Autobiographical silences, Doug Munro

Awatere: A Soldier’s Story
Arapeta Awatere (ed Hinemoa Ruataupare Awatere)
Huia, $49.95,
ISBN 1877283819

During the early 1970s, an elderly Maori man, who had been convicted of murder, sat in his cell in Mt Eden Prison and penned his memoirs. Arapeta Awatere’s fall from grace had been severe and he died in 1976 before regaining his freedom. Almost 30 years later, these prison essays, memoirs and poems have been published as his autobiography under the editorship of his grand-daughter Hinemoa. Perhaps in this way Awatere cheated death, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has been given a new lease of life. Contrary to the publisher’s claim that he is “one of the great figures of twentieth-century New Zealand”, Awatere is anything but a household name. Even late-teenage Maori from the East Coast, where Awatere himself was raised, probably know little more of him than his name. For instance, they are unlikely to know the following potted history of his life.

Awatere was born at Tuparoa in 1910 and orphaned at the age of ten. Passing his Proficiency Certificate he went to Te Atua College. Leaving school, he joined the Native Department, began his lifetime involvement in Maori voluntary organisations and joined the New Zealand Territorial Force. Marriage followed in 1931 and at the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the famous 28th (Maori) Battalion, which he eventually commanded. After the war. he continued his great and good works, rejoining the Department of Maori Affairs, again involving himself extensively in volunteer work on behalf of Maori, and serving several terms as an Auckland City councillor. Then came that fateful day in August 1969 when he killed his mistress’s lover and the subsequent guilty verdict at his trial.

Both publisher and editor make it difficult, even problematic, to evaluate Awatere’s “autobiography”. Clearly he lived an eventful and active life, and was accomplished in many ways, both physically and intellectually. But there is an over-the-top quality to the billing of Awatere: A Soldier’s Story. To be sure, there is nothing wrong in trying to talk up a book, nor in the self-belief without which writing and publishing would be almost impossible. This reviewer is not going to complain about the autobiography’s subtitle although only a few years of Awatere’s life were spent in that capacity. These things are accepted as within the pliable rules of the publishing game, but within limits; and these limits have been rather overstepped in this particular case. To describe the contents as “a story of Shakespearian dimensions” is so blatantly hyperbolic that a reviewer might be excused for approaching the book with a jaundiced eye – and this despite Awatere’s own claim that he prided himself “in being able to quote adequately from many many of Shakespeare’s plays”. There is no need to gild someone of Awatere’s drive and energy, achievements and accomplishments, nor to explain away his failings.

And talent (and failings) he had in abundance. The range and breadth of his reading was astonishing, whether in English literature, military theory, New Zealand history, or Maori ethnology. He had panache and was a born leader and organiser. Undoubtedly he had charisma and he never did anything by halves. On one occasion during the war, he urinated on the carpet of Hitler’s captured redoubt, explaining to the assembled multitude that “the greatest thing in Maoridom when you capture your enemy is to eat his head. Well, as he is not here, the next best thing I can do is piss on his carpet.” All the ingredients for a good book are here, and yet this is an oddly unbalanced one.

The trouble is that the book is both more and less than an autobiography, or should I say it is an uneasy mix of outright autobiography with commentary and analysis of issues. These elements are not well integrated and even an experienced editor would have had difficulty in blending them
satisfactorily. Then there are all the poems. When Awatere was languishing in his cell at Mt Eden Prison, he did not expressly set out to write a book as such. Rather, he wrote for therapy – probably also as part of a life-review process.

Overwhelmingly, however, Awatere’s writing was a “healing procedure”, and much of it is not autobiography at all but about Maori lore, language and customs. He was clearly thoughtful and reflective but the Maoritanga parts of the book were probably dated even at the time of writing. Also there is no way to conceal that Awatere was an untrained writer and somewhat out of his depth when analysis takes over from description. He is no Gibbon, and his memoirs are not in the same league as Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Overall the book is too big and uncoordinated; it needed its stomach stapled before being printed.

The autobiographical side of the book also throws up a few surprises. For an autobiographer, Awatere is remarkably unself-revealing. It is not so much that he separates the public and private spheres as that he does not engage with the private at all. True, there are statements of belief: for example, his endorsement of his primary school teacher’s “fair play and unbending discipline [that] influenced his pupils to accept discipline as an essential from youth to matured life” – a passage which has the unintended effect of illustrating the shortcomings of his writing style. On the whole, though, Awatere stays behind a shield of reticence and doesn’t, to continue the metaphor, stick his head above the parapet. In that respect his memoirs bear more than a passing resemblance to the decorous and discreet Victorian (auto)biography. Ironically for a book which one of Awatere’s daughters expressly hopes will be read and heeded by young Maori as a guide to the way forward, the book is exceedingly old-fashioned. For the Victorians, too, were lavish in their praise of famous men and unashamedly revelled in their heroes – but at the cost of presenting them in a flattering and distorted light.

To quote the infinitely quotable Michael Holroyd, “a good biographer gives an opportunity to the dead to contribute to the living …. [and] I believe we pay a compliment to the dead by keeping them in employment to assist the living.” In Awatere’s case, his autobiographical silences are in the nature of evasions, and one can understand why. He could be a brutal and dangerous man. He beat his wife and children with vigour and frequency. As an officer in the 28th Battalion, his idea of imposing discipline was to have a fist fight with the miscreant soldier. He wasn’t a psychopath, of which every army has its share, but he did embrace violence (or at any rate did not shrink from it), and he certainly had a dark side. Which makes it difficult, without the silences, for Awatere to attain the stature of a hero or role model for Maori youth. There are too many negatives to explain away.

Awatere comes across too much at his own estimation – as autobiographers are apt to do, though some rise above this. What makes Awatere so fascinating is his complexities and contradictions. He had the Janus-like quality of his dark and dangerous side residing with a generous and altruistic nature, and this would have been a better book had the fat been pruned in order to free up space for editorial comment and annotation.

Take the chapters on Awatere’s wartime experiences, where admittedly the editor is at a disadvantage since the wartime diaries were all washed away when the family home was flooded. Awatere claims that General Freyberg quietly told him that his promotion to the command of the 28th Battalion was opposed by several Maori leaders, including Sir Apirana Ngata because of the unacceptably high casualties in his company. This is not mentioned in either Rangi Walker’s biography of Ngata nor in Wira Gardiner’s history of the 28th Battalion, so editorial confirmation would have been helpful here. As would editorial confirmation, or otherwise, that the 28th Battalion’s casualties decreased while Awatere was in charge.

It would also have helped had the editor filled in more of the silences. What doesn’t come across at all clearly is what really motivated Awatere. Was it a desire to uplift the Maori people or to acquire a decent-sized stage for himself or to escape – or some combination of these factors? Escapism cannot be ruled out. He was more often away from home than he was there. One of his daughters, in the foreword, says that “[o]ther people needed him more”, which typifies the book’s special pleading on his behalf. Whenever Awatere’s faults, misdemeanours – call them what you will – actually do get discussed, they are explained away or he is given the benefit of the doubt.

A frequent problem with autobiography is too much self-justification. This need not be the case but often is. Presumably, Awatere said as much about himself as he could bear to say in the difficult seven years of his incarceration. When he suddenly died at Mt Eden Prison of a heart attack, his books, manuscripts and other possessions were sent home. Such were his widow’s feelings of humiliation at his treatment of her that she forbade publication of his memoirs during her lifetime. With her death, there was nothing to prevent Awatere’s autobiographical silences and evasions being rectified, and it is rather sad that – for whatever reasons – this opportunity and challenge have been passed over. When Awatere’s biography is eventually written, I hope it will prove a good deal more informative and revealing.


Doug Munro is affiliated to the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review, War
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