Certain battles mark themselves on the popular imagination. The most evocative are often not great victories but failed assaults, especially those with a touch of futility about them: the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of the Somme and the Gallipoli Landings, for example. Here we see the folly and the waste of war and the tragic contrast between the courage and determination of ordinary soldiers and the incompetence or lack of vision of generals and politicians. For New Zealand in WWII the battle that most clearly shows these characteristics is Cassino.
The struggle for this southern Italian town, overshadowed by a mountain-top monastery, forms the core of Patricia Grace’s sixth novel Tu. The book tells the story of three members of the Maori Battalion, which was in the thickest of the fighting and suffered some of the heaviest casualties. The experience of these soldiers, Grace suggests, was a defining moment in Maori history, perhaps as important as the ANZAC experience was to the country as a whole.
Pita, Rangi and Te Hokowhiti-a-Tu, or Tu, are three brothers brought up in the shadow of Mt Taranaki. Their father volunteered for the Pioneer Battalion in WWI, returning from the Western Front a wreck of a man subject to fits of murderous rage. Pita, the oldest child, spends his childhood rescuing his mother from this violence and gradually assumes a broader paternal role, bent on protecting her and his younger brothers and sisters.
When the father dies, the family moves to Wellington, where they gradually establish themselves. Pita and Rangi get labouring jobs. Tu, the youngest, who has seen little of his father’s violence, grows into a carefree, talented young man, the bright hope of the family. Sacrifices are made so that he can go to boarding school and receive a good education. He proves an excellent scholar and a superb athlete. He is destined for the law and a fine future. Then war intervenes. Rangi, the middle brother, immediately volunteers to serve in the Maori Battalion. Tu, who has been schooled in the ways of the taiha by his Uncle Ju, is also imbued with the warrior spirit. When the battalion parades at the Centennial Exhibition in 1940 he abandons all thought of a civilian future. Three years later, at the age of 17, he runs away and enlists. By then all three brothers are in the army.
The bulk of the novel consists of two parallel and interweaving story lines. One gives Tu’s wartime experience in the form of a journal. The other is written in the past tense from Pita’s point of view and deals with his and the family’s experience in Wellington up to the point when he joins up. This second narrative strand, nominally the subplot, is the more subtle and complex of the two and sets the parameters within which the main story can be understood.
Its strength derives from Pita’s character. He is sensitive, high-principled, proud and inflexible and he suffers from a kind of terminal integrity that sets him at odds with the world about him. Much of his story is devoted to his relationship with Jess, a young Pakeha woman who, in various ways, touches the lives of all three brothers. Jess, who is a typical young working-class woman of her time, is Pita’s “dream girl”, an impossible ideal that he cannot allow himself to desire because to admit his love for her is to confront his inferior status in the Pakeha world. On another level, though, he feels she is morally beneath him, as loose in her values as she is loud in her lipstick. Grace handles this relationship with great subtlety so that right to the end the reader is unsure whether Pita is a fool, denying himself the chance of love and happiness or a wise man struggling against a temptation that could only lead to disaster.
Much of this ambiguity derives from the background against which the relationship develops: the Centennial Exhibition of 1940. The Maori exhibit and its accompanying performances are a spectacular and popular part of this celebration of our nationhood. Pita, who is a member of the Ngati Poneke Club, is one of the performers and at first he shares the pride of other Maori in their contribution. Their culture is, at last, being recognised and appreciated and given its due importance. They are taking their place among their fellow countrymen in a great celebration of national pride and unity. After the performance, though, Pita gets a glimpse of himself through Jess’s eyes:
“It was the loveliest singing I’ve ever heard,” Jess said from beside him. “I loved the dancing, too.” He could see the tips of her shoes stepping, one then the other on the black pavement. He could feel the touch of her coat sleeve against his arm.
“And all that jumping up and down, all of those faces you pulled at us. I could’ve died.” She laughed … .
Gradually her words begin to work at him until he begins to feel like “a showpiece or a clown act” on a par with the giantess, Mexican Rose, the fattest girl in the world.
Are we New Zealanders one people or two? For many of the men of the Maori Battalion, fighting as part of the New Zealand Division, the war is like the stage at the Centennial Exhibition, a platform on which they take their place as part of a single nation, “For God, for King and for Country”. The young Tu never questions this creed. At the end, despite the horrors he has seen and despite the death of his two brothers, he remains accepting: “There was a war. I had to go. It’s over. I’m glad I went.” It is only later, looking back, that he recalls a crucial moment: “just as the last of our Battalion disembarked, a voice drifted down to us from up on deck, ‘Back to the pa now boys?’”
The twin stories of Tu and Pita are set within a narrative frame that consists of letters, written 20 years or so after the war, from the older, wiser and more embittered Tu to Pita’s and Rangi’s two children. This device creates difficulties. Tu’s story shows an uneasy mix between the realism, which the narrative frame might seem to demand, and the need for a more forceful, literary treatment that will do justice to the experience of battle. It begins with perfunctory diary entries, written in the unadorned style of a 17-year-old (oddly the first of these bears a non-existent date, 31st June 1943). As the book progresses, however, the writing becomes more free-flowing and direct in its impact. Thus, in describing Tu’s experience of hand-to-hand fighting in the blasted buildings and streets of Cassino:
I’m surprised to find myself alive. Or am I alive? Dropping down, I had to believe I was dead so that others would know it too. Is belief all that exists? Is there really an edge that separates what is real from what is not, or is there no such separation? Sucking into shadow, do you become shadow? If, like a lizard or a fish, you are so indistinguishable against rock that you are undetected by the globular eye of a fly, or any eye, have you become rock?
Grace keeps reminding us that this is a journal written as the story happens, in the heat of battle, but such promptings cease to ring true. The best of her writing here is superb but it runs against its convention. One wonders why the latter was necessary, especially as it shifts the narrative present no further forward than the 1960s. The older Tu tells the young people: “There’ll be no more wars. It’s my plea. I ask you not to follow in our footsteps, your fathers’ and mine. That’s all I’ll ever ask.”
Are we meant to read this as a message delivered to members of the hippie generation, in which case it blends with the general temper of its time? Or is it directed to our own, in which case it could be interpreted as an injunction to Maori not to buy into any “one people” propaganda?
Tu is a novel that, by implication, asks a question central to modern Maori and Pakeha experience but it seems to slide away from any attempt at an answer. I am not sure if this is because Grace is avoiding an awkward confrontation or if she is just too much of a writer to become embroiled. Art, perhaps, ought to be above politics.
Chris Else is a writer now living in Dunedin. His novel On River Road will be reviewed in our next issue.