Aukati by Michalia Arathimos (Mākaro Press, 2017), 364 pp., $38
In 2013 Michalia Arathimos completed a PhD in creative writing at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. Her doctorate investigated the othering and exoticising of non-Pākehā writers in New Zealand media. An early draft of Aukati – Arathimos’ startling debut novel – formed part of the thesis.
The IIML predicted, via Twitter, that both the novel and critical work would ‘cause more than ripples’ when they entered the world. Contrary to predictions, however, it has received little attention from New Zealand mainstream print media and literary festival organisers (Litcrawl excepted). An untranslated Māori title by a Greek author? All just a bit, you know, too much? Doctoral premise proven, it sadly seems.
For readers, this response (or absence of) amounts to a disservice. Arathimos’ elegant prose, her profound knowledge and understanding of the issues at the heart of the book and her superb storytelling – an attribute she herself has connected to her Greek heritage, so no exoticising here – have made for a compelling work of fiction.
Aukati is set in Taranaki under the shadow of the mountain. Tangata whenua are under seige – nearby fracking operations have polluted their lands and waters to a state of flammable toxicity. Members of a fragmented, city-based environmental protest movement turn up to help Māori fight the mining.
Two protagonists share the telling of the present-day story, revealing their own troubled pasts. Alexia is a law student, running from the restrictive traditions of her Greek family. Isaiah is a young Māori activist, coming home to ‘try and save the world’ and connect to his absent father’s marae. At the pōwhiri, other protestors assume Alexia is Māori and push her forward to sing the waiata. Isaiah, meanwhile, is beside himself with anxiety at having been placed, by his people, on their side of the proceedings. Their mutual discomfort at their predicaments draws them together as they settle in with Isaiah’s people to fight the imminent environmental catastrophe.
Aukati means boundary, or blockage. Arathimos – no stranger to activism herself – prods, contorts and challenges the novel’s many boundaries, coming at them from all angles. There are physical divides – fences, guards, riot lines, sacred places – to be navigated, understood, violated and respected. There are sexual, social, environmental and political boundaries: rural versus urban, youthful versus elderly, culture versus culture versus culture. And there are the emotional blockages of the personal: Alexia’s bottled grief over the death of her beloved Papou, Isaiah’s sense of helpless alienation from his Māori heritage and language. Arathimos gathers all the crisscrossing threads and deftly weaves a gripping, complex narrative.
She does it from a place inside the world of Other; dividing the book by seasons and naming each section in Māori, Greek and English. In lieu of tired exoticism, her characters are gifted with traits tender, brutal and true. The first sexual encounter between Isaiah and Alexia is distressing in surprising ways. There is a Pākehā farmer who regrets his earlier decision to fall in with the corporate miners. There are Māori security guards employed to protect the fracking operations. And there are policemen who quietly assist an incarerated protestor to access his basic human rights. The full spectrum of human strength and foible is present on these pages; characters are loveable, unlovable, real.
Tension escalates as it becomes apparent that someone inside the group is a police informer. At stake is a nascent love affair, and much more. Avoiding didacticism, Arathimos invites us to reflect on the robustness or otherwise of New Zealand’s civil liberty codes, freedom of expression, intercultural relationships and the fragility of our natural environment.
While Aukati is fiction, the events have been referenced from the Urewera ‘terror raids’ of 2007. Readers familiar with those events – particularly those who have watched the documentary film Operation 8 – will smile at the borrowed moment of dark humour:
‘Auē!’ Rangi yelled. He surveyed the prisoners and their captors on the porch, the shattered ranchslider. ‘It was unlocked the whole time,’ he said. ‘You could have just opened the bloody door.’
There can be no disputing the accuracy of this narrative; following the raids Arathimos’s partner was arrested and charged. The author has publicly attested to her belief that, subsequently, she and her family have been under state surveillance. Her descriptions of rising paranoia ring chillingly true, but my only significant criticism of Aukati is that the narrative tension generated by the presence of an informer is not fully exploited. Vague accusations and suspicions swirl around one character, then another, before the culprit is eventually revealed – almost as an aside. The revelation comes too late – in the last four pages of the novel – and raises more questions than it answers, particularly in relation to otherwise minor characters.
One or two other oddities pepper the prose. In the third chapter, civic councillors are refered to as counsellors, and the protestors wait for one to return to the ‘council house’ from lunch. An elected councillor would not usually have an office at the council building, and the building would not usually be called a house. Some of the chapters – five and nine as examples – end awkwardly and abruptly. But these are small issues, countered overall by beautiful descriptive passages (Alexia’s synesthesia, connecting music and colours, is a stroke of genius) and subtle humour. (One protestor, Melissa, cries throughout the entire novel.)
New Zealand has seen a change of government since Aukati was published; Labour has said it will consider mining applications – including fracking – on a case-by-case basis. Whether or not the practice continues, Aukati breaks ground in other ways. It is a book of and for our time and deserves to be widely read, studied and debated.
SUE ORR has written two short-story collections and a novel, The Party Line. She holds a doctorate in creative writing from Victoria University. She has taught creative writing at Manukau Institute of Technology and Massey University, and reviews for several New Zealand publications. She lives in Wellington.