Blood and Koka Kola, by Christodoulos E.G. Moisa, (One Eyed Press, Whanganui, 2013), 238 pp, $28.
Christodoulos Moisa is known in New Zealand bohemian circles as an artist, poet and a publisher. He established his One Eyed Press in the early 1970s when his friend, fellow poet and sometime academic Mark Williams told Chris that he had a book of poems ready to self-publish. Moisa was an artist and Williams approached him to illustrate his poetry. Not only did Chris agree to illustrate the book but he also said he would publish it and One-Eyed Press was born, a name suggested by a mutual friend, Ray Horsfall. The advent of Williams’ book in 1975, titled Abecedary, was a major event in the small alternative Auckland literary scene of the time. Since then Moisa has published several other well known poets, including Iain Sharp and Peter Olds.
With such a diverse literary and artistic background, it is of great interest that Moisa has turned his talents to the short story genre, a tradition once the stronghold of New Zealand prose writing. And Moisa doesn’t disappoint. His stories are wide-ranging, both in subject matter and character portrayal, and his wit and his perception of human frailty reflect a life lived in several manifestations. This collection covers stories from New Zealand scenes as well as echoing the six years spent as a child in Cyprus in the late 1950s and as a young man in 1973 and 1974. Not surprisingly, it is the stories from his Cyprus experiences that have the most emotional and psychological impact because of the intense political and cultural background there, plus the age of the author at the time meant that he would have felt things far more strongly, as people often do in their youth.
The fact that the stories of Cyprus and the stories of Aotearoa are interspersed throughout the book rather than set out in two separate sections gives the collection a kind of dislocated reality which, perhaps, is a metaphor for the way Moisa has experienced his ‘tale of two realities’. One unfortunate aspect of the New Zealand ‘reality’ is his perception that the New Zealand ‘reality’ is somewhat lesser than the one from Cyprus. This lessening of New Zealand culture has a long tradition in New Zealand literature, particularly in short story writing. One example is from the story, ‘Homecoming’, a satirical dig at the Auckland art scene, and which contains the usual obligatory disparaging anti-Auckland images: ‘Auckland had changed since Steve’s student days. It was as if a sick monster had been awakened and was shrugging of(f) all that had previously been deposited on it’.
In fact, several of the stories are vignettes evoking the ‘before and after’ aspect of remembered student days which Moisa obviously remembers with affection and melancholy. The story, ‘The Mouse’, involves a stereotypical situation of working-class men playing a prank on a student who is working in their mine during the university holidays. But it does remind me of when I was working on the railways in the 1970s and during a smoko break I said that I had been a student. The question came up: ‘What good are students for?’ To which our resident wit replied: ‘Target practice!’ The story ‘Shame’ sees another ‘student versus society’ situation, bringing into play the darker aspects of sexual jealousy meeting coming-of-age innocence.
Several of Moisa’s stories have the surprise ending which is imperative for a good story, and this is one of the strengths and delights of his book. The story ‘Tapu’ is a wonderful example of this, with its ghoulish ‘Hannibal Lecter’ speculations, its allusion to an actual recent tragedy in Paekakariki, and its totally unexpected ending that is far more macabre and hilarious than any that the police are surmising. The same is true of ‘The Leap’, albeit in a more circumspect, rueful manifestation. To show the reader that he is not caught in a 1970s time warp, Moisa’s story ‘To a T’ is a neat little piece on spam e-mails telling you that you have access to millions of dollars. How the character gets his revenge on the spammer is a deft piece of writing, as it were.
Moisa’s stories set in Cyprus and other European centres make up the more serious aspects of the Blood and Koka Kola collection. They are the longest and more substantial stories of the book and, therefore, the characters and themes are allowed more room to develop and grow. One of the more delightful of these is ‘The Garden’, in which a mischievous child confuses vultures with turkeys, potatoes with tomatoes, and imagines onion plants that make ten onions each. His father is called ‘Mr You Know’ because even when he speaks Greek he begins the conversation with the English ‘You know’. Set against the war between the English Army and the EOKA Cypriot fighters, it shows that even war can dig up some good results. One of the more interesting and detailed stories, ‘On Nevsky Prospekt’, concerns the period in the Soviet Union set at the time of Stalin’s death and explores the absurd paranoia engendered by the political system in the USSR at the time.
‘On Nevsky Prospekt’, like several others, has a beautiful little black line drawing preceding the text which enhances the effect of the words. The use of Moisa’s own artwork as the cover illustration also works really well, its vibrancy and complexity emulate the prose within the book effectively, giving the reader a hint of things to come and the fact that this is a self published tome says more about the current state of the publishing industry than it does as to whether he could have found a publisher or not.
I have a few difficulties with the presentation of the text, which all too obviously conforms with a computer programme format – the main example being far too many line spaces between paragraphs, sentences, and often single lines of text. This spoils the aesthetics of the overall effect, something I would have thought to be central to a book designed by someone who has had a lifetime career in fine art. There are also examples of grammatical errors which detract from the overall presentation (see quote from ‘Homecoming’ above, and the solecism: ‘was shrugging of’). These details aside, Moisa is to be commended for writing and publishing Blood and Koka Kola which is a very interesting, insightful and appealing collection of short stories by an author who is new to this type of literary expression.
Michael O’Leary is a poet, short-story writer, novelist and small press publisher living in Paekakariki. He has a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington.