The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke
Vintage, $38.00, ISBN 9780143771562
You don’t have to be a good old-fashioned structuralist to look into the patterns of history and see the tectonic grind of ideas reflected in the rippling of the surface, in the lives of individuals. It has seldom been enough for an emperor to appeal to might alone for the justification of hegemony. In practically every instance, a grand idea has been vaunted as the basis for the moral authority to rule. The wane of empires has usually been accompanied by a shift in philosophy, but not necessarily cleanly, completely, or all at once.
Perhaps it was an accident of history that Darwinism burst upon the world just as the British empire was in the ascendant. It was certainly convenient. Enlightenment thinking had cast the indigenous peoples of newly discovered parts of the world as essentially human, differing only in the degree of the sophistication of their societies (the word “savage” means “wild”, as distinct from “tame” or “civilised”). Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection suggested that the world’s different races represented different rungs on humanity’s evolutionary ladder, with guess who at the top. To this way of thinking, the fact that Europeans were establishing dominance over other peoples was inevitable, part of their manifest destiny, decreed by Nature itself. With the industrial revolution literally gathering steam, the difference between “civilised” society and the social arrangements of even the most noble of savages had never been starker, nor more indicative of the natural order asserting itself.
And it was, of course, at precisely this point of peak imperial entitlement that New Zealand was colonised. It is no surprise that most of our subsequent history has comprised little more than the aftershocks of that fatal impact.
Tina Makereti’s justly acclaimed first novel, Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, was set in the aftermath of the first wave of the colonisation of Aotearoa, when the mass displacements caused by the so-called “musket wars” saw traditional Māori society irreparably disrupted. And her latest, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, begins in the same historical territory: the early chapters beautifully evoke the swiftness and the brutality of the collision. The main character of the novel is hardly more than an infant when his hapū is set upon by a raiding party and slaughtered, his mother and his older sister among them. His father, Te Rakaunui, finds him, but can see no future for him in the ruins of Māoridom. Instead, he delivers him to a mission, where James – as he is christened – discovers a hunger for literacy and the window upon the wider world it offers. When he eventually tires of life at the mission and goes in search of somewhere he feels he belongs, he falls in with another displaced hapū, who take him in as they wander from the scene of their own calamity in search of somewhere where they, too, feel they can belong. They settle near present-day Wellington, which is where an English artist comes amongst them, sketching and painting the most illustrious rangatira and the prettiest women, with a view to staging an exhibition upon his return to Britain. James Pōneke (the name he takes) sees in this man his opportunity to satiate his desire to see the wider world. They make a deal. The artist will take him to England and, in return, James will serve as a living attraction to draw crowds to the exhibition.
Many Māori in the early colonial days made the journey that James Pōneke makes, including the historical inspiration for his character, James Pomara. It is fascinating to imagine the collisions of their perspectives with Victorian London. Paula Morris (Rangatira) did a superb job of depicting it in fiction; so does Makereti. James, barely 15, is agog upon arrival in the metropolis, so much so that he is almost seduced by the imperial boast of manifest destiny – almost, because he also notices the filth and misery that coexist alongside the grace and the glory of London. He sets the negative impressions aside. Similarly, he is happy, at first, to pose alongside the artist’s sketches and to engage with the genteel folk who wander through the museum gallery, because he believes that he will be recognised and welcomed as the equal he knows himself to be. Instead, he is treated as a freak, a curiosity of the same order as the two midgets who draw gawking crowds to the neighbouring gallery. He is prepared to shrug this off as the reaction of an ignorant minority, but when he is summoned to the citadel of science, the Royal Society itself, only to be given the same treatment, he is forced to confront the reality: he will not be admitted to a higher rung on the ladder than that to which his skin colour has consigned him.
At the risk of digression, it is worth noting just how wonderful is the cover treatment that this novel has been given. The image is that of a Victorian collector’s cabinet of curiosities, one item to each shellacked cell – an armadillo, a mammoth skeleton, a group of anatomical sketches, a mermaid, the image from the Illustrated London News story about James Pomara. It is a very apt graphic depiction of the theme of this novel: it is a fundamental paradox of the human condition that we exist in a cultural matrix, but ideas have the same power to stifle us and stunt our growth as they have to nurture us and to give us a place to stand. Human beings see the world through frames, but damage is done when we force others to fit into our boxes. James feels this acutely as he tries to impress the spectators in the gallery. And, in the collision of the two worlds that he straddles, he discovers something new about himself that only serves to reinforce it.
James is taken in hand by the London counterculture, in the form of Billy Neptune (not his real name) and his partner, Henry (not her real name), and his colleagues, professional freaks Esme and Ernie, the Merry Marrying Midgets of Middlesex from the neighbouring gallery. This exposes him at once to a world of possibilities, where utopia is the freedom of self-expression, and to the perils of romantic love, which has the power not only to conquer, but also to ruin all.
On an intellectual level, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is highly satisfactory. But it is a little less convincing from the more visceral, storytelling point of view. It is enthralling in its opening third. From here to the equally wonderful midpoint (the intellectual denouement), the scene at the Royal Society, it is in danger of meandering, just rescued by the sheer fun that the author has with the image of a Māori boy abroad in Victorian England. It is from that point onwards, when it becomes more plot-driven, that it runs the opposite risk: of moving too fast and slipping into melodrama. Here, it feels as though it becomes caught between two stools – the realism of the historical novel, and the magic realism implied by the book’s title. The characterisation, which is initially flawless – Makereti is adept at capturing the nuance of human nature, the capacity for cruelty, but also for kindness – begins to lack depth, and James’s voice, so sure and steady from the outset, to be blurred and abridged.
Needless to say, though, Makereti’s agenda is not the telling of dusty old stories, no matter how fascinating they may be. The narrative conceit of the novel is that James is writing for his mokopuna, for his posterity, as he senses he is close to a tragically early death (such as Pomara and so many other “natives” dragged to London for public delectation suffered in that insalubrious city). Both he and the author are writing for us. There are frequent, proleptic asides, in which Hemi’s utopian vision is contrasted with our present, nowhere more than in its closing passages:
And you, in that bright future, you give me hope. For I know that in your time the Empire has become everything she pretended to be, that the march of progress has transformed all, that no one is hurt unjustly, for you must be so beyond that now. I know that progress and civilisation have brought about that golden age we were promised; that women and children are free and unburdened by man’s hunger; that the place of one’s birth and the colour of one’s skin has no bearing upon the way the world walks upon you, the way you walk upon the world.
It’s a reminder. We live in the twilight of just another empire, which laid claim to exceptionalism on the grounds that it brought freedom. But that promised freedom – like “the march of progress”, like “civilisation” – can’t be viewed as anything more than an illusion in which all was business as usual: the few profiting, and the many groaning under their yoke.
John McCrystal is a Wellington freelance writer.