The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti (Vintage, 2018), 304pp., $38
For a novel that travels the world, there’s a quiet intimacy to the beginning of Tina Makereti’s second novel. Its protagonist is a young Māori man called many names, who experiences a series of devastating, dramatic adventures. When the novel opens he’s a feverish invalid confined to bed, ‘in the shadows’ and alert to ‘the brokenness of the world’. Hemi is one of his names and he’s in London, we learn, for a second visit. It’s almost a decade into Queen Victoria’s reign, and Hemi is tended through what he suspects may be a final illness. How did he get here, and why is he so haunted by apparitions from the past?
The answers lie in his era as much as his character, and in the impact of the Musket Wars first explored by Makereti in Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings. Hemi was born around 1830, his childhood curtailed by the ‘sound of guns’ wielded by enemy iwi. He sees his mother and sister killed while he cowers in the bush, and his rangatira father leaves him in the care of missionaries in order to fight on. At the mission Hemi is told his father has ‘been killed in battle and eaten by his cannibal enemies’.
The losses of his childhood leave Hemi estranged from his heritage. ‘I can no longer recite those genealogies,’ he laments, ‘nor have I earned the right to wear them’ as moko. His iwi have ‘scattered or made other alliances’. At the mission Hemi proves a natural scholar, inquisitive and intelligent, but his grief makes him disruptive. Punished and unloved, he runs away. Like David Copperfield – hero of a novel published a few years after Hemi’s fictional sickbed reminiscences – he embarks on a series of picaresque adventures. Makereti embraces Victorian tropes of melodrama and coincidence in Hemi’s story, as well as Dickens’ commitment to social commentary and political point-making. Though young – not yet seventeen when the novel opens – Hemi is perceptive about social caste in Māori and British cultures, and alert to the implications of how he acts, and how he’s perceived, in London.
Without a family or iwi he’s forced to live by his wits, though throughout he depends on the kindness of strangers, most of them women, who worry about his moral education and care for him when he’s sick: rough publican Mrs Jenkins in a shanty-town settlement with the unsuitable name of Hollycross; Ana Ngamate, a young mother who embraces him into an otherwise alien iwi and encourages him with his writing; Miss Angus in London and her maid, Miss Herring, who take walks with Hemi in the park. A preening artist (based loosely on George French Angas, real-life illustrator and author of Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand) has taken Hemi to London to act as a living prop, a ‘professional spectacle’, for his exhibition at the Egyptian Hall – a museum of natural history in which Tom Thumb was exhibited in 1844 – on the south side of Piccadilly. London, with its clamour and fumes and outrageous extremes, is where Hemi comes of age, and where he learns the limits of his newfound freedom.
The conventional home life of ‘the Artist’ and his family appeals less to Hemi than the bohemian South-of-the-River haunts of other outcasts, including fellow exhibits the ‘Merry Marrying Midgets of Middlesex’, and his closest friends: Billy Neptune, feral seaman and the catalyst for Hemi’s sexual awakening, and Henry/Henrietta, a young woman who poses as a man as an act of self-preservation.
Victorian London is a dangerous place, and the novel mines its darkness. Hemi goes to sea to atone for his sins, and here the story’s violence – from floggings to shipwreck– intensifies. His rescue and convalescence in Barbados feel like a political opportunity for the plot. Ironically, what seems contrived here is the story drawn from the actual history of one Hēmi Pōmare, the spark for Makereti’s novel, though she is adamant in her Author’s Note that the book ‘in no way represents the real historical figure’, about whom little is known.
There are occasional anachronisms in Hemi’s phrasing – ‘I was never fully part of that equation’ – and point of view: his first-person narrative is a little too knowing, too old, and at times too contemporary. His earnest tone works against us seeing Hemi as the charming, funny and eloquent young man who talks his way into friendships and opportunities. (‘It had been a long time since any of us had been at peace in our homelands,’ he declares early on.) Because Hemi is writing his account of the past ten years from his English sickbed, and addressing it to future descendants, he can explain too much; at times the novel flirts with didacticism. But for all these niggling flaws and the plot’s occasional excess, much of the novel’s story is gripping and provocative. Hemi is both a success story and the ultimate outsider with no place to call home. He’s rendered an outsider because of inter-iwi wars as well as colonisation, and his journey to the heart of empire is a classic immigrant’s tale of revelation and disillusionment. We leave Hemi in the novel looking towards a ‘bright future’ that he doesn’t believe he will live to see – a future of peace and liberation that, the reader is bound to note, remains unrealised.
PAULA MORRIS (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whātua), associate professor of creative writing at the University of Auckland, is a novelist, essayist and short story author. Her novel Rangatira (Penguin, 2011) won the fiction categories at the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards and Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards. She writes for adults, young adults and children. Paula is the founding director of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, and in 2019 she is the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.