The Naturalist by Thom Conroy (Vintage, 2014), 381 pp., $37.99
The German mid-nineteenth-century scientific explorers of New Zealand conducted an extraordinary project of revealing a new colony in the midst of a great transition. They described the natural and indigenous social environments of an isolated archipelago, the last country in the world before the sunrise, one without lineage in global thought, as it was simultaneously colonised by the British.
It was not, nor could it be, a neutral or dispassionate vision. New Zealand was observed through lenses that were calibrated to contemporaneous purpose. German scientists like Ferdinand von Hochstetter and Ernst Dieffenbach ostensibly served the needs of their employers: von Hochstetter for the New Zealand government, and Dieffenbach for the private New Zealand Company. Their degree of complicity with their paymasters, however, would differ radically.
Ferdinand von Hochstetter is the later and perhaps more simplistic example. New Zealand: Its physical geography and natural history was first published in German in 1863, and in English in 1867. Von Hochstetter, who had joined the 1857–59 Austrian Novara global expedition of natural survey, had been temporarily employed in Auckland and Nelson by the New Zealand government to make a rapid survey of possible geological resources, particularly coal, gold and other metallic ores.
Von Hochstetter’s book is an account of a country framed and debased by its use-value. Coming into New Zealand waters for the first time, the Novara paused so the crews could enjoy a mass skeet-shoot of curious sea-birds. Auckland, during his stay in 1859, was cloaked for days at a time by black smog from the massive bush burn-offs. Drunken Māori beggars wearing cast-off European clothing sprawled on city streets and von Hochstetter’s prognosis for the Polynesian race was grim.
The intellectual work of New Zealand-based scientists also seemed to be a resource available for unattributed European use. Von Hochstetter’s geological map of the volcanoes of the Auckland isthmus is still regarded as one of the finest pieces of New Zealand cartographic art, but its relationship to the previous researches of the Auckland artist–surveyor Charles Heaphy and degree of plagiarism of Heaphy’s survey have been a matter of dispute since its publication.
Ernst Dieffenbach, on the other hand, was the greater humanitarian and the more accurate scientific observer. He had visited New Zealand twenty years earlier, a great age in terms of the fast-growing colony. He published his two-volume Travels in New Zealand: With contributions to the geography, geology, botany, and natural history of that country in 1843. It remains a key work of New Zealand exploration and history.
Travels possesses more depth and more considered and caring humanity than von Hochstetter’s book, in spite of Dieffenbach’s role as scientific observer for Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company and its barely scrupulous purchasing of land from Māori for colonial settlement. Dieffenbach’s position would eventually provide a singular tension because he found himself witnessing first hand the nature of a country and people that his employer’s transactions would change beyond recognition. The resulting book would become an effective and foresighted critique of the enterprise.
In Travels, Dieffenbach’s New Zealand is a rich and an acutely observed environment. He is a topographic and botanical master, operating over terra nova with a magpie eye. His views are breath-taking, whether on his ascent to the eerie top of Mount Taranaki or wandering the Marlborough Sounds with their stillness and close vegetation. Even relatively featureless shores, like those near New Plymouth, received detailed treatment. Dieffenbach’s accounts of native birds reveal just how silent New Zealand forests have grown. The layers of science are peeled back to display a very human appreciation of the objects studied.
Dieffenbach was also immensely concerned with Māori. While von Hochstetter would conclude Māori possessed some inherent deficiency in their capacity for civilisation, Dieffenbach’s earlier observations led him to different conclusions. He valued Māori experience and future possibilities. Their accounts of animals, birds and landscapes were scientifically useful, and their personal and tribal histories of interest. He collected Māori words towards a dictionary. He was fascinated by Māori technical skills, describing the tempering of clays to make colours and procedures of flax weaving. His acuity records other more human practices: the nomadic nature of Māori life; the use of dried food-stores along trails to enable long expeditions; battle-strategy; and the historic value of genealogies, amid much else.
Thom Conroy’s first novel, The Naturalist, takes Dieffenbach’s Travels in New Zealand as its basis. Dieffenbach is the 2014 novel’s protagonist and his life is its plot. It is an ambitious project.
Conroy, a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University, is an awarded author of numerous short stories, and The Naturalist takes the brief section as its basic unit. Conroy creates a mosaic of propulsive glimpses. The space and pace this structural technique gives the novel is skilfully applied; the fast-cut montage and edit are, after all, the devices of our era, enabling a swift progression, aerated by change.
While taking Dieffenbach’s time in New Zealand as its central focus, The Naturalist also moves around temporally and geographically, to Gneissen, London and Berlin, in the years from 1839 to 1855. This decision provides comparison and context. Dieffenbach’s ventures into European society become analogous to his colonial experience. Conroy’s quick sketches of place and person linger a little and then move to something new.
This style is also the first indication of something that will become increasingly apparent to a reader. Despite its breadth, the novel is glib. It has a superficial variety of scenes, but these tend to have the feel of cardboard settings, which is particularly apparent when compared to the real Dieffenbach’s precursor work. Conroy’s bald statements can come to have a cartoonish character when events are described, and this is emphasised by the sometimes clumsy dialogue and speech in what could be called the novel’s many ‘Doctor Ropata’ moments:
The Colonel eased his nephew back in his chair and turned to Ernst. ‘Doc, I’m glad you introduced this matter … Let me pose you a question in return: if the Queen had genuinely wished to stop our expedition, don’t you think she would have done so? We haven’t cooked up our plans in secret, Dieffenbach. [p. 73]
At other times Conroy’s transmutation of Dieffenbach can become a bald, by rote, rewrite. The real Dieffenbach, for instance, describes his ascent of the then Mt Egmont, now Mount Taranaki, and allows himself romantic speculation:
No native had ever before been so high, and, in addition to that awe which grand scenes of nature and the solemn silence reigning on such heights produce in every mind, the savage views such scenes with superstitious dread. To him the mountains are peopled with mysterious and misshapen animals; the black points, which he sees from afar in the dazzling snow, are fierce and monstrous birds; a supernatural spirit breathes on him in the evening breeze or is heard in the rolling of a loose stone.
[Travels, pp. 155–56]
In Conroy’s hands this is adjusted:
It required little effort of imagination to transform the drifting shapes of the mountainside into all manner of phantoms and beasts, and Ernst understood how easily the native mind had peopled the alpine heights with the most fantastic creatures. It was the same sense of imagination which gave rise to all the world’s superstitions. And yet in the whispering and incessant motion of the wind there was a kind of presence … [The Naturalist, pp. 294–95]
Conroy generally credits exact quotations from Dieffenbach in his notes to the novel, but his reliance on Dieffenbach’s work is more extensive. In many ways, Conroy’s novel is parasitic upon Travels, as any historical fiction narrative featuring Dieffenbach has every right to be. However The Naturalist must still be assessed in the light of this relationship.
Is The Naturalist simply a popularisation, where a nineteenth-century scientific book and biography is repurposed to contemporary fictional use? Is it translation from one era to another, with attendant simplification and dumbing-down? Is it more of a rewriting with fictional interludes? Or is The Naturalist the site of a battle between precursor scientific writer and later imaginative novelist over the spoils?
Even allowing for the differences between a non-fictional scientific narrative and a novel, it is clear there is a problem with quality when we compare Dieffenbach and Conroy. Dieffenbach’s original narrative sparkles with the thrill of addressing and naming the unknown. Conroy’s novel attempts to substitute plot as its means of allure but unfortunately, with the exception of Dieffenbach himself, the novel’s characters are stiff simulacra, too often defined under easy categories: ‘Salt of the Earth Sailor’, ‘Maori Maid’, ‘Maori Caught Between Two Cultures’, and ‘Venal Exploiter’.
There are multiple plotlines. Each character brings one. Each character is one. However, as in the fictional Dieffenbach’s lingering with the invented Māori maid, Hariata, they often lack all conviction. The invented Hariata becomes, novelistically, just as much an exploited resource as the land-grabs of the real Wakefield expedition. The same might be said of the invented Nora, the blue-stocking British woman, over whom the fictional Dieffenbach anguishes in London.
The central narrative of Conroy’s novel generally adheres to the peregrinations of the exploratory book upon which it is based. What is acceptable in one genre, however, does not necessarily translate to the other. Conroy’s intercutting between eras does little to alleviate this, and the great array of characters (conveniently cast-listed before the notes) simply scatters the problem. The Naturalist is thus left peculiarly rudderless, without narrative impetus. Conroy’s attempts to provide the book with romance, politics and, indeed, environmental concerns, fail in the face of its adherence to the historic Dieffenbach’s written experience or other surviving sources. Even as ‘popular fiction’ it lacks the force or the interest to catch and keep a reader.
The Naturalist is a curiosity. It is a novel which needed to both rely upon and free itself from its research. That’s a hard act to pull off. Conroy earns credit for his choice of subject and selection of episodes. The real Dieffenbach’s life and his time in New Zealand have many continuing resonances, but Conroy’s version of Dieffenbach seems to my eye simplistically rendered. Ernst Dieffenbach’s struggle against the exploitative strategies he observed in action in New Zealand would later end in being him being effectively barred from returning to the colony. I believe he deserves a more artful memorial.
David Herkt is a former TV director/researcher whose work has been awarded two Qantas Film and Television Awards for documentary. He has been a finalist in both the 2013 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Awards and the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.