Revisionist urges, Anna Rogers

The Rope of Man
Witi Ihimaera
Reed, $34.99,
ISBN 0790008947

It’s surely a disconcerting and disturbing notion: that a writer’s early books can be rewritten many years later to take account of changes in his life, or in the evolution of his nation. Well, I assume that’s why Witi Ihimaera has produced new versions of Pounamu, Pounamu, Whanau and now Tangi. In neither the author note nor the acknowledgements for The Rope of Man, which comprises a new Tangi and its sequel, The Return, does he explain this revisionist urge. It’s at least a little troubling to consider this approach applied to other works – Harper Lee rewriting To Kill a Mockingbird in the light of improved civil rights legislation?

This revisiting lessens the power of the original by removing its uniqueness; there’s a distinct air of apology, of erasure. It robs readers of the satisfaction of watching an author grow and change. Most early work has fresher, less considered pleasures which can be profitably contrasted with the deeper, warmer delights of more mature writing.

But even if opinions differ about the merits of such revision, there is, finally, only one measuring stick: is the new version an improvement on the original? In the case of Tangi, the answer must be an emphatic “no”.

Rereading the original novel was a powerful and affecting experience. This simple story of a young Maori man’s homecoming for the tangi of his beloved father is suffused with grief and love, filled with the incantatory, flowing rhythms of Maori speech. Repetition is often the enemy of effective writing but here it works, as the words circle and coil around the reader. And the tension of the return and the build-up to the moment when Tama finally sees his father’s body are superbly handled.

In the new Tangi Ihimaera has largely abandoned a fragmented, impressionistic approach for a much more flat-footed “non-fictional” style. It’s almost, sometimes, as if he doesn’t quite trust the reader to understand. Both versions open at the Gisborne railway station, where Tama is about to return to Wellington after the tangi. Much of the writing is the same, but the differences are telling. The first Tangi almost immediately alludes to the death – “I am alone now. So long reliant on father, so long my hand in his” – and, intriguingly, the narrator is not introduced. The new book soon states that “I, Tama Mahana, will also get on board. I am 20, and I have a job to go back to in Wellington”; there is no mention of the tangi.

That small comparison says much about what Ihimaera seems to be trying to achieve in the rewritten novel. Where the original is the tangi, is the grief, the new book is far less focused on the enormity of the death, far more concerned with Tama. Tangi II is deliberate, bent on telling and informing, on making sure the reader grasps the sociological and cultural significance of events. The writing suffers as a result.

There are numerous examples. As early as p17 we read: “Death has happened too quickly and I am not prepared for it” and on p47: “The shock of the news about dad is getting to me.” In both books Tama’s sister Mere meets him at the airport when he flies up for the tangi. In the original, the scene is deeply touching – the young man’s desperate search for a familiar face and the mingling tears as they find each other. The newer, much more perfunctory version completely loses this genuine emotion. It is the same with the scene after the tangi when the family goes out to work on the father’s farm. In the original, the mother merely pauses at the gate and almost cries, but rallies her children to pick up the potatoes as Tama’s brother-in-law drives the tractor. In the new “Hollywood” version the mother takes the wheel, careering across the paddock.

In the original novel, this is how the father tells his son about the seven great canoes: “Look Tama! See the Fleet coming? See? Across the great ocean of Kiwa they come …. See how they ride the waves to this shore!” This becomes:

My first childhood memories are all to do with belonging to a family and proclaiming our kinship relationships with the land and the people of the land, not just assuming them. They are memories of belonging to a people who had migrated over 1200 years ago from Hawaiki – reputed to be eastward, across the sea where the sun rises – to this land. Dad loved telling me the legendary stories of their migration.

 

Gone are the excitement and magic of a boy’s special moment with his father; in their place is a lecture. There are many more lessons to come, and these outbreaks of non-fiction are not only jarring but also clumsily expressed. Here is Tama explaining about growing away from traditional Maori village life: “I did not realise it then, although I do now, that our moving to Gisborne was part of a well known demographic of the mid-20th century.” When speaking, too, characters are forced to give precise accounts of historical events, complete with dates.

There is a good deal of stagy and wildly unrealistic dialogue in the new book. A rural Maori man in the 1970s would not say, of the local headmaster, “He doesn’t realise that we are of the Maori race, a race with the indomitable courage of the undefeated.” Gone, too, are the distinctive rhythms and idiom of Maori speech – people are now “growled at” rather than “growled”, and “aunties” have become “aunts”. It is almost as if Ihimaera is somehow ashamed of the way his original characters spoke and behaved.

The new version also contains anachronisms. Teenagers would not be playing basketball at the station in 1973; no school pupil in the late 1960s would “attempt to interrogate the processes of history” nor “challenge why” the Treaty was not mentioned in textbooks.

It is not only stylistically that the new Tangi disappoints. The plot is radically changed so that Tama’s mother is raped by a red-haired Pakeha: this improbable change is to allow for an equally improbable continuation in The Return. The new Tama is no longer a civil servant but the Maori affairs reporter on the Evening Post, headhunted after only a couple of years at the Gisborne Herald which he joined as a school leaver.

Ihimaera has always intended to write a sequel to Tangi. Sadly, The Return was not worth the long wait. It is rushed, unbelievable and disappointingly written. All the infelicities of the new Tangi are continued here as Tama, now Tom and the internationally famous anchor of a CNN-clone TV news programme called Spaceship Earth, returns to New Zealand to visit his ill mother. (Tom appears to have been on hand for almost every major news event of the later 20th century and famous names and places shower onto the pages.) The child who resulted from the rape, until now kept secret from the rest of the family, is revealed and discovered to be in a mental institution. The Return feels automatic and overstuffed – events are piled relentlessly on top of one another, points are hammered home without subtlety. Tom fails to emerge as a credible character and the ending is unconvincing and over-sentimental.

Ihimaera is a skilled and sensitive writer who has made a significant contribution to this country’s literature. His talent was blazingly clear in early works like Tangi. It is a shame that he did not leave very well alone.

 

Anna Rogers is a Christchurch editor, author and book reviewer.

 

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