The Fountain of Tears
Stephanie de Montalk
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
At the Heart of Hiruharama
Following on from the biography of her cousin, Unquiet World: The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (2001), The Fountain of Tears is Stephanie de Montalk’s first “historical novel”, although I would hesitate to place it within that genre. Historical fiction implies a traditional narrative or set of conventions. There is a fluidity to this novel which suggests a more open form. A poet herself, de Montalk has based her novel on a lyric poem by Alexander Pushkin. So it comes as no surprise to find poetry used to substantial effect in this work. De Montalk explores the story behind one of Pushkin’s works, “The Fountain at Bakhchisaray”, about a Polish countess who is held captive by a Tatar khan in the 17th century. The legend has it that the countess – Maria Potocka – died without gifting her love to the khan, therefore breaking his heart. He erected a fountain to his grief.
The novel is told from two perspectives: there is a day in Pushkin’s life, set in 1821, as he walks the streets of Odessa, brooding on Maria’s fate and remembering a visit he made the year before to the palace where she had once been kept captive. Then there is the story of Maria herself in the harem at the khan’s palace in 1752. This story-within-a-story structure could easily have become contrived, but de Montalk deftly interweaves these two strands.
Maria spends her time stitching the story of Philomel, a story which seems to echo her own circumstances. In Greek mythology, Philomel was abducted, raped and had her tongue cut out so she could not denounce her attacker. She wove her story into a tapestry, so the world would know. Later, she was turned into a nightingale (by contrast, Maria’s own pet nightingale is oddly silent, and rarely sings).
De Montalk’s delicate poetry underscores the narrative and gives Maria a voice of her own: “Fixed clouds so close to the plain/I might have punctured them/with a stone.” There is a sense of freedom in Maria’s verse, which the other concubines – with their bathing and lolling and depilatory activities – are unable to experience. Maria may be a prisoner, but she still remains a countess.
This is a meticulous work. It ends with de Montalk’s version of the Pushkin poem. Although at times the author’s research seems to intrude, to the detriment of the narrative, the style has a hazy, dream-like quality, which reminded me of the single-take film Russian Ark, which was so beautifully staged, but in which nothing very much seemed to happen. The Fountain of Tears, however, is a work which will certainly reward subsequent readings.
Ocean Roads, James George’s third novel, is in complete contrast to de Montalk. George explores three generations of a family affected by war – specifically the nuclear explosions at Nagasaki, and Vietnam. There is Isaac Simeon, an old man in 1989 New Zealand; an English-born nuclear physicist, he becomes an anti-nuclear campaigner. His role in the making of the nuclear bomb eventually leads to a breakdown, and in 1959 Isaac is committed to a mental hospital. He is now living out on the Kaipara and occasionally working as Quark the Clown. Isaac’s wife Etta travels the world as a photographer. Her protest against war is to photograph it. She and Isaac are estranged, and he has only seen her three times in 20 years. In 1989 Etta is returning to New Zealand after a long absence.
The narrative also travels back to the 1960s. Caleb Simeon visits his father in the mental institution. They talk about nuclear fusion. His half-brother Troy is fighting in Vietnam; then later he fights fires in Auckland. Troy develops a relationship with the Japanese dancer Akiko, who also seems to be living with Caleb. Akiko was born in Nagasaki, and is a hibukusha or survivor of the bomb. There are protest marches.
The Vietnam writing is excellent. There is a powerful sense of the jungle and the men struggling within it, at the mercy of silent death at any moment. Troy, at one stage, ends up in a river with two Vietnamese children, when napalm is dropped. He holds them all under the water. When he comes up, his mother Etta (who has been photographing in Vietnam) comes out of the jungle in time to capture their resurfacing: “It won her the Pulitzer Prize and lost her one of her sons.”
Yet there is a sense of distance between the characters themselves. Etta is physically distant for much of the story. Akiko wonders where Troy has “gone to” when he is with her. Isaac has his breakdown in Antarctica (a cold and distant land). Perhaps the words of Isaac could speak for all of these characters: “When he had parachuted free of the world he’d packed his periodic table and logarithm chart, but forgotten to save all the tiny things that made him human.”
This is spare fiction, somehow remote. George’s characters are touched by war – always a large and interesting theme – yet it is hard to connect with them. George seems to hold the reader at a distance, offering only snapshots of his characters. His characters each have their obsessions, but ultimately they are cold creations.
Where Maria Potocka expresses herself through verse, in her very accomplished first novel, Isabel Waiti-Mulholland’s protagonist, Morna, uses dreams to explore her grief. From the very beginning of At the Heart of Hiruharama – “Morna White has one brown eye and one blue” – this is a novel about having both Pakeha and Maori blood, and the tension which lies between the two cultures. Morna, who is grieving for her mother’s death, is writing the story of her family, partly through her dead father’s voice, while his ghost looks on over her shoulder. “I am writing these words,” he claims, “but not with my own fingers. They are your fingers, Morna. And you think you are writing them, don’t you?” There is a blurring of realities throughout this novel, beginning with this most intimate one between living daughter and dead father: “The thing is, as you write, as we write, a bond is being forged between us that was impossible while I lived.”
The story in the present is of Morna travelling with her friend Mars up to Cape Reinga, while dealing with her mother’s death, and telling stories. She is a keen storyteller, embellishing the truth to suit another kind of reality. She tells the story of her mother going to her father’s funeral and drinking from a wine bottle that she keeps at her feet. The mother then leaps into the coffin with the body. How much is true, or real, isn’t really the issue. There is a sense of Morna expressing her feelings in the best way she can, through fiction.
This is a novel of proffered clues – even to the author’s own position, as hinted at when Morna is reading from her journal to her friend Mars: “Did all that really happen? Mars said. Some of it, Morna said. But it’s a story, Mars. It’s autobiographical fiction. Oh, said Mars. It sounds so real.”
This sense of blurred realities becomes stronger as the novel progresses. Memory becomes intertwined with dream. At one stage, Morna falls asleep reading a women’s magazine, and dreams her brother Nelson walks her along the beach to show her their mother’s head: “In front of them, in a little bowl of a sand dune, their mother’s head was stuck like a plant.” He tucks a feather into Morna’s hairband. Later, when she is awake, she finds the same feather in her hair.
The mother is mostly cast in a negative light (is it because she is Pakeha and supposedly not in touch with her feelings?), while Morna’s father, whose voice partly narrates this novel, is both engaging and meditative. It is only later that we discover his violent streak. The mother nevertheless emerges, in patchwork fashion, as a complex character, “thrifty with her tears”. In one of Morna’s dreams, it seems as if Morna is wanting to connect with her Maori side – there is a tiny waka, then she showers and her body is covered in large brown bruises which join together until she is all brown. But in the dream her mother comes along and squashes the waka. It is a disturbing image.
This is fiction within fiction, and the reader is being encouraged to take all of it as real. In the end, even “prissy” Mars understands that reality isn’t just what you can see in front of you. And as for Hiruharama? There is a settlement in the Gisborne region by that name, and even though the father initially admits he went back there – to the place he was born – Hiruharama is ultimately more a place of the spirit than a physical destination.
Tina Shaw is an Auckland writer.