Penguin Books, $30.00,
What is the value to us of historical novels? They are valuable only when they try to reconstruct the mentality of the past. Second-rate historical novels dress up modern characters in period clothes and have their heroes express conveniently those attitudes and opinions acceptable to us here and now, usually cribbed from modern history books. Such novels teach us nothing. They merely reinforce the unhistorical prejudice that, in the past, “good” people always thought the way we do. I won’t get into a literary stoush by naming names, but many examples of this woeful genre have rolled off our presses recently. You can supply the titles for yourself.
By contrast, worthwhile historical novels remind us that people in past ages had a different world-view from ours and didn’t necessarily think as we do. In the last couple of years, I’ve been delighted at the number of New Zealand novelists who understand this.
What a pleasure to read Hamish Clayton’s Wulf (alien New Zealand in 1830, as seen by a British sailor), Owen Marshall’s The Lanarchs (the mental world of wealthy late-Victorian Dunedinites), Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town (the messiness of frontier life through the eyes of a young Maori narrator) and Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (reconstructing wartime Leningrad). All of them appear to get under the skin of characters in historical circumstances very different from our own. I say “appear” because, naturally, there has to be much guesswork in reconstructing how people probably thought in the past. Let’s just call it a matter of verisimilitude.
Paula Morris’s Rangatira joins this commendable list, but I would rate it even more highly. It is an extraordinary literary achievement and probably the best of recent New Zealand historical novels. As Morris’s endnotes confirm, it has been researched carefully but it does not have that awkward sense of being “mugged up”. We are not in the realm of copious footnotes trying to give authority to a dodgy historical perspective. This is a literary production which wears its considerable learning lightly, weaves its research into a seamless narrative and has a very personal dimension for the author.
Rangatira is the story of Morris’s ancestor, the Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu, who travelled to London in 1863 as part of a group sponsored on a lecture tour by the Wesleyan layman William Jenkins. Old Paratene narrates the story of this trip 23 years later, in 1886, as he is having his portrait painted in Auckland by Gottfried Lindauer. At least part of the novel’s appeal is documentary, in its images of foul mud-spattered early Auckland and even fouler London, with its cholera and tuberculosis, open sewers, mudlarks scavenging on the banks of the Thames and, at the other extreme, mansions, theatres and palaces, all of which impress the Maori visitors. They applaud with unbounded enthusiasm when they hear Patti sing Mozart, knowing a fine voice when they hear it.
Expecting to be able to address English audiences on their own terms, Paratene and his fellows are instead commodified by Jenkins and promoted as amusing exotica. This is the central dramatic situation of Rangatira. In lesser hands the tale could have become an obvious tract on colonial exploitation and the blinkered perspective of the colonising power. But Morris is more subtle. English characters are as complex and contradictory as the novel’s narrator. They are not caricatured. When Paratene shares Queen Victoria’s grief at her widowhood, we are meant to see it as an event of real emotional power, not as a subject for post-colonial jokes.
Only occasionally does Morris spell out the theme of cultural appropriation, as when she has one fair-minded Englishman say “I am unhappy to tell you that you are presented to the British public but as exhibits.” Her Maori characters only slowly come to realise the ambiguity of their position, and then to react against it.
What she’s really intent on is a psychological reconstruction of the old rangatira himself, as filtered through his own words. Paratene Te Manu is shrewd and observant, but he’s also the Conradian unreliable narrator, admitting that he might not be remembering things in the right order, suspecting that he missed things in England through his poor grasp of English and declaring that he could have heard the wilful Jenkins mistranslated.
He is sympathetic but he is no paragon. He has limitations, prejudices and blind-spots. As a man of his own time and culture, he does not always express those pieties that would now draw applause. Reacting to a weeping bereaved person during the voyage to England, he remarks “My son had died, my brother had died, but I didn’t burden everyone else with constant lamentations. I don’t grieve on and on, like a woman.” I can imagine some contemporary novelists censoring those last three words out.
Paratene has the mentality of a chief, and a certain aristocratic hauteur in dealing with other Maori. He worries about the impression they make on English of all classes. “We Maori seem intent on disgracing ourselves in every possible way,” he grumbles, when considering the raucous behaviour of some of his fellows.
Most complex, and most carefully dramatised by Morris, are his religious beliefs. Paratene may eventually come to see that missionaries can deceive; that they are too prone to speak on behalf of Maori rather than allowing Maori to speak for themselves; and that the English slums are more in need of missionaries’ ministrations than New Zealand is. But Paratene’s own Christianity is both complex and deeply felt.
He is proud of having once been a warrior with Hongi Hika, but he has rejected the ancestral religion just as he has rejected cannibalism. Like Reihana, the most dogmatic Christian of the group, Paratene is shocked when they are asked to perform haka and waiata in churches, not because such performances debase Maori taonga, but because they desecrate the sacred space that a Christian church should be. A haka signifies war and the preparations for war, not the Prince of Peace. We are not surprised that this mainstream Christian fully understands the differences between Anglicans and Wesleyans, that he makes dismissive comment on Te Kooti’s “foolish religion”, or even that, hearing of a confrontation brewing in Taranaki, he suggests “Te Whiti is up to no good”. Again, I can imagine a less skilful novelist not allowing a sympathetic character to think such things.
Morris is alive to the two-way nature of any cultural encounter. Paratene remarks that in London “We were all agog at the many sights of the city, for it was all new to us. But the city was agog at the sight of us and wherever we went … we attracted much attention.”
He is the observed observer, who knows he is being assessed and knows what impact he is making. He becomes aware of how artificial and culturally-bound all modes of representation are. Some of his shrewdest comments are on photography and painting, and on how they can misrepresent reality. There is the added twist that Lindauer, to whom he supposedly narrates his story, is himself a foreigner in an alien environment. Paratene’s story represents an alien culture. An alien painter represents him.
If there are such ironies in the story, they are not the cheap-shot back-of-the-book sort found in inferior historical fiction, where we are supposed to feel superior to people of the past because they did not know how things would turn out. Paratene Te Manu realises they are in England under Jenkins’s conditions because they agreed to Jenkins’s contract without really examining it. It was, he says, “all because we signed a paper without reading it properly”. Maybe that could be said to reflect some later attitudes to the Treaty of Waitangi. But if it does, it’s as far as Morris takes retrospective irony.
This is a remarkable novel which creates a complex, convincing central character and places him in a credible historical environment. Drawing on defunct poetic jargon, I find an “objective correlative” in the ancestral land to which Paratene Te Manu returns – Hauturu (Little Barrier Island as we Pakeha call it). Storm-battered, inaccessible, craggy and quite different from the material “progress” of the mainland, it is very like Paratene Te Manu himself. He does not fit comfortably into the direction history is heading, but he is authentically himself and he has been rendered here with great clarity.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and poet, whose collection The Little Enemy was published last year.