Growing up in rural Southland, I was aware of a powerful and supposedly benevolent body called the Acclimatisation Society, which – so I gathered – had the job of ensuring that river, stream and field were stocked with the fish and game best suited to delight the nation’s anglers and hunters. As I grew older, I learned that these benevolent overlords of the natural world were not, in fact, so benevolent after all, and that the story of ‘acclimatisation’ was a story of disaster after disaster, as wave after wave of English fauna was imported and let loose on native ecosystems ill suited to receive the aggressive intruders.
Walter Allbones and his kin have faded into archival records, old photos, and genealogy, while Pinky’s descendants are very much with us. Well done, that man!
The title of this review might very well have been ‘Two Men in Berlin’, since the writing of both novels was obviously closely connected to their authors’ stay in the city as guests of Creative New Zealand’s Berlin Writers Residency, respectively in 2003–04 and 2007–08. Yet if their choice of Berlin as the stage of action was almost inevitable, they must have decided on good reasons for placing women at the centre of their stories.
By contrast, Jones’s woman in Berlin is an illegal migrant from North Africa who has found her way to the city to search for her son that her lover – an African-American-German – had abducted more than three years before from a hotel where she had worked and met him. Having been helped to find out his address, she makes arrangements with him to see her boy, though only irregularly and for just one hour each time. Moreover, she is made to pay for this ‘favour’, which forces her to borrow money from, and pawn the belongings of, the blind man she works for as a domestic aide and carer.
August, by Bernard Beckett (Text Publishing, 2011, $30.00)
A book that is billed as ‘a philosophical thriller’ poses unusual questions. We don’t judge science fiction by the accuracy of its science. Nor do we require historical novels to adhere strictly to the facts. In both cases, perhaps, we would want the writer to be aware of the accepted consensus and to take account of it but the whole point of fiction is that it involves an invented reality. Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew, for example, is a novel first and history second. How then should we approach a fiction that is centred round a philosophical problem? Does it really matter if the analysis of that problem is unsound or incomplete? Should one forget the philosophy and talk about the fiction or should one criticise the philosophy and the fiction? The answer, I suppose, is that it depends on the book.