War Book

C.K. Stead

  • The Matriarch by Witi Ihimaera
    Heinemann, 456 pp, £10.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 434 36504 1

My grandmother, who was born about 1880, was proud of the fact that both her parents were born in New Zealand. It made her, she used to say, ‘a real Pig Islander’. A story she told me more than once was of how my great-great-grandfather John Flatt, a lay catechist, had fallen out with the Church Missionary Society by suggesting that its missionaries in New Zealand were acquiring too much Maori land. Twenty years ago, in the British Museum, I looked up evidence Flatt gave, while in London in 1834, to a Select Committee of the House of Lords looking into ‘the State of the Islands of New Zealand’. I found that he had defended the acquisition of land by missionaries, saying – a familiar argument later on – that they had no other way, in that remote place, of providing a future for their children.

Of course my grandmother’s story and my research may not really contradict one another. Flatt may have first defended the acquisition of land, and later thought it was becoming excessive. But at least my anecdote demonstrates something relevant to Witi Ihimaera’s novel: that family mythology likes heroes and prefers them simple. It also demonstrates that the argument over land, which is at the heart of The Matriarch, goes back to the beginnings of European settlement in New Zealand, and that although the Pakeha – Europeans – have progressively taken the land, they have always argued about the rights and wrongs of it. That remains true even today. Many Pakeha New Zealanders sympathise with the view, which is taught in schools, that the Maoris have been shamefully dispossessed. They join Maori land marches and protests. The present government declares itself sympathetic to the Maori case, and looks to compensate where past wrongs are manifest. But Pakehas go on buying Maori land. And though Maoris insist that for them the land has a spiritual value which the Pakeha does not understand, they go on selling it. Their sense of its spiritual value is always sharpest once the material value has been realised – and that has always been the case.

If the conquest had been by force of arms, the history would be easier to understand. There was a period in the 1860s when wars did occur: but even then, Maoris fought against as well as with the insurgents. The Maoris were never one people: their identity was tribal, and the tribes were always warring. They had no conception of a single ‘Maori nation’, a phrase Ihimaera uses frequently, nor of a single state called Aotearoa. That Maori name for New Zealand appeared first in the 19th century. A common adversary has forged some kind of unity, but the idea of Maori nationhood is more European and intellectual than truly Maori: just as the strongest moral arguments Maoris can summon against the Pakeha are those of a European liberal tradition. If there was one principle Maori culture always recognised, it was the right of the strong over the weak.

In recent years radical young Maoris and Pakeha liberals have tended to join in an alliance the justice of whose case is seldom challenged, perhaps because in practical terms it constitutes no threat. Ihimaera’s novel can be read in large part as a restatement of that case, which goes briefly as follows. The Maoris are the tangata whenua – the people of the land – and have, therefore, a moral right and precedence in Aotearoa. That right has been trampled on by the Pakeha, who have progressively, partly by force of arms, but much more by trickery, bribery, and legal and financial chicanery, dispossessed the tangata whenua of their birthright, imposing upon them a law, a culture, a religion, a system of values, an education and a language alien to their own. Justice demands recompense and a reversal of this process.

Looked at in detail, this simple image of New Zealand history as a long slow rape is at best a half-truth, especially insofar as it ascribes conscious and malicious intent to the Pakeha and unwillingness to the Maori. The film of history can’t be re-run to suit the moral values of the present moment, and it is no favour to any group to foster its collective paranoia. But in broad terms the image has to be accepted: we may have killed with muskets (sale of, more than the use of), with European diseases, with money, with intermarriage – even with kindness. Whatever the means and the intention, and however the indigenous people may have collaborated in their own downfall, history has rolled cruelly over the Maori race. Today they are disproportionately the urban proletariat, the unemployed, the disaffected. From their 10 per cent of the population come close on 50 per cent of the inmates of New Zealand jails. Everyone knows there is a problem which full civil rights and equality of opportunity have not been sufficient to overcome. For that reason great importance is now given to a revival of Maori language and culture. These, it is thought, will bring new pride, a sense of identity, and hope. New Zealand resounds with the rhythmic stamp of the haka, the swirl of grass skirts, the twirl of pois, the knock of the wood-carver’s hammer, and the tirelessly repeated wail of the karanga.

It is also full of worthy Pakeha voices which sound remarkably like those of parents in a kindergarten applauding infant work with paint brush and plasticene. This is a chorus I just can’t bring myself to join. However well-intentioned, it seems to me dishonest, patronising, and fundamentally undemocratic; and I begin to suspect that the liberal conscience is the last and most deadly weapon in the European armoury – deadly especially because it thinks its lethal shot is health-giving.

I remember Witi Ihimaera as a shy, charming and handsome student at Auckland University when I was a young lecturer in the early Sixties. He was one of a generation of Auckland students which included David Lange and a number of his present Cabinet. A few years later Ihimaera’s fiction began to appear. He was the first Maori writer to give an account from the inside of tribal life and rituals. His novel Tangi was widely read and admired, and it was followed by another, Whanau, and by two collections of stories. At least one of his stories revealed that he was under pressure to become ‘political’, to lend his skill and his mana to radical Maori protest – a pressure which at that time he resisted. Then he announced that he was not going to write anything more for some time – and he stuck to that. Now, after nearly a decade, he has produced The Matriarch, a 200,000-word block-buster edited down by his publishers, I’m told, from a considerably larger typescript. The Ihimaera of sensitive, lyrical, rather plangent evocations is gone. In his place we have the novelist as warrior, the novel as taiaha or mere, the reader as ally or enemy.

The matriarch of the title is Artemis Riripeta Mahana, grandmother of the narrator, Tamatea Mahana, who closely resembles the author and clearly draws upon some of his family history. The matriarch sees herself as heir to two Maori power-figures: Te Kooti, the rebel and religious prophet who fought a guerrilla war against the Pakeha for a number of years and survived to be pardoned, and Wi Pere Halbert, a 19th-century Maori politician who conducted from the floor of Parliament his campaign to preserve Maori land under Maori control. The novel moves back and forth across a great sweep of time. As the matriarch instructs her favoured grandson, Tamatea, to whom her power will pass, we are instructed with him in everything from the Maori creation story, through the myth (presented as history) of the arrival of the Great Fleet from Hawaiki bringing the Maori to New Zealand, and in particular of the canoe Takitimu bringing both the Maori gods and the forefathers of Tamatea’s tribe. We are also given an account of Te Kooti’s (probably wrongful) detention on the Chatham Islands, his escape, and his guerrilla war against the settlers and the Maoris who supported them; and of the rise and fall of Wi Pere Halbert as Maori politician.

As he tells us all this, Tamatea is already an adult, married, as Ihimaera is, to a Pakeha, and with two daughters: so as well as taking us back in time to history and prehistory, the narrative is going back and forth from the present to the narrator’s childhood, and to the doings of the matriarch with whom he lived for some of his early years. Family and tribal rivalries are revealed. Artemis is opposed by tribes within the larger federation to which her own belongs. Her power is resented in the family. Her own husband schemes against her. Tamatea is envied, and his mana challenged. But through all vicissitudes the matriarch triumphs. She is presented as a figure of power, light, mystery, fortitude, cunning and beauty – Tamatea’s protector, instructor and friend, the source of his own skill and power.

The mixture of elements, all the way from the domestic to the divine, is as extreme as is the chronological sweep. In style, the novel moves from conventional fiction, to expository prose, to rhetorical argument, to historical record (including many pages of Hansard). The tone swings back and forth between the grandiose and the banal. All this puts a great strain on any sense of artistic unity. But if it fails (and for me it certainly does fail), that is not only because of its formal inadequacies.

My quarrel with the book’s ‘content’ can be dealt with first, and most simply, by asking what exactly it is that the matriarch achieves. She is represented as triumphant against all odds, having to call up magical forces as well as her powers as orator and as tribal and family politician to defeat her and Tamatea’s enemies. What the outcome of all this effort appears to be is the protection of the mana of Tamatea. But Tamatea has little identity in the story except as its narrator, and recipient of these benefits. For that reason it is almost impossible to see him as separate from the novelist, which in turn makes the whole work appear to be a gross piece of personal mythologising. The matriarch is great because the novelist tells us it is so; and Tamatea/Ihimaera is great because the novelist inherits her powers.

Beyond the family and tribal rivalries we are told that ‘like Te Kooti’ the matriarch ‘decreed war on the Pakeha’ – but where in the novel does this occur? There is a protracted scene, returned to at intervals, in which she is shown claiming against opposition the right to speak on a marae, and giving some sort of public embarrassment to a prime minister. If anything followed from that meagre triumph, the novel doesn’t tell us. For the rest, the matriarch’s skills seem fully occupied in, for example, magically killing a tribal enemy with poisonous spiders, invoking various super-natural signs, making clouds go across the sun (and once a full-scale eclipse) to signal her anger, driving a Lagonda, and singing at moments of high drama excerpts from Verdi in the original Italian – thus invoking (I think that is the point) a parallel struggle for national unity and liberation from foreign domination.

The novel repeatedly, and in the end tiresomely, asserts the stature of the matriarch. The language (‘amazing’, ‘breathtakingly stunning’, ‘an incredible beauty’, ‘a blinding presence’, ‘charismatic’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘astonishing’) becomes florid as if with the effort to conjure into being a greatness that has no foundation in fact, nor even, perhaps, in the imagination of the novelist. At no time did I really believe in the greatness of Artemis. Worse, I was never entirely persuaded that the novelist believed in it either.

The matriarch was standing with the child in front of the vault, in the place of the dead, at Waeranga A Hika. There was turmoil in her, for the slender fingers gripped the child’s shoulders like talons. The vault was dark, sombre and still. It was imposing, almost defiant, and the air around it was like a slow moving river swirling into eternity. The matriarch sang, ‘Tu che le vanita conoscesti del mondo,’ a prayer of intercession, ‘You who know the vanities of this world and enjoy in the grave profound repose. Take my tears to the throne of the Lord.’ Her body had the seeds of mortality in it, blossoming like diseased flowers.

‘Grandmother, what is this place?’ the child asked.

The matriarch’s voice was calm. It was almost a whisper on the breath, like a green kawakawa leaf suspended in the air before its twig is snapped and it falls down, down, down.

‘Per me, la mia giornata a sera e giunta gia,’ she sang. ‘This is the place of my great-uncle, my ancestor. He was a brave and determined man. He loved me very much. He loved this land. He loved these people. He was very proud. Addio, addio bei sogni d’or illusion perduta. Il nodo si spezzo la luce s’e fatta muta. I come to his judgment and yours.’

‘And mine?’ the child asked.

She gripped him even tighter. ‘My grandfather told me to remember that the people can rise again through me. But I must still live. Se ancor si piange in cielo, ah, il pianto mio reca appie’ del Signor,’ she sang in supplication. ‘Have I failed, grandfather? For look at me, my wages are death.’

And she lifted her head to the place of the dead. ‘Let me live,’ she called. There was no answer from the vault where her grandfather lay. No sign. Only absolute and utter silence. La pace dell’avel.

Every one of these overwritten passages (and they occur at intervals throughout) diminished my sense of the reality of the figure whose stature they were meant to enhance.

The Matriarch also sets out to rewrite episodes of New Zealand history from what I suppose Ihimaera would claim was a Maori point of view. So Te Kooti becomes a hero, and what has been known hitherto as the Matawhero Massacre is renamed the Matawhero Retaliation – it being Te Kooti’s retaliation for his wrongful (if it was wrongful) detention on the Chatham Islands, and for the fact that he was hounded by the law after his escape.

I don’t think with hindsight anyone disputes that it would have been better if the authorities had left Te Kooti alone – though he might in any case have decided to launch an attack on the settlers. But to recount in a gloating, triumphant tone the details of the killings – skulls crushed, babies beheaded in their cradles, parents bayoneted or shot in front of children, children in front of parents – and then to make a hero out of the Christianity-crazed Maori who ordained, because he believed he was the Prophet come to lead his people out of Egypt, that it should happen: this seems to me intellectually puerile and imaginatively destitute. Further, the justification offered for Te Kooti’s killings is followed by a tone of moral indignation (‘Yes, Pakeha, you remember Matawhero. Let me remind you ... ’) at the revenge taken at Ngatapu, where a number of Te Kooti’s followers were shot at the top of a cliff. But the account conceals – surely deliberately – that these murders were also the work of a Maori, Te Kooti’s enemy Major Ropati, whose name I think occurs nowhere in Witi Ihimaera’s novel.

There are some rare but important moments in The Matriarch when the political posturing stops and the true work of fiction – to make us see – is done. The Maori sense of kinship and place intertwined is there:

Waituhi. It was the close kinship the whanau shared with one another so that we never lived apart ... It was the place of the heart. This place of old wooden shacks and scrub covered foothills. This place where the Waipaoa was wild in the winter and strangely menacing in the summer. This place of the painted meeting house, Rongapai, with its eaves sloping to an apex like an arrowhead thrusting at the sky. This place of people growing older, where flax and flowers grow untamed in the plots where houses once had been. This place of the village graveyard where the tribal dead sleep in the final resting of the body. This place, this Waituhi, was family. The whanau was my home. The love and affection they held for each other were the ridgepoles of my heart. The sharing and enjoying of each other were the rafters.

There are also some touching details about Maori ways – especially their lack of physical and emotional inhibition within the family. And there is one page in which something leaps out and punches me with a force nothing else in the book possesses.

It is the night of 24 September 1950. It is near the end of a very bad winter for my mother. We are living in a one-bedroom bach in Crawford Road, Kaiti, Gisborne. Our father, Te Ariki, has been away from home for two months. He has gone to a place called Mataura, in the South Island, to find work. My sisters and I are lonely for him. Our mother is, too.

The lightning flashes again. Last month our mother had to go to the hospital to have her teeth taken out. It was very painful. She wore a scarf over her face. The blood used to seep through. We thought she was dying.

The thunder booms. My father told me I had to look after the family. The rent man came last week. He lifted his fist to my mother. The electricity was cut off a few days ago. My mother bought some candles. The man from the Maori Affairs came yesterday. He was a bad man and he touched my mother. She had to fight him with her knife. E pa, please come home soon.

‘There, there, Teria,’ I whisper again. ‘There, there, Erina.’

Yesterday when I was coming home from Kaiti School, some bigger kids jumped on me. They laughed at my clothes. They said I had nits in my hair. They made me fall on the gravel. I didn’t tell my mother.

There momentarily is real life – and you might say that there also is the motive and the justification for indignation, rhetoric, myth-making. But it happens almost inadvertently. The curtain closes, and we are not shown anything like it again. It simply remains in the mind as a measure for all the rest – so much more direct and true and powerful than all that windy stuff about the matriarch with her spiders and her recitative.

On page 370 Ihimaera repeats Te Kooti’s cry: ‘We are still slaves in the land of Pharoah.’ It is a strange cry to come from a man much honoured in his own country and now serving as New Zealand Consul in New York: but whatever the facts, in the mind it may be so. And if that is the case, freedom can only be achieved in the mind. No external power can confer it. My own view is that the kind of picking over old wounds and ancient evils that this novel represents is not the way to go about freeing the mind. The past doesn’t have to be forgotten: but its rights and wrongs belong to those who lived them, not to us. There is an egotism of defeat, just as there is of victory. The sense of having been wronged can become, like alcohol, a way of life. The Irish seem to have lived for centuries off moral indignation – is that what Ihimaera wants for his people? His proper task was the craft of fiction. He owed it to himself to write a more considered novel – one which used the language more scrupulously. Everyone would be better served by a more truthful image.