries us through it all.

The tango is the connecting link between the stories. Paul in 1916 is another “imaginary German”, the West Coast town’s anti-German feelings projected upon him, and Louise helps him escape to a cave where two conscientious objectors are hiding to avoid conscription and persecution. Paul’s teaching Louise and the two other men the tango is a way to pass time but also a way to court Louise right in front of the others without arousing their resentment. After Paul has fled to Buenos Aires, Louise carries on an imaginary parallel life with him through letters while living a prosaic actual life with her husband, Billy Pohl, one of the other men in the cave. She belatedly comes to join Paul in 1924, only to discover that he has in the meantime married someone else, and the tango becomes central to their secret relationship carried on beneath the disguise of their everyday life as boss and employee.

When Rosa selects Lionel for a relationship (in the absence of her husband), the tango is their means of “courtship” in front of the other restaurant employees. When Rosa’s husband returns and Lionel feels jealous of him, he sees himself as being like the other men in the cave with Louise and Paul, and thinks, “It’s the same old dance”. He has been so absorbed in the dance that he has not listened to his parents’ pleas that his father needs help on the farm. But when the affair has ended and his father has died without Lionel being there, and he has returned to the West Coast to take up the farm and marry a local girl, he begins to teach his future wife the tango. If the dance is an image of relationship involving civilised deception, it is also, as Louise saw, an image of the romance that is mostly lacking in New Zealand life but that the imagination craves, and Lionel too wants it in his life, despite the cost he has seen for himself and others.

The ending of the novel is a little slick in the way it deals with costs, with Rosa back with her husband, pregnant and happy, and with Lionel, after his father’s sudden death, contentedly settling into the farm life he had tried to avoid, just as Louise’s husband settled into a contented second marriage (but then died suddenly after visiting Louise’s grave in Buenos Aires), and just as Paul’s wife was content to be buried next to the graves of Paul and Louise, whose affair she had discovered only after Paul’s death. The loose ends are perhaps tied too neatly, but such an ending does underline Jones’s fruitful ambivalence concerning imagination and role-playing and the deceptions of storytelling. As he has shown more darkly in Biografi and Choo Woo, the coercive projection of one’s own imaginative wishes on others can be deadly, both politically and personally, but nonetheless the imagination must be listened to, its needs cannot and should not be totally repressed. Once again, Jones has held up for examination the imagination and its implications, and has succeeded in exercising his own imagination in making a good story of its workings.

 

Lawrence Jones is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Otago. Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance has been shortlisted in the fiction section of the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. 

 

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