It’s over a decade since Patricia Grace’s last novel, the moving, cinematic Tu – an ambitious book about war and its temptations, adventures and devastations for the men who went and the families left behind. Sparked by the wartime diary of Grace’s father, a member of the Māori Battalion, Tu should be a major nation-defining motion picture by now (Grace has already adapted it for the theatre).
Grace is a quiet and persistent presence in New Zealand literature, a groundbreaker who is, at the same time, old-fashioned in the calmness of her tone, the particularity of her focus, and her abiding interest in the particularities of Māori customs and stories. One character in Chappy recalls his youthful impatience with listening to recitations of whakapapa at weddings and funerals, until he realised that these “are the moments when all time becomes present and you understand that you are merely a bead on an unbroken necklace which is without beginning or end.” As with much of the work of Witi Ihimaera and Louise Erdrich, there’s a hint of didacticism and of nostalgia for a rural past – “the land, and the old life” – when rituals were inherited, not explained.
There’s a stubbornness to Grace’s kaupapa, perhaps. Though this new novel begins in contemporary Europe, Grace’s true concern as a writer is the ancestral home, the place where stories begin, where history is alive in the present, and where adventurers return. In Chappy, home is an expanded Pacific circle – New Zealand, Japan, Hawaii. The cultural resonances with Hawaii are of particular concern to the novel, and one character, Aki, is excited, his heart “bumping against its walls”, when he grasps that the Hawaiian whakapapa recited at his wedding there “was my own genealogy – the names from before the earth was made, the names from before the earth was peopled, the names before the sailing and venturing, the names to do with the sailing and venturing” and that these names connected the Hawaiians “in time and place with my home family”.
Chappy is many stories covering decades, the personalities of its storytellers shaping and diverting the narrative, while Chappy himself – in the manner of a mythic ancestor – remains a character in their lives, rather than the narrator of his own. A young man named Daniel arrives in New Zealand “needing to piece myself together”, as he says, and begins an interrogation of elderly relatives. Daniel has grown up wealthy and soulless in landlocked Switzerland, with a name that’s “neither here nor there, pronounced this way or that depending which country you happened to find yourself in”. Drifting across porous borders, Daniel’s come to think of Europe as stilted and stony, and of himself as “dust blowing anywhere and nowhere”.
After a deliberate car crash, his worried parents send him home to small-town New Zealand “to see how the other half lives”. There, Daniel begins interviews with his grandmother, Oriwia, and his charismatic great-uncle Aki – for whom Oriwia translates – who has sailed the world as a merchant seaman, but is now living out old age on a gravel road miles into a forest. Aki has a more expansive and generous (because, Grace implies, more Māori) way of seeing humanity than Daniel. He remembers hearing “the old people say that we earthlings are related to the stars. The stars are our flesh and blood. I came to understand that this must be true in the deepest sense. We come from the dust of stars.”
The subject of their digressive stories is the enigmatic Chappy, the delicate Japanese stowaway rescued by Aki before the war. He’s restored to health and taught to speak Māori by the whanau. Bossy matriarchal Oriwia – drawn to the “unfathomable core, the unknown of him” – marries him; he’s Daniel’s grandfather. But Chappy is on the wrong side of history. The depression-era wayfarers described so lyrically in the novel can no longer drift between countries, leaving behind identities and taking up new families.
Chappy’s pacifist relatives at home are disgraced in militaristic Imperial Japan, and he’s forced to abandon his family name for his own safety. In New Zealand during the war, he’s an enemy alien; he goes on the run to divert attention from his two daughters, afraid they’ll end up, as he does, in the internment camp on Somes Island. Before he’s captured, Chappy works in market gardens south of Auckland, passing for Chinese, until the locals “unmask” him as a “Jap spy”. After internment, he’s shipped off to India as part of a prisoner exchange with the Japanese and finds his way to the ruins of post-war Tokyo.
Like Aki, who moves to Hawaii when he falls in love and only returns to New Zealand to live much later, Chappy hears the siren-call of home; he feels the need to rebuild the place he’s from, to renounce the role of outsider. Aki manages to reunite the increasingly disparate family in Hawaii, but Chappy insists he’ll only move back to live in New Zealand if he can be “a true citizen with a name and work”. Race, nationality, identity: these are issues for the Māori characters in the novel as well, who’ve grown up expecting different laws, different treatment, different work prospects, different treatment in banks – even segregated sections at some picture theatres. So Chappy returns for tangi and weddings, often with dramatic consequences, until it’s possible for him to return and spend his old age building a “peace” garden.
Filtered through the high-attitude narratives of Oriwia and Aki, Chappy is often the least interesting character in the novel, there to be translated, rescued and persuaded. The storytellers themselves, sniping via Daniel and his interview materials, are much more compelling. (There’s not much to Daniel, either: he’s in New Zealand to learn, by listening and through working with his hands, and to contribute by “putting down the stories”.) Daniel decides, eventually, that Chappy’s essential mystery is a good thing – “Not everything in the world has to be understood” – while Oriwia plots a trip for the two of them to Japan, to explore that side of Daniel’s heritage. This is Grace’s quiet, conservative insistence, that Daniel will only be able to form his own identity when he understands where he came from, its people and its language.
Chappy is dedicated to Grace’s late husband, Kerehi Waiariki Grace, and the words of the dedication, like so much of her work, are spare and moving. That this new novel lacks the narrative coherence, drama and intensity of Tu should not deter any reader. Like the eponymous protagonist of Tu, Grace clearly believes that there are always “more stories to tell, more to pass on”. In Chappy, as in Tu, Grace is reclaiming lost pieces of our history and urging us all to keep asking questions, to write down stories, to count the beads.
Paula Morris’s most recent book is the essay On Coming Home (Bridget Williams Books), reviewed on p24. She is the new convenor of the Master of Creative Writing at the University of Auckland.