The French defection, Owen Marshall

Son of France 
Geoff Cush
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415027

An intellectual comic novel needs a good idea, and Geoff Cush had one for Son of France. What if the French, instead of being thwarted at Akaroa, had succeeded in making New Zealand a colony? It is a premise that provides considerable opportunity for witty and satiric historical revision, and also for speculative ideas concerning the meeting of cultures and the nature of imperialism in all its forms. So we have Lieutenant Verdier, who has been serving in Morocco, posted to New Zealand where the French Governor of 1930 takes a fancy to him as official driver, and summons him from Sainte Chapelle (Christchurch) to New Lyon (Auckland) for that purpose. Verdier reluctantly travels north, picking up the new official Citroën car in Wellington, but having it stolen on his way through the expansive Maori “National Park” further north. He has a crisis of conscience and identity, and ends up AWOL at the French Catholic mission at Jerusalem on the Wanganui river, where his involvement with a Maori man and woman leads to his murder.

The novel starts well, with narrative movement, contrast between the main Pakeha and Maori characters on their introduction, and light, tongue-in-cheek historical connections. It also plays with the stereotypical images of the French character – on first meeting a married couple at a dinner party, Verdier, while listening to the husband describe his collection of opium pipes, thinks, “I’ll see your pipes when I call around to fuck your wife.” The comic intention of the novel is signalled also in the chapter titles, which include “A ship-bored romance”, “Fuck God”, “Scallops à la parisienne”, and “From cannabis to cannibals”.

But the promise of the story’s beginning is not fulfilled: when the Governor’s car is rolled into the river by the rebellious Titoko, it’s the novel that stalls. The references to the French connection become increasingly contrived: for instance, the famous moko artist, Witi (nice touch), has an awkward flashback Paris conversation with his mate Picasso on the nature of art. Also, the tone changes; lengthy philosophical passages cause the narrative to sag; and melodrama intrudes. Lieutenant Verdier’s collapse of will is never satisfactorily explained, and the motivation of his Maori lover, Marama, is equally obscure. Although content to bear his child, she kills him in a last coupling after he has been maimed by Titoko: “it was just the two of them, for the last time, but the roles reversed, him underneath and helpless, her on top with the weapon. Just for once, to
know how it felt, she put her arm around his back, and pulled him hard against her.”

The improbable and the provocatively absurd may be successful techniques in a comic novel of ideas such as this, and Cush achieves such success often, particularly in the first part of the book. Increasingly, however, integration of structure, narrative, tone and character breaks down.

If I sound somewhat disappointed, it is because the obvious and substantial ability Geoff Cush has as a writer is not quite realised in Son Of France. Nevertheless, the story has wit, audacity of plot and intention, and open intellectual enquiry, all of which give it an engaging freshness in New Zealand fiction.

 

Owen Marshall was Katherine Mansfield Fellow in 1996. His new collection of short stories, When Gravity Snaps, is reviewed on p13.

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