Breaking Connections, by Albert Wendt (Huia Publishers, 2015), 348 pp., $35
Poet Hone Tuwhare often used to advise other writers to ‘Write about what you know.’ While this may be a good adage for poets to follow, it is not necessarily the right or desired advice for a novelist. In a curious way Albert Wendt’s latest novel, Breaking Connections, falls between the two states of artistic creation. Of course Wendt, being both a poet and novelist of high regard, is equally adept at these twin peaks of expression and is able to work within the boundaries of each – and often outside them as well.
Indeed, this new book begins with a poetic evocation of the Ko`olau Mountains of the Hawaiian island of O`ahu where the main character, Daniel Malaetau, is contemplating his surroundings. He has just been able to complete a poem he has been working on, which he finished with assistance from the akua, the Hawaiian gods. The poem ends with an acknowledgement of the ancient ways:
Their ancestor fed on the valley’s black blood
They fed on the ancestor
and flourished for generations …
Breaking Connections is also spiced with hints of autobiographical flavour, beginning as it does with the story of Professor Daniel Malaetau who is on sabbatical from Auckland University at the University of Hawai`i. As well as being a poet whose first book of poems is titled Inside Us the Light (Wendt’s own first poetry volume was Inside Us the Dead: Poems 1961–1974), Daniel is a novelist; his first novel, The Final Return, echoes the title of Wendt’s own first novel, Sons for the Return Home. So there is some confusion when, on page thirteen, Daniel’s nightly fitness routine is interrupted by his latest future sexual conquest Michelle’s phone call. Daniel answers, ‘I’m just lifting some weights,’ followed by his curious thought to himself, to wit: ‘… he heard myself replying’. It is one of a number of small ‘Freudian’ slips, or maybe quips, by Wendt throughout the novel, especially during pillow-talk scenes.
Daniel and his Samoan parents moved to New Zealand in order to improve his educational opportunities; his mother particularly wanted her son to bring all the perceived good things from the Palagi world that were not available in Samoa, to her and the `aiga. Eventually Daniel fulfilled all his mother’s aspirations, graduating with an MA and a PhD and becoming a teacher in Samoa and Fiji before joining the University of Auckland as a lecturer. And although his mother outwardly rejects her ties with Samoa, she maintains the strong family values inherent in the women of her culture and generation (of course, Dan’s lucky he’s a son and not a daughter, but that’s another story).
The next major theme of the novel involves ‘The Tribe’. During his early school days in New Zealand Daniel forms a bond of friendship with a group of children from Māori and Pacific Island backgrounds. Referring to themselves as The Tribe, they become family, whānau, `aiga, and pledge to remain loyal to one another despite what may happen to them individually in the coming years. When they leave school they attend university and continue to support one another in what is a strange and unfamiliar environment. At this stage the novel takes on the nature of a polemic, with an inverted and self-conscious pro-brown Bro vs a superficial, stupid but useful white Flo undercurrent. This has been a consistent aspect of Wendt’s writing, despite the fact that he has benefited from Palagi institutions to reach the pinnacle of Palagi education and society over the years of his long career. I remember taking a couple of hours off my night-shift job of grinding concrete from 8pm to 8am, to attend his inaugural lecture at Auckland University. I listened to Wendt talking, from the comfort of his upper middle-class lifestyle, about writers having to take chances and be ‘out there’. I had gone there to support him but left early, preferring to get some real dirt on my hands.
But I digress, perhaps. When the two main female characters, Mere and Laura, meet in a university lecture and forge a friendship together, Laura, who is a Pākehā, is introduced to The Tribe. Mere is determined to have her friend accepted. At first The Tribe rejects Laura, until one day Mere confronts them with their inverted racism while they are having coffee at the student caf:
‘So, you want to continue being racist, eh?’
‘What do you mean?’ Keith voiced the surprise of the group.
‘Yeah, what are you accusing us of this time, Sis?’ Aaron asked, bewildered.
‘In your usual arrogant way, you’ve been deliberately ignoring my friend Laura!’ Mere surprised them some more. With that they all looked at Laura – she now had a name and a visibility – they had to see her, because Mere wasn’t someone you ignored.
‘So what?’ Paul challenged. They all stared at Mere, anticipating an unforgiving blow, but before it came, Laura got up and started leaving.
Fortunately for Daniel and the rest of the novel Mere persuades her to stay. As the scene in the caf evolves, so does an undeniable attraction between Laura and Daniel, who has been sitting quietly observing both the reactions of The Tribe and a growing interest in Laura in himself. Mere, quick as she is, notices this and lets Laura in on the various machinations of her tight-knit group of friends: the need for Laura to have a so`o, or chaperone, if she is to further her love of Daniel. For while there are no blood relatives in The Tribe, it is considered a kind of incest for its members to have any sexual connections with one another. The attraction that forms between Laura and Daniel, however, is too strong for them to ignore even though they try, and eventually they get married. And while the marriage doesn’t last, being members of The Tribe means they will remain connected throughout their lives.
Eventually, the majority of The Tribe rises out of poverty. Mere becomes a judge in the high court, Paul a professor of history, Daniel a professor of literature. Laura is the major partner in a law firm, originally founded by Mere and herself. Cherie is an architect, and Keith and Langi are secondary school principals. At the centre is Aaron, who, although financially the most successful, lives at the edge of danger, with shady dealings and self-destructive behaviour. When, early in the story, Daniel receives a call in Hawai`i telling him that Aaron has been killed, he returns to New Zealand and steps into the most dangerous crisis The Tribe has faced.
Having found their own successful paths the members are abruptly brought back together by Aaron’s violent death. They must confront the truth about who Aaron was and what they, as The Tribe, have become, while facing the infidelity and greed that threaten to tear the group apart. Together, they now must face a new crisis of revelations and truths, for even though they were all aware of Aaron’s criminal connections, they had never spoken about them. During his funeral the aroha and humour shared by Aaron when he was alive extends beyond the grave when arrangements for the service are carried out as stipulated by Aaron himself in his will.
Breaking Connections is a novel about loyalty, love and relationships. Wendt shows the great range of human emotions – damaging and dangerous, passionate and supportive – as experienced through the lives of The Tribe and their friends and families. In the end the title of the novel is self-cancelling: although the connections of The Tribe are often tested, they are never broken. Despite some initial philosophical reservations, I found Breaking Connections to be an engrossing and thought-provoking narrative, and a good assessment of certain aspects of the twists and turns our society has taken since the ‘bad old days’ of Alan Duff’s era-defining novel Once Were Warriors.
MICHAEL O’LEARY is a novelist, poet, writer and small-press publisher based on the Kapiti Coast. He has a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington.