Andrew Paul Wood
The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One hundred ways to read a city, by Fiona Farrell (Vintage, 2015), 363 pp., $40
Fiona Farrell’s The Villa at the Edge of the Empire comes from a place of anger, though that doesn’t really become apparent until quite some way into the book. Part polemic, part psychogeography, part memoir, it consists of four, long, themed sections divided into a hundred very short – perhaps too short – chapters. It’s a response to quake-struck and post-quake Christchurch (a companion piece of sorts to her The Broken Book of 2011), which becomes the hub about which much intellectual and emotional meandering takes place, considering the ‘idea’ of cities.
This gives Farrell a lot of territory to cover, from many different perspectives and disciplines, which is possibly why the book takes so long to ignite. Much of the time the reader just has to let fleeting impressions and snippets of history break on them like waves, but all too often incidents and historical figures sweep past before they have time to introduce themselves properly. The problem isn’t necessarily the brevity of the chapters. An aphoristic writer like Clive James can make you feel a more civilised and erudite person in a mere four pages. Farrell doesn’t give her material a similar chance to spark insights, and it’s not until she gives full reign to her anger and frustration that the reader finds a flow to go with.
Things begin calmly enough. The first section is themed around maps, urban planning, and the various ideal cities that ambitious creators have conceived for themselves over the centuries. Geography, natural history, social and colonial history are drawn together to create a rich and interesting picture of Christchurch in space and time. The dramatic retelling of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s infamous 1926 kidnapping of Ellen Turner establishes that the founders of the Old Christchurch were no less self-interested nor more ideal-driven than the builders and backers of New Christchurch. There is a fascinating discourse on the various ideal cities planned for the colony; and a delightful passage on eels. Then, from a personal perspective, Farrell establishes her own complicated relationship with the city: she arrived in the early 1990s and complained of its flatness and faux-Englishness, before coming around to the place on its own terms.
Section Two gets right to the heart of things, inside the loop of Christchurch’s River Avon. The polemic against capitalism, neoliberalism and John Key’s government kicks in, is passionate – and rightly so. Most objective observers of the official handling of the quake aftermath can see that it’s been a right dog’s breakfast and no mistake. Of course, that does raise the question of whether another government would have handled such an unprecedented event in the country’s second/third (depending how you measure these things) largest city all that differently, rhetoric aside.
Farrell brings out former Avon Loop resident, the communist, feminist, activist, historian and all-round firebrand Elsie Locke (1912–2001) as a touchstone for protest against capitalism and for democracy. She clearly identifies closely with Locke. This is a starting point to branch out into the post-quake struggles of various Cantabrians, apparently cherrypicked for their activism or interest value. That’s a novelist’s prerogative, and Farrell has an excellent eye for detail, but it doesn’t really give a sense of the hopelessness and numbing helplessness. A literary acquaintance’s daughter was studying The Diary of Anne Frank at school. The daughter complained that it was a frustrating and difficult read because nothing ever seemed to happen. As my friend explained, that’s the entire point. My experience of the quakes and aftermath was that in a nutshell: anxious waiting in unendurable, slowly dulling suspension.
Most of the time the artistry of Farrell’s prose draws you in and keeps you there, but on occasion I found myself barely supressing an eye-roll at the earnest left-wing intellectualism: ‘I don’t trust stadiums. Too big. Too overtly designed to foster tribalism and the loss of any sensation of individual identity … And readily adapted, as [Albert] Speer’s Olympic stadium was adapted, for the real thing …’
Part Three is a meditation on Farrell’s visit to l’Aquila in the Italian Abruzzo, and the devastation it experienced when struck by a quake in 2009. The picturesque scenery is dwelt on. The enthusiastically financed restoration and preservation of architectural continuity are tacitly praised and contrasted to Christchurch. (Never mind that Italy is a member-state of the largest economy in the world, the European Union, while New Zealand has been left to its own resources). The robustness with which the builders of failed structures were prosecuted is noted with apparent approval. (No matter that a number of scientists were also prosecuted on manslaughter charges for failing to predict the unpredictable.)
The title of this book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, doesn’t make sense until about two thirds of the way through, where it is deployed in relation to the archaeological remains of a Roman villa in Britain, which Farrell riffs off back to Christchurch – first established at the edge of the British Empire and now a US-dominated Western-aligned hegemony. This sits at odds with Farrell’s other narrative of place being intensely local. Halfway around the world is a long detour just to get home.
The last section returns to Christchurch, where Farrell takes aim at corner-cutting insurance companies caring only for the bottom line, the government’s flagrant betrayal of local schools and communities, and neoliberalism. There’s no Marxist doctrine or overt ideology here, just a gut-sense of justice and fairness.
The book’s coda is almost a prose poem, elegantly Horatian: of stoic consolation in resignation to the unpredictability of fate and human insignificance. There is a measured optimism too. Find joy and meaning in the little things. Memento mori. It’s a good read, but if it wasn’t for that underlying passion and the bursts of lyrical writing, I might well have given up a quarter of the way through.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based cultural commentator, writer and art historian. He has a PhD from the University of Canterbury.