- The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth
Cape, 89 pp, £5.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 224 02815 4
- Loyalties by Raymond Williams
Chatto, 378 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2843 7
- Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
Macmillan, 295 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 333 39797 5
- The Battle of Pollocks Crossing by J.L. Carr
Viking, 176 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 670 80559 9
- The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Hodder, 450 pp, £9.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 340 37024 6
Security is the problem that exercises both Philip Roth and Raymond Williams. The sort of ‘security’ I mean is the sort that spreads a feeling of insecurity – a fear of surveillance, bugging, secret cameras, interrogation, the false smile of Mr Nice and the sincere snarl of Mr Nasty. Security men are sometimes clumsy and might cause us inconvenience through their category mistakes. For instance, in the Middle East last year, I decided not to post an urgent letter to a man in America whose Germanic name ends in ‘berg’: some conscientious Arab policeman might hold up my letter for careful, stupid scrutiny, assuming (like an Arab terrorist) that ‘berg’ equals ‘Jew’ equals ‘Zionist’. This is the kind of insecurity that Philip Roth explores in The Prague Orgy. His American hero, the famous Nathan Zuckerman, spends a few days in Czechoslovakia in 1976, is bugged the whole time and finally ushered out of the country by a passport officer with the courteous farewell: ‘Ah, Zuckerman, the Zionist agent. An honour to have entertained you here, sir.’ When Zuckerman is talking to a Czech who wishes to marry him, she gestures toward the bugged chandelier and passes him a note: ‘You cannot trust Czech police to understand ANYTHING, even in Czech. You must speak CLEAR and SLOW and LOUD.’
Even in Britain, so Raymond Williams suggests, the security men are sometimes at a loss. ‘There was the standard joke about Security,’ remarks a character in Loyalties. ‘The classics graduates and ex-colonial policemen.’ Such officers could hardly be expected to make sense of the technical information about the military use of computers which, in this novel, is being passed to the Soviet Union by clever British scientists. But Raymond Williams persuasively suggests that there really is such a thing as human intelligence, and that a truly intelligent security man can surmount the hurdle presented by esoteric specialisation. One of the scientists remarks: ‘Come on, give intelligence its due. It doesn’t often get it ... A classics graduate and an ex-Indian policeman may retire, baffled, from a shower of technical bullshit, but sooner or later ... ’
Raymond Williams also offers a quick, two-sided sketch of a new sort of British security officer in 1984. (His story begins in 1936.) Gwyn Lewis, under security scrutiny, is surprised by the appearance of his interrogator: ‘the very expensive City suit, the healthy confidence of skin and voice, the profound self assurance of manner and gesture, seemed to belong in a different, moneyed or orthodox-political world.’ Lewis also notices that, beneath ‘the broker’s manner’, the officer has ‘a better than adequate level of scientific knowledge’. An older man says of the same officer: ‘I know him. He’s a particularly unpleasant example of the new Far Right in Security. He was already so at Oxford.’
These are British complexities. Oxford and Cambridge and the Welsh working class; mathematics, philosophy, science and complicated political tendencies; the meaning of ‘traitor’ or (in Welsh) bradwr: these are the dominant themes in Loyalties. With The Prague Orgy we are in a more literary world – a real world, I mean, in which literature and security are in conflict. Roth’s story begins in New York, where Nathan Zuckerman is drinking with an exiled Czech writer called Sisovsky, whose interesting conversation persuades the American to visit Prague. Both Zuckerman and Sisovsky have suffered for their writings. Sisovsky wrote ‘a harmless little satire’ in 1967 and now (nine years later) he cannot be published in Czechoslovakia; so he lives in America where (in a quite different way) he still cannot write what he wishes, because he hasn’t the command of the language, the understanding of the readers. Sisovsky’s lady friend, once a great Chekhovian actress in Prague, illustrates his point with her own complaint: ‘To be an actress in America you must speak English that does not give people a headache.’
The successful Zuckerman is naturally sorry for these exiles, but he has to suffer the patronising compassion of Sisovsky: ‘the ruined exile will not be deflected from commiseration with the American success.’ Sisovsky maintains that Zuckerman is a genius who has written a masterpiece, but he has been treated in America merely as a succès de scandale, a victim of prudish complaints by bien-pensant Jews, reviewed and criticised in stupid articles which would never have been published in Prague in the Sixties: ‘The level is too low ... There is not one which could be called intelligent.’ Gradually, Sisovsky works round to his purpose: he wants Zuckerman to go to Prague and fetch some stories of equal genius, true masterpieces, written in Yiddish by Sisovsky’s father and now in the possession of Sisovsky’s ex-wife, a once-beautiful and ‘most compliant woman’, ready to do ‘anything for love’.
When Zuckerman gets to Prague, he meets this woman, Olga, but she keeps effing-and-blinding in a supposedly American style, trying to persuade him to marry her and carry her off to the States. He meets her at an apology for an ‘orgy’ in a 17th-century palazzo frequented by Czech dissidents and thoroughly bugged by Czech Security. When Zuckerman gets hold of the good Yiddish stories, the security men confiscate them and whizz him to the airport. He is personally escorted by der Kulturminister, a writer-politician called Novak, who gives him a little talk about politics and literature and asks if he knows Miss Betty MacDonald. (Zuckerman fears she might be a CIA agent, but Novak means the author of The Egg and I, a work much admired by Czech bien-pensants.) Novak supposes that Zuckerman will have recognised by now that the Czech dissidents he has met are ‘sexual perverts, alienated neurotics, bitter egomaniacs’ in the Kafka tradition. But at least, says the worthy Novak, ‘their blessed Kafka knew he was a freak, recognised that he was a misfit who could never enter into a healthy, ordinary existence alongside his countrymen. But these people? Incorrigible deviants who propose to make their moral outlook the norm.’
So the bien-pensant voice rolls on, echoing the hick moralists of America (and Britain) but with real power as well as moral authority – because, as another Czech has told Zuckerman, in Czechoslovakia ‘the police are like literary critics – of what little they see, they get most wrong anyway. They are the literary critics. Our literary criticism is police criticism.’ Before he lets Zuckerman go, Novak offers a maudlin tribute to his own ‘little old father’. Novak Senior, it appears, is now 86 and has ‘expressed his love of country all his life’ by praising Masaryk, Hitler, Benes, Stalin, Gottwald and even (very briefly) Dubcek. The little old survivor offered Novak this paternal advice: ‘Son, if someone called Jan Hus nothing but a dirty Jew, I would agree.’ It is for such little old readers that writers should write, says Novak.
The points made in this terse, deft and witty story will remind some readers of Josef Skvorecky’s long, complicated novel, The Engineer of Human Souls. The time-serving Novak Senior is like Lojza in Skvorecky’s book and Olga, eager to get to the States through marriage, is like Skvorecky’s portrait of Dotty. Not all dissidents and exiles from Eastern Europe can be regarded as saints and martyrs: some may be two-timers like Sergeant Svejk, others may be ‘alienated neurotics’ and ‘freaks’, like Kafka. These are difficult points to make, without causing unnecessary offence. A character in The Prague Orgy complains: ‘I do not care to be an ironical Czech character in an ironical Czech story. Everything that happens in Czechoslovakia, they shrug their shoulders and say “Pure Svejk, pure Kafka.” I am sick of them both.’ The difficult points that Skvorecky made so painstakingly are presented with speed and apparent ease by Philip Roth. However clumsy we, his reviewers, may be, he is more fortunate than Skvorecky – just as his Zuckerman is more fortunate than his Sisovsky.
Raymond Williams is not, like Roth, a natural storyteller. Loyalties may bore some readers, not sure what he is driving at, not sure which of his many characters ought to be kept in mind. That is why I have already revealed that at least one of them is a Soviet agent – and the book may be read as a detective story, the sort for which a reader must draw a family tree in order to keep track. We start in 1936 with seven young Communists in Wales: over the half-century most of them marry, have children (not always ‘legitimate’) and grandchildren – and not all these characters are necessary to the story. Some belong to the Welsh working class, others to the world of Cambridge scholarship, and their family life is as complicated as Greek ancestral myths. The book begins:
‘Merritt, did you say? Any relation to Alec Merritt?’
‘He’s my father. I don’t see him. They split when I was a child ... ’
‘Yet I had a clear impression you were something to do with Phil Whitlow.’
‘He married my mother.’
We must not get Alec Merritt confused with Alex Merritt, any more than we confuse legitimate Gwen Lewis with illegitimate Gwyn Lewis – who is told by Security: ‘Dr Lewis, I understand that you are the natural son of Sir Norman Braose.’ We meet Sir Norman kissing little Alex, who is Nan’s girl, and Sarah says: ‘Say hello to Aunt Emma, Alex.’ Emma tells little Alex she is going to stay at Nayles, ‘a marvellous house with an old family name’, where Emma used to stay when she was a little girl ‘because mummy and daddy were abroad’. It is a good intelligence test, but we don’t really need all this family news.
After these hard words, I should try to insist that Loyalties is a serious novel, of particular interest to those (including security men) who want to understand left-wing thinking in Britain over this half-century. We follow the seven Communists to the Spanish Civil War, through fighting in Normandy, to the London demonstrations of 1956 and 1968: the whole story is topped and tailed with a prelude and epilogue about a television programme in 1984, a piece of investigative journalism about political dissidents. The most interesting character of the seven is a brilliant Cambridge mathematician called Monkey Pitter, drawn with an unusual, almost Roth-like, lightness of touch. In 1968 he is singing at the piano, to annoy other left-wingers, a song which begins: ‘When Trotsky trotted his droshky down the Kingsky Prospekt wide ... ’ It continues:
Then up stood Comrade Chamberlayne and showed them the way to go.
They must all go out in the streets and cheer and pretend it was Uncle Joe.
The whole song needs critical interpretation. Whose side is Monkey Pitter really on? Loyalties does, in its mysterious way, say more about the subject promised by its title than Rebecca West managed with The Meaning of Treason.
She was not very good at moralising, because of her strong tendency to be self-righteous and unfair. But she was good at creating female characters and presenting grand scenes through their eyes. Cousin Rosamund, a posthumous fragment of an ambitious project, is an admirable example of her talent. There is a helpful afterword by Victoria Glendinning, explaining that Cousin Rosamund was part of the novel sequence begun in 1956 with The fountain overflows. When Rebecca West died, aged 90, in 1983, some of the typescript she left behind was published as This Real Night. Now some more of the typescript is published as Cousin Rosamund and we have some idea of the mighty project that Dame Rebecca envisaged. She intended to make ‘Cousin Rosamund’ die in Belsen Camp and to let her cousins, Mary and Rose, discover this fact at the Nuremberg trials. But Dame Rebecca did not get so far before she died. Cousin Rosamund is about the year 1929.
The narrator is Rose, one of two sisters who are successful concert pianists. They are distressed, early on, by the marriage of their cousin, Rosamund, to a man ‘who was a head shorter than she was, who was ridiculous in form’. Later in the book, Rose describes him as ‘a heathen who was not a gentleman like our Papa’ and, further on, as ‘this dreadful man Nestor Ganymedios, who is horrible to look at and is not honest and is cruel and squalid and spends his money in a way that is like vomiting and is a sort of racial wastepaper basket’. Rose often describes men in this ferocious style. Another man she despises is a man called Oswald who is marrying her friend Nancy. ‘It is not only that he looks awful, which he does. His ears stick out and he wears spectacles in a hostile sort of way ... and Nancy says that she is going to try to get him to wear bicycle clips only when he is going to ride a bicycle.’ It is a relief when Rose herself gets married and warmly expresses her feeling for her husband. ‘Marriage, inviolate marriage was the only way by which the traffic between men and women could be rendered tolerable. If two people went to church in festive dress and took part in a pretty rite in the presence of their friends, and then shared the same house and always went about together, then one could think of these public things as all that was happening.’ No doubt Dame Rebecca would have wanted to tidy up these fragments before they were published, but it is interesting to see them in their raw state.
Now we must turn disconsolately to two novels shortlisted for the Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction. J.L. Carr’s The Battle of Pollocks Crossing is a fairly short book offering traditional English complaints against the United States. The hero, George Gidner, goes to Dakota in 1929, leaving his teaching job in Bradford to attempt something similar in the Wild West. Sneeringly the narrative describes the girls he left behind him. ‘Mr Gidner seems sort of exalted since he landed that plush Yankee job,’ says a dejected Miss Dora Tippett. ‘I sort of know he’ll never come back to Balaclava Road Elementary any more. I sort of know he’ll not date me any more.’ With a curious pomposity the sneer continues: ‘Although Dora Tippett withdraws from this story, it is no more than justice to say that his neglect was not because of her lack of charm, sort of. Far from it. As a matter of fact, at the tennis club that same summer, she met a rising young executive in a thread factory and married him.’ The reader feels that he is expected to laugh politely at this feeble attempt at a snobbish witticism.
When Gidner gets to Dakota, he is bored and frightened. He sees that the town of Palisades is merely a grid of six streets crossed by six avenues, ‘each sidewalk verge thickly planted with cottonwoods and Chinese elms. It is not a Real Town like Bradford, he thought. It is a small forest with houses in it.’ All around the town is ‘an immense carpet of farmland ... a crushing sameness ... a desert’. A Greek called Mr Stavros tells him: ‘Do not be alarmed. Us Europeans need never go out there. Nothing beyond our city limits need ever concern us.’ Gidner lodges with an unpopular Anglophile called Mr Farewell and sometimes bicyles out to Pollocks Crossing, to chat with a blind man called Mr Ardvaark. Gidner is often frightened by the incipient violence of American life, but nothing happens (apart from school problems) until almost the end of his brief teaching stint. Mr Farewell is a banker and, when his bank collapses, he holes up with Mr Ardvaark at Pollocks Crossing. The mob comes round to get him, and Gidner is a witness to his end. That is all there is to it.
The actual winner of the Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction is a longer book, a longer yawn. The preliminary press release gave us the background: ‘Twelve years in the making, Keri Hulme’s extraordinary novel was first published in 1984 by Spiral, a New Zealand-based feminist collective consisting of Marian Evans, Miriama Evans and Irihapeti Ramsden ... The Bone People has won the New Zealand Book Award and the Mobil Pegasus Award for Maori Literature and was shortlisted for the prestigious Wattie Awards ... Now, with the further endorsement of the Booker-McConnell Prize judges, Keri Hulme will be recognised as one of today’s most gifted and unusual writers.’
Keri Hulme is of part-Maori ancestry and her heroine, Kerewin Holmes, says: ‘If I was in America, I’d be an octoroon. It’s very strange, but whereas by blood, flesh and inheritance, I am but an eighth Maori, by heart, spirit and inclination, I feel all Maori.’ When Kerewin goes to a Maori-frequented bar, ‘the brown faces stare at her with bright unfriendly eyes’ and she wants to ‘whip out a certified copy of her whakapapa’, so that she can say: ‘Look! I am really one of you.’ A man ‘comes across and hongis’. (A whakapapa is a genealogy, and to hongi is to rub noses, the glossary explains.) The first Maori we meet in the story is a drunk called Joe who keeps saying ‘fuck’ to himself in a bar. Kerewin dislikes him at first, but gets to know him as the adopted father of a little Irish boy whom he found on a New Zealand beach after a shipwreck. The little boy is somewhere between five and ten: he cannot speak (perhaps he is ‘autistic’) and is sometimes vicious and spiteful. Joe beats him up, often, very brutally, and Kerewin has to come to terms with this habit.
Kerewin is an unusual woman. She tells Joe that, as long as she can remember, she has disliked ‘close contact, emotional contact, as well as any overtly sexual contact’. She thinks she may be ‘a neuter’ and has tried to understand her condition by studying the Kama Sutra and Krafft-Ebing and ‘a pile of know-your-own-body books’. The Maori looks at her painting and says: ‘Maybe you have so much energy tied up in this, you have none left for sex. Sublimated is the jargon, eh? I’m not being funny, but that’s a Maori thing in a way.’ Besides painting she practises I Ching prophecy and has become expert at Aikido, ‘because she had heard that it was some kind of super-karate, the ultimate kung fu.’ She is thus enabled to beat up Joe when he beats up the little boy. With Joe, she drives away a bunch of Australians who are singing ‘Tipperary’, since she disapproves of ‘war songs’. The Australians slink away for they are looking at Kerewin’s ‘long tensed hands’ and can see ‘curious callouses all down the edges of the palms’. Joe beats up the little boy so badly that the child loses his hearing and Joe has to go to prison for a while, but Kerewin forgives him. There is a good deal of beating and mutilation in this book, which I have found a painful duty to read. However, it was shortlisted for the prestigious Wattie Awards and now it has won another prize and Norman St John Stevas says it ‘breaks new ground’ and represents ‘an advance in literature’.
Vol. 7 No. 21 · 5 December 1985
SIR: Criticism is always a dialogue. One seldom has the chance to speak first, and what the critic says is always partly in answer to what has been said already. In the case of Keri Hulme’s novel The Bone People ‘what has been said’ is largely a babble of excited voices in public places. The novel touches a number of currently, or fashionably, sensitive nerves. New Zealand intellectual life, limping along in the wake of the world, has been lately lacerating itself into consciousness that racism and sexism exist. Where they don’t exist, zealots nonetheless find them. Keri Hulme, a woman and, let’s say for the moment, a Maori, her novel published in New Zealand by Spiral, a ‘feminist collective’, after being ‘turned down’ by four publishers – this is the stuff for those zealots! As in the case of most books which take off publicly like rockets, a lot of the energy has nothing to do with the quality of the work. It is, however, the quality of the work that will determine what future the book is to have.
Of the four who were offered the novel before Spiral saw it, one was a feminist publisher who thought it insufficiently feminist for her list; another was a woman publisher who thought the book needed more work before it was ready for publication; and the remaining two were commercial publishers who were anxious about the novel’s length and its prospects in the marketplace. The latter two deny having ‘turned it down’. They wanted more work done on it. From a purely commercial point of view, it could be said they made a mistake in not accepting the book as it was when the author declined to make cuts and revisions. From a literary point of view, I think the author made a mistake in rejecting all advice about how the typescript might be edited and improved. Spiral received a government grant which made the publication possible; it was given on the recommendation of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee, consisting of five men and one woman. Spiral then produced a book as badly edited, printed and proof-read as any I have seen, mismanaged its finances, and had to ask for a further grant before a reprint could be done. The Literary Fund Advisory Committee, which had never been in doubt about Keri Hulme’s talent, or that her book deserved support, bent its rules a little to make a second grant possible.
If The Bone People is not in any very obvious way a ‘feminist’ novel, in what sense is it a Maori novel? The question arises especially because of the Pegasus award, one of the prizes it has received. Every year (or second year?) the Mobil company chooses a country to which this literary award shall be made. The prize on this occasion was to be 4000 US dollars, a visit to the United States valued at $6000, and a guarantee of publication there. For 1984 the company chose New Zealand and decided, after consultation with government and other officials, that the prize should be offered for a novel or autobiography by a Maori, written in the past decade, in English or in Maori. It is hard to see the inclusion of the Maori language as much more than a gesture (at least one of the judges knew no Maori). If any modern literary writing has been done in the Maori language, none has been published, and that is likely to continue to be the case. For the present, anyway, all Maori writers of any consequence write in English; and probably few of them know more than a little of the Maori language. The works entered had thus to be considered ‘Maori’ not in language, or in form, but by virtue of the racial antecedents of the authors.
The award raises the question of the usefulness and even the honesty, of what is called ‘affirmative action’ in favour of groups disadvantaged by history. Maori writers now sell at least as well as, often better than, the most successful Pakeha – i.e. European – writers. They compete successfully for government grants and literary awards. Why then a special award for a Maori writer? If the intention had been to promote traditional Maori culture, surely the language ought to have been Maori. And if not Maori language, then at least the form required would need to have been one of those belonging to an oral tradition – poetry, songs, laments, or some re-telling of local myth or legend. If the intention was simply to help a Maori writer, even then it is hard to see why poetry should have been excluded, since poetry is something which exists in the Maori tradition, while the novel, obviously, is not. And finally, what is ‘a Maori writer’? Of Keri Hulme’s eight great-grandparents one only was Maori. Hulme was not brought up speaking Maori, though like many Pakeha New Zealanders she has acquired some in adult life. She claims to identify with the Maori part of her inheritance – not a disadvantageous identification at the present time: but it seems to me that some essential Maori elements in her novel are unconvincing. Her uses of Maori language and mythology strike me as willed, self-conscious, not inevitable, not entirely authentic. Insofar as she is an observer of things outside herself, Hulme has observed Maoris and identified with them. If that is what constitutes a ‘Maori’ writer, then Pakeha writers like James K. Baxter and Roderick Finlayson (to name two obvious cases) could be said to have been more successfully ‘Maori’ than Keri Hulme. The Bone People, I would be inclined to argue, is a novel by a Pakeha which has won an award intended for a Maori. The fault is not Keri Hulme’s. It is in the conception of such an award, which is thoroughly confused, and is in any case patronising, suggesting that Maori writers can’t compete openly with Europeans. It doesn’t surprise me that Witi Ihimaera refused to enter his work for the Pegasus award.
The Bone People is a novel about violence. It is also about love and about identity. The love and the violence have a common source. All three of the main characters, a woman, a man and a child, could be described as violent, though the propensity exhibits itself in different ways. All three are strong characters. All three, but especially the woman and the child, are sharply portrayed. They form a close unit. What is interesting about the novel is that their bonds exist outside biology. It is the biological pattern imitated. The man’s own wife and child have died. The boy he acts as father to comes as from nowhere, born out of the sea. And although a bond like sexual love grows between the man and the woman, there is no physical contact. That, I think, is the imaginative strength of the work: that it creates a sexual union where no sex occurs, creates a parental love where there are no physical parents, creates the stress and fusion of a family where there is no actual family.
Interviews with Keri Hulme have shown how closely her central character, Kerewin Holmes, is based on herself.
I spent a considerable amount of time when I was adolescent, wondering why I was different, whether there were other people like me. Why, when everyone else was fascinated by their developing sexual nature, I couldn’t give a damn. I’ve never been attracted to men. Or women. Or anything else. It’s difficult to explain, and nobody has ever believed it when I have tried to explain, but while I have an apparently normal female body, I don’t have any sexual urge or appetite. I think I am a neuter.
This is Kerewin Holmes speaking. Most of it, almost word for word, Keri Hulme has said of herself in a television interview. Many – perhaps most – works of fiction are fuelled by sexual energy. Here is a novel fuelled by its lack. What for most of us would be merely the domestic subject is for Keri Hulme, I think, the equivalent of romance – the realm of the unattainable. I mean this in no derogatory sense. Whatever confusions of motive and propulsion there may have been in responses to this book, it is not for nothing that there has been so much excitement. The Bone People is at the core a work of great simplicity and power.
The narrative creates a simple pattern. The three principal characters are drawn slowly together to form a strong unit, though one in which negative forces are working. A catastrophe occurs which blows them apart. Each, alone, is driven by circumstances, through pain and suffering, to the edge of destruction. Each of the two adults has been partly to blame for the catastrophe, and each is saved from death by the intervention of what appears to be a force from the lower echelons of the Divine. At the end the three come together again, purged, and certain of their need for one another. To recognise this pattern, in which is mixed, not always successfully, a remorseless realism with elements of the mythical, the magical and the mystical, one must stand at some distance from the novel. Seen from a nearer point of focus, it is likely to be described in sociological terms.
Joe Gillayley loves his adopted child dearly, but is subject to pressures he cannot quite recognise or control. He drinks, beats the child, and finally very nearly kills him. Simon, the child of unknown parentage, survivor of a wreck, with the marks still on him of beatings previous to those inflicted by Joe, never speaks, but is able to write and signal messages, and to communicate his love, his rages and his intelligence. His love for Joe is almost unwavering. Simon is a major fictional character, the most complete, convincing and fascinating of the three, and all the more remarkable in that his personality has to be conveyed to us without spoken language.
Kerewin is the isolated artist who has run out of inspiration. She lives, literally, in a tower of her own making, which (again quite literally) has to be broken down before she can paint again. The obviousness of the symbolism doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the portrait. Kerewin, one feels, is bold enough and innocent enough to live by her symbols, as Yeats did when he bought a tower from Ireland’s Congested Roads Board for £35 and restored it so he could write of himself ‘pacing upon the battlements’. In fact, Kerewin strikes me as more Irish than Maori, word-obsessed, imaginative, musical, unstable, something of a mystic, full of bluster and swagger, charm and self-assertion. All this is shown, not from the outside, but from within, so the novel partakes of Kerewin’s strengths but is not detached from her weaknesses. Like its central character, The Bone People seems at times disarmingly, at times alarmingly, naive.
The novel is successful from the start in portraying the character of Simon and the way he insinuates himself into Kerewin’s isolated life. Joe, on the other hand, strikes me as a character who is never quite perfectly formed in the novelist’s imagination, and there are times when his cast of mind and turn of phrase seem to belong to Kerewin rather than to himself. The relationship between the two is less than convincing in its early stages; and this reader, at least, never felt entirely secure in his ‘suspension of disbelief’. To give one example: Joe is represented as physically powerful, a fairly traditional Maori male, though with more education than most. He is kind, affectionate, but with a dangerously short fuse, precarious pride, and a propensity for violence. Yet when an argument between him and Kerewin turns into a fight, Kerewin, who has learned something like kung fu during a visit to Japan, beats him effortlessly, a beating which he accepts with great good humour and with no apparent damage to his ego. That is not the only point at which the reader is likely to feel the novel has taken a dive from reality into wishful daydream.
Worse is the sequence in which Joe comes close to death and then is rescued by an old Maori man who has waited his whole lifetime under semi-divine instruction to perform just this rescue, so he can pass on to the man he saves proprietorial rights over a piece of land and the talisman in which its spirit is preserved. I found the physical and mystical experiences which make up this section of the novel, read either as Maori lore or as fiction, almost totally spurious. A parallel set of events has Kerewin, who appears to be dying of cancer, saved by the intervention of an old woman and a magical, or simply herbal, potion.
I’m glad The Bone People has been written and published. But when I stand back from it and reflect there is, in addition to the sense of its power, a bitter aftertaste, something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric, which no amount of revision or editing could have eliminated, and which, for me at least, qualifies the feeling that the publication of this book is an occasion for celebration. I’m not sure whether I should even attempt to explain to myself what it is that constitutes this negative element, or whether it should simply be mentioned and left for other readers to confirm or deny. I suspect it has its location in the central subject-matter, and that this is something it shares with Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, a work which also presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it. In principle, such charity is admirable. In fact, the line between charity and imaginative complicity is very fine indeed.
University of Auckland
Vol. 7 No. 22 · 19 December 1985
SIR: Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Bone People, discussed by D.A.N. Jones (LRB, 21 November) and on the Letters page by C.K. Stead (Letters, 5 December), leaves me, as a New Zealander, with a sense of painful recognition and of deep disappointment. Is this the best that New Zealand can offer the world? It is a world that is vitally aware of race relations and of national identities, and of the dehumanising elements within society which produce such phenomena as baby-battering. We are also aware of the need to conserve and protect the environment. All these issues are Keri Hulme’s concern, yet they are handled with none of the insight we might expect from a New Zealander whose country is now seen as a David fighting against the Goliath of European nuclear interests.
Instead, she reflects the inward-looking nature of our country and the oppressive nature of its geographical isolation. The sense of place can be suffocating in New Zealand, and there is no escaping the feeling of being poised on the rim of the known world: to the South lies the wasteland of Antarctica and to the North is America and Europe – the only way ahead. At the same time, there is always the feeling that New Zealand is God’s own country, and that its very remoteness gives it the distance necessary for the creation of a utopian state. This feeling of being separate, special and different brings with it a complexity of psychological problems, notably a reluctance to relinquish an obsession with self and to accept adult responsibilities.
This is the New Zealand I escaped, the country of my childhood where most of my generation were busy saving up for their passage to Europe. This need to leave was instilled in me at a very early age, at the end of the war. One of my most vivid memories is of a beach on the South Island coast, over the hills from Christchurch, with my mother saying to us: ‘Look children and remember, as you will never see this again.’ There, way out at sea, was the tall ship the Pamir, an old tea clipper, making her last run to Europe, romantic and remote with her white topsails set. The emotion of nostalgia was deeply imprinted in me, and I mourned with my mother an era and a world I had never known. The concept of England as Home was both magnetic and divisive, and the long windswept beaches of New Zealand were for ever afterwards a symbol of melancholy and a boundary to aspirations.
This was our family myth of the homeland. Meanwhile native New Zealanders, the Maori, held to the myth of Hawaiki, their ancestral homeland before the great migrations by canoe brought them to Aotearoa, the shining land in the south. Keri Hulme writes from the viewpoint of the Maori, a name which includes those of mixed European (Pakeha) and Maori blood. The novel’s spokeswoman says: ‘If I were in America, I’d be an octoroon … I am but an eighth Maori, by heart, spirit and inclination I feel all Maori – or I used to – the Mariotanga has got lost in the way I live.’ Mariotanga – Maoriness, as the necessary appendix tells us – pervades the book in the blurred consciousness of Kerewin Holmes, artist and obvious self-portrait of Keri Hulme, novelist, who is quoted as saying that her novel was ‘home-grown’ and that it took her 12 years to write. Perhaps this interval reflects the difficulty of expressing or achieving a national voice when the national identity in question is confused, diffused and derivative.
The use of the thinly disguised author’s name for the central consciousness of the novel is a device which evades the honest ‘I’ and has the effect of disconcerting the reader’s expectations to an extent I do not think the author intended. There is an uneasy blend of two cultures in the one personality, and the authorial voice tends to become like that of some short-sighted social worker who argues that Joe could not help his brutal drunken battering of the small orphaned boy because society put him up to it. Joe’s self-destructive drinking may have been due to loneliness after the death of his wife and child, but is no excuse for his savage attacks on the small boy, whose only crime is to remind Joe of his guilt and inadequacies. Similarly, Kerewin’s attitude is at fault, for her obsession with her identity, and her inability to love or to create, have blocked her comprehension of reality: like Joe, she retreats into drunken oblivion to avoid responsibility. On the one hand, we are offered a parable of the child healing the broken adult, and then the adult becomes in turn the destroyer. The paradox is explained in the title: the Maori phrase E nga iwi o nga iwi means both bones of the people or ancestors, and people of the bones – that is, the beginning people or progenitors. The constant tension evoked by this inherent paradox produces a lack of focus, and the author has to retreat into a lame ending with a Maori phrase which translates: ‘The end – or the beginning’.
There is an attempt to allow Joe a form of redemption by linking him to his ancestral past, but it fails to impress. Joe has served a term in prison, and the novelist then shows him in retreat. His meeting with a dying mystic, the old Maori man, brings him more closely in touch with his heritage. The romance convention offers him the chance to be guardian of a buried tribal treasure – a decaying canoe and a little stone god, or mauriora. The old man has believed it to be a symbol of the rebirth of the Maori nation as something ‘special and different’.
Joe retreats into a reverence for old burial customs and Kerewin has also retreated – to the mountains this time instead of the sea. In the high McKenzie country, sub-alpine sheep lands of windswept tussocks, she undergoes a dark night of the soul as she prepares to die alone from suspected stomach cancer. But she is returned to life again, and she sets herself to rebuild a dilapidated Maori meeting-house. This is to re-create the marae, the heart of the Maori community, and she announces to herself that she will concentrate on seven directions: recovery, renewed talent, rebuilding, tying up loose ends, trying not to dodge responsibilities, going into the world rather than moving against it, and, finally, ‘I will go when it is time – no choice! – but now I want life.’
The ending is a reunion of Joe, Kerewin and the child in a drunken, incoherent, sentimental coming-home: ‘all good cheers, and covered tears and matey friendship’. Kerewin has made peace with her estranged family and everyone is ‘aching with love to give, smothered by love in return’. There is no examination of the uncomfortable truths which haunt this book and which haunt New Zealand. Beneath all this togetherness, and the notion of a racial or cultural solidarity which accompanies it, there seems to be a dangerous exclusiveness. The sterility of the island mentality is not confined to places like New Zealand, of course – it exists in inner cities throughout the civilised world. But I would have thought that if this novel depicts the present state of its nation, then New Zealand still has some spiritual growing-up to do.
Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986
SIR: Why is Karl Stead so narked by The Bone People? His letter (Letters, 5 December 1985) reads strangely from this side of the world, where many, perhaps most, reviews of Keri Hulme’s novel have been unenthusiastic. The story of its publishing history has, of course, raised interest, and several reviewers have hinted that the book’s reputation rests on extra-literary factors. Private Eye offered the most reductive account of this kind. Stead’s letter is a subtler, sometimes contradictory version of this response. He seems to imply that some of the book’s success lies in its ‘fashionable’ association with feminism and ‘Maori-ism’. Feminism, he then concedes, is hardly an issue. The only obvious sense in which The Bone People is feminist is that it has a strong, active heroine. This, however, would also make Pride and Prejudice a feminist novel. In fact, The Bone People is conspicuously empty of women. Its ‘Maoriness’, however, is central. Stead describes one distinctively Maori section late in the novel as ‘spurious’, and more generally seems to imply there is something opportunist in its use of Maori elements. This is neither fair nor accurate. New Zealand is a mixed society, Maori and European. Keri Hulme has written a novel in which one of the central characters is mainly Maori but part-European, a second is mainly European but part-Maori, and the third, the child Simon, is a strange kind of European immigrant. This configuration is used to explore tensions in New Zealand’s mixed, and mixed-up culture. There can obviously be disagreement as to whether or not Joe’s rescue and redemption by the Kaumatua works. But the Maori-European theme is neither spurious nor opportunist. It is very serious, and toughly presented. There is no idealisation of the central Maori character. Joe Gillayley is responsible for repeated violence and the eventual maiming of the European child. One could imagine a hostile Maori reaction to this depiction.
Stead’s long account of the Pegasus award is puzzling. Most readers in this country will never have heard of this award let alone know that Keri Hulme has won it. I can only assume, given the timing of Stead’s letter, that it is offered as an analogy: for Pegasus, read Booker. Perhaps ‘affirmative action’ has been at work again – such hints have been made in this country. Literary prizes are aunt sallies. They are barely respectable, and the wrong work is always selected. Many regard the Booker Prize as a confirmation of mediocrity. Anthony Burgess remarked recently that John Fowles’s latest novel, A Maggot, was too good to be on the Booker shortlist, and Fowles had already asked his publisher not to enter it. Prizes do, however, bring contemporary writing to public notice. The success of The Bone People has contributed to the growing awareness of contemporary New Zealand writing in Britain. Janet Frame is belatedly being discovered. New Zealand poetry is regularly, if uninformedly, reviewed in the TLS. Karl Stead’s last novel was reviewed in the Guardian. This ‘affirmative action’ should be welcomed by all New Zealand writers.
I described Stead’s letter as contradictory because, having suggested there is something meretricious about the novel’s success, he then offers an interesting, often sympathetic reading, pointing, for example, to its careful patterning, something most reviews I’ve seen have missed. But then, in his final paragraph, he buries the novel. There is ‘something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric’, and this is because it ‘presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it’. Understanding is one thing and sympathy another. I learnt something about the intertwining of love and violence from this novel, but it certainly did not make me come to love violence. For all its violence, I find something hopeful, even pacific, ingrained in its imaginative fabric, and this seems to me a measure of its extraordinary power. There is a lot ‘wrong’ with The Bone People, as analysis of the kind Stead performs in the middle sections of his letter can show, but in the end this hardly seems to matter. I’m fascinated by the way that, for me, its flaws make no difference to its overall effect. I can think of very few novels of which this is true. Perhaps it is here, rather than with paranoia about its feminist and Maori credentials, that serious discussion of The Bone People should continue.
University of Kent, Canterbury
Vol. 8 No. 2 · 6 February 1986
SIR: My letter on the subject of The Bone People (Letters, 5 December 1985) was derived from an article written for a Canadian journal over a year ago: so Rod Edmond (Letters, 23 January) is wrong when he suggests that my discussion of the Pegasus Award is offered as an analogue for the Booker Prize. I am often puzzled by the Booker short list (why did A.S. Byatt’s Still Life not make it in 1985?) and sometimes by the winner (Hotel du Lac in 1984 seemed a weak choice): but that is in the nature of literary awards. It is a prize any writer ought to be proud to have won, and I congratulate Keri Hulme. As for the rest of what Edmond has to say – none of it persuades me to alter my opinions of The Bone People as they were expressed. It doesn’t surprise me that someone intelligent and well-informed, as Edmond is, should disagree. It does surprise me that he should ascribe my opinions to ‘paranoia’.
University of Auckland, New Zealand