Problems with facts, Jane Stafford

The Parihaka Woman 
Witi Ihimaera
Vintage, $38.99,
ISBN 9781869797294


New Zealand’s first novel, Taranaki: A Tale of the War, was written by a British (possibly Irish) army officer, Henry Butler Stoney, who served in the conflict. With a speed that a 21st-century investigative journalist would envy, Butler Stoney’s romance, set at the time of the war between settlers and the British army on one side and Taranaki Maori under Wiremu Kingi on the other, came out in 1861, the same year that the first stage of the war ended. Being so close to the events he narrates, Butler Stoney obviously had a problem with the relationship between his novel’s fact and its fiction. Interspersed among his account of the courtship of the rather insipid Fanny Wellman and the impossibly dashing Captain St Pierre are huge, undigested blocks of fact – mostly of a military nature, describing specific engagements in the recent war, and taken directly from official documents, dispatches and newspaper reports. Butler Stoney is quite direct about his borrowing, writing:

As our opinion may be faulty, or that expressed by the characters of our tale may be considered as prejudiced, we will not follow the usual custom in story, and we trust our readers will excuse us copying largely from the despatches before us, in order that we may have at least a truthful account to lay before them.

Historical novels always have a problem with facts. They are inescapably the foundation of the genre, and yet they must be welded – forcibly, invisibly, intermittently or unreliably – to the novel’s controlling structure which relies on imagination and invention – in short, fiction. What is true has to be presented by means that are by definition false. In a historical novel the reader expects to be delighted by the story but there is also an implicit requirement that the story should (at least) be responsible to history. The grand sweep of what actually happened cannot be altered. This is a difficult balancing act. Butler Stoney took the easy way out with his cut-and-paste method – and his work is not better for it. His fictional story and his factual background do not cohabit easily and the reader is shifted abruptly from one to the other. An early – and it must be said solitary – reviewer asked: “As we lay down the book the thought is forcibly suggested to our mind, ‘Is this the very worst or only the second worst book we have ever met with?’”

Witi Ihimaera has had his own problems with fact and fiction. His 2009 novel The Trowenna Sea was criticised for its unacknowledged use of secondary sources, the suggestion being that his research bled into what should have been exclusively imaginative. The charge was not that this should not have happened but that it should have been acknowledged. There is no fear of that charge being levelled against The Parihaka Woman. The final 19 pages of the book contain an author’s note, acknowledgments and chapter notes, which lay out in the most scrupulous and scholarly detail the background to the novelistic narrative – not just its relation to history and the sources the author has used but, in many places, an amplification of quite indirect facts and contexts. For example, the first chapter note to the first chapter reads: “The derivation of ‘Taranaki’: in Maori ‘tara’ means mountain peak and ‘naki’ is thought to come from ‘ngaki’ meaning ‘shining’: See ‘New Zealand Volcanoes’, on the GNS science website,, accessed 19 December 2009.”

It is tempting to suspect Ihimaera has his tongue in his cheek here, getting back at his Trowenna detractors with an exercise in overkill. At least one hopes he has, as the tone of the notes read without satire seems at times more appropriate to a School Journal or to a work edited for a non-New Zealand readership than to a novel. However fascinating it is to look at the way an imaginative writer collects and reprocesses history, do we need factual notes unrelated to the use of sources? If it is a work of fact, shouldn’t all relevant facts be gracefully smuggled into the narrative? If it’s a work of fiction, does it need a relationship with contextual reality?

Perhaps one justification for Ihimaera’s apparatus is the emphasis in the novel on various forms of narration, their closeness to or distance from the events they delineate and the authority they might command in the factual as well as the fictional world. There is Ihimaera the author, a genial and intrusive presence, reminding the reader of the way the book has been compiled – from research of a very Pakeha kind, but also from oral testimony and personal connection. There is the narrator within the novel, an elderly Maori schoolteacher who puts together the story of Parihaka in much the same way as Ihimaera the author has – with less flair, perhaps, and less access, as a retirement hobby. (He has a disconcerting habit of quoting, with appropriate footnotes, from modern historians such Michael King and Hazel Riseborough, as if he too is worried about accusations of plagiarism.) And, within the teacher’s narrative, there is the fictional Erenora whose parents were killed in the Taranaki campaigns Butler Stoney records, and who in old age writes an account of her experiences – the teacher is her descendant and the translator of this account.

The idea of various competing or interleaved narrations, especially the idea of a kind of Russian doll set of narrations within narrations, of official and communal versions as opposed to private and suppressed voices, is one with great potential. But it needs to be deployed in the service of a more imaginative and potent story than the one Ihimaera offers. It is difficult to see how Erenora’s version of the founding of Parihaka, its destruction and the aftermath differs from the received version familiar to readers of, for example, Dick Scott’s Ask That Mountain. The inhabitants of Parihaka and its leaders Te Whiti and Tohu did not inhabit a familiar recognisable world or hold a readily conveyed world view. Neither were they stock types who could be comfortably transferred into a fictional frame. Ihimaera’s novel displays its knowledge of what they did and what was done to them. But none of its various voices seems quite adequate to the essential difference they constituted.

Ihimaera is aware of this problem – that the knotty unresolved, unassimilated figures from history might be intractable subjects for a novel. And he solves it by, in the second half of his novel, moving away from the literary and using a different and shockingly alien cultural form, that of opera. As his chapter notes tell us, but as any musical reader might discern for themselves, Erenora and her lover Horitana mimic Leonore and Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, in their love, in Horitana’s imprisonment, in the resourcefulness of Erenora as she sets out to find him.

The narrative can thus be as melodramatic and the tone and language as over the top as it wishes because this is neither fiction nor history but opera. Opera elevates drama and emotion to its highest pitch, often at the same time reducing character and plot to the stylised and the gestural. Those who love opera, as Ihimaera does, do not mind this – in fact the nuances that are the lifeblood of the realist novel are irrelevant distractions to the opera fan. So, in The Parihaka Woman, Ihimaera sacrifices sharpness of characterisation, subtlety of action and novelty of plot by imposing an operatic template. He is thus able to begin the section “Act four: Horitana”:

“Oh valiant heart! Practise the art of forbearance!” What, I hear you ask, of Horitana during all this time?

Imagine him cast into the deepest and dankest underground cavern, much deeper and darker than any cell in any castellated European fortress … .

Butler Stoney was not averse to templates of his own. His version of the history of 19th-century Taranaki was heavily inflected by the plot of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), highlanders translated into Maori, glens into bush clearings, settlers into the civilising English sorting out the savage Scots. The early readers of Taranaki recognised that what they were reading was unfamiliar and disturbing – new kinds of warfare, new and terrifying opponents – but also that it was familiar, a known story with a known resolution. Ihimaera’s template is not that of the popular and instantly recognisable. But it fulfils the same function, allowing his readers to see many stories in his singular story.


Jane Stafford teaches in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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