The Burning River by Lawrence Patchett (Victoria University Press, 2019), 336 pp., $30
It seems to me that, when you break it down, in the final analysis every story ever told is all about identity. Take this book review for example: starting out with the best of intentions but somewhere along the line, you just wait and see. From McCahon’s I Am to Disneyland, the question is always ‘Ko wai ahau? Who am I?’
Well, guess what. Ko wai koe. Literally, ‘You are water.’
It’s all in the wai. You see that don’t you? Of course you do.
But more than that, this sweet little double entendre underscores the essential precept of tikanga, of the way things are. Tikanga says that we are inseparable from te ao, the physical world of life and light. The Burning River I think suggests that we are inseparable from each other, even when we don’t know it.
Water is the blood that binds.
Biological chemistry tells us that we are around 60 percent water. Hearts and brains are nearly three-quarters water. Lungs, ironically, even more so. Our bones at 31 percent are perhaps not as wet as the rest of us, but that’s still more than a litre locked up in your skeleton.
And just like water we vein this earth. We moisten the air with our bluster and effort. We are ice and we are vapour. We are pure and polluted and cleansing and defiled. We run hot and cold. We are capable of every nurturing gesture of goodness and growth. We are the litmus of life. We are poison. We are Oppenheimer and Orwell and the giant Orson Wells. We are Vishnu, the destroyer of worlds.
Āe. Ko wai tātou. We are water all right. And the sooner we get our heads around it, the better off we’ll be. Iwi know it already. Water as tūpuna. Water as taniwha. Water as taonga – you’d think it was obvious.
Water as whaea, the mother of life.
Tōku whaea, my own mother, she was a river Māori. Waikato taniwharau. She was first-language fluent. Her first religion was Pai Mārire. Her first motivation in life: to work. Do the mahi! Even if it kills you. That’s how you know you’re alive. She flourished and fought and worked all the way until it did indeed kill her, this fiery Māori woman from an old, old marae, born in a whare in a pā in the fog by the river.
She said when she was a little girl her dad used to laugh and say New Zealand was another country on the other side of the river across the Tainui bridge. He meant it. Waikato tēnei whenua. ‘This land is Waikato,’ he would say, pointing to the ground. It’s why she had to learn English, the language of the Pākehā world.
Her people, my people, were and are tribal. It’s where our whakapapa lives. Trials and travels, battles and wars, exile and survival. It’s te awa, the river, inextricably tied to our identity, which imbues our tribal character. It’s te maunga, the hill of bones that make up ancestry, and I can go there any time and say ‘I am’ and call it home if I want to. Tribalism is a refuge of identity and survival.
But we are under no illusions.
My tribe and I know exactly which century we live in.
You’ll be wondering by now where all this is going. Has Lawrence Patchett somehow tapped into my whakapapa? Is there some larger relevance to my personal story intervening in this literary review?
Well, yes. There has to be or the fiction – any fiction – isn’t working.
A post-apocalyptic scenario is nothing new. The world ends every day for some poor bastard somewhere. Waikato 1861, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan today, Christ knows where tomorrow except that it will be somewhere. What we make of the ashes and dust we are left with – that is the story.
The Burning River is a tribal landscape. Humanity has reverted to suit the terrain, digging up old gods to see if they still listen, repurposing them if they don’t. Here you are born to your station somewhere between the sea and the secretive watchers of the Scarp.
It’s Aotearoa but not as we know it.
Or maybe it just depends where you’re looking.
The story emerges from Te Repo: the swamp. Fetid, stagnant, miasmic, a-swarm with biting insects and creeping sickness. A place of ‘muddied and lost waters’, the ‘lowlands’ occupying a tenuous space between the lands of the dead and the living. Primordial alpha-omega.
Van doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t know his waters. Not really. He knows what he is: ‘the swampy man’. A scavenger. A trader. Everybody trades. If you have nothing to trade, ka mutu, you’re finished. He’s whāngai to Matewai. She runs the swamp. She took him in as an orphaned boy. Her son Rau regards him as a brother.
Van mines plastic, digging in the residue pits of the civilization that squandered. Patching, remoulding, reshaping. Artefacts repurposed to commodities of value: trinkets and jewels, bottles and bowls, crude weaponry such as the staff and the blade.
Hana, the blue blood, thinks she knows who she is. She’s one of the Whaea people. They live behind the palisade fence above the Dry Way and Te Repo, supposedly safe beneath the statue of the Matriarch, rich in forest, food and especially water.
Theirs is a society of esoteric ritual and knowledge, an elite of aunties allowing trade within their confines and, if you are chosen, love within their beds. Did I say love? What I meant was, a mingling of waters to diversify the gene pool. Hana’s carrying Van’s child. Another kind of trade.
Coalition or complication?
Kahu is young and still discovering herself. She is a wāhine toa in training, a member of the fighting force of the Whaea people. She is Hana’s child from a former trade. She is given errands beyond her years and approaches them with both a stoic acceptance and a healthy amount of fear.
Therein lies courage of a particular kind. She reminds me, in a way, of an aware adolescent living in the real world today, wondering what the hell the Boomers did to her planet.
I think she’s meant to.
The Dry Way cleaves between the swamp and the fenced-off uplands of the Whaea people. It’s a boundary and a thoroughfare cynically tended by the mysterious Scarpers, leading a constant straggle of refugees from the north and certain despair to an illusion of sanctuary somewhere in the south, preyed upon along the way by a ruthless and motley assortment of bandits and traders.
You will not pass without trade.
Trade is the pretence of civilisation.
Meanwhile, the Burners; the ‘People in Smoke’, threaten from the west. Their encroachment appears inevitable and relentless. The smoke from their fires serves warning. Lebensraum drives their seemingly mindless expansion. The world is small and unnamed and the Burners require living space. The etiquette of trade stands as the one cohesive agent, but even that is fragile, perhaps even untenable. And the Burners are not the only barbarians at the gate.
This is the lay of the land of The Burning River.
Lawrence Patchett, a Pākehā writer of fiction, displays a distinct intellectual courage in engaging with an overtly postcolonial narrative within the context of an Aotearoa New Zealand experience. Personally, I remain unconvinced that being Pākehā necessarily negates your legitimacy in that particular conversation.
Patchett’s use of te reo as the tongue of the civilizing influence strikes me as a line in the sand, a pou whenua if you will. Ballsy in an age where cultural appropriation is actually a thing. You could say he’s nailed his feminist and environmentalist credentials to the pou while he’s at it. In for a penny, eh.
The way the author sprinkles te reo through his kōrero reminds me of Mum talking to some of her friends and whānau back at the pā. A bit like sitting down at the table with Witi Ihimaera’s aunties for a game of cards. You want to sit down with the aunties, you better know how to read a lead.
And Van is being led. By his cock, by his nose, ultimately by his heart and some other empty place within him. He is the Pākehā in this kōrero, inferred rather than stated. In his head he is the outsider. But he can’t escape his ‘waters’. Patchett presents us with the idea that our waters are tied to our fate, that we are inextricably bound to our whakapapa – our foundation. And, of course, we are, but only up to the point where we choose otherwise.
Dystopian fiction imagines the worst and tries to conjure some kind of salvation in the shape and shade of its heroes. In The Burning River Van assumes the agency of salvation with some reluctance. Doubt attends. He doesn’t think he’s qualified. That’s okay. We admire reluctant heroes. Even Jesus doubted for a moment.
The idea of fatherhood, however, sits much easier upon him. Expecting a child has a way of clarifying a man’s expectations of himself. Van actually needs to provide for and protect his new-found family. His journey then, from the lone and the lowly to the saviour of the Whaea people, is not wholly unconvincing.
A cynical review might well suggest that Hana is nothing short of a honeytrap, laid to snare the orphan from the swamp and bind him to the plight of her people. Regardless, the quest is still the same: to seek out some vestige of humanity wherein may lie an answer to the question: Ko wai tātou?
Fundamental human imperatives suggest the most plausible answer.
That Van is the man who must save the matriarchs seems, on its own, unlikely. That Van is a father-to-be who will put aside all fears to secure the safety of his family is a story we can all relate to.
BEN BROWN (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Mahuta) was born in Motueka in 1962. He is an award-winning children’s author, a short story/non-fiction/freelance writer, and a poet for stage and page.