Ancestry, by Albert Wendt (Huia, Wellington, 2012) pp. 306, $35.
In this new collection Albert Wendt returns to story writing, with his usual investigation of race relations, the persistence of Pacific stereotypes, new complexities of community in contemporary Auckland, and recognisably real-life allusions to friends and teaching. As we might expect from work by a senior author, there’s a lot of material on marriage and its breakdown, spoiled grandchildren, and the ambiguous effects of sex drives lasting into old age. As well, these are stories in which family and community are central themes — titles include ‘Friendship’, ‘Neighbours’, ‘Ancestry’, and the closing ‘Family’. The book is dedicated to relations and close friends.
The opening tale, ‘Robocop at Long Bay’ is I think the only one appearing previously, and for my money, one of the best in the book. It is an effective first-person presentation about the ties and tensions between a young man, his delinquent mates, his own capitalist aspirations, and his conventional father and aiga. The situation, dialogue and characters carry the emotional drama and avoid a weakness in other stories: too much narrative explanation.
Judicious editing to let the scene do the work would increase the impact of some of these tales. ‘Friendship’ works because we see a Pākehā uni student careful of her boundaries being drawn in to the circle of friends and family of a striking Māori classmate. Under the rubric of what might be styled ‘Anthropology I’, they attempt to overcome stereotypes of each other and the drama lies largely unspoken behind the ordinary surface, though card-carrying postcolonialists might point to the familiar ‘warm strong native rescues vulnerable but well-intentioned white’ aspect to its plot, even if that is itself under light corrective treatment.
The recounting of dreams I usually find as problematic in life as in fiction: the result either seems contrived and insufficiently oneiric, or else the dreams remain of significance only to the people experiencing them. I found myself unable to engage with the couple in ‘Interrogation’ as a result: clearly there is a connection between unsettling night visions and their scratchy daytime relationship, but the story seemed to be trying too hard. ‘Absences’ sticks to credible details of late adolescent life and drives effectively to a dramatic conclusion.
In ‘Fale’ the main character is given stability by his devotion to gardening, something taught him by his now absent dad. He manages to get back to regular study and to the chance of fulfilling his potential, but a history of friends cutting classes at school, shoplifting, watching porn videos, chatting up girls on the internet and getting plastered at wild parties parents know nothing of catches up with him with a vengeance, and he is arrested following a fight in which someone is killed. His mother and sister are left to try and save him and we discover an ironic family secret in the final punchline.
‘Hour of the Wolf’ refers to a horror movie viewed by a divorcee, his new lover and his weekend-visit teenage son. This story works well in its use of dialogue, showing the shift in relationship between boy and dad’s girlfriend and the older man’s rueful admiration for his younger partner. ‘Ranfor’ in a similar way effectively captures the moment of cool reassessment after a grand passion recedes and age and old ties strip away illusions.
Wendt has often declared that fiction is really autobiography, albeit sometimes suggesting through his work that the reverse is also true. The result is sometimes a frustrating sense for readers that there’s something going on behind the story that we don’t know about, or sometimes there’s the opposite sensation of knowing too much — of not being able to take the story on its own terms. The latter case of information overload works best when the writer is being playful and self-ironising, as occurs in the wonderful send-up of the teacher/ self-appointed prophet-artist in ‘I will be our Saviour from the Bad Smell.’ (There are throughout the collection the signature jokes where characters refer to or study works by that writer Albert Wendt.) For some readers, however, the self-regard of the creative writing teacher persona in this collection’s ‘First Class’ may seem too uncomfortably close to an authorial presence and forestall sympathy. The positive aspect of the story is its depiction of how a sense of community can grow and change first perceptions of stereotypic ethnic profiles.
Wendt avoids the dangers of too-close involvement by occasional use of ‘you’ as his narrative device. It creates a strangely-mixed, objectified, first-person position that works well in ‘Fast’, where the young ‘Hamo’ — the university student whose story it is — watches himself, constantly assessing his relationship to his assimilated family and to his Pākehā friend whose wife generates a traditional aiga as a result of her previous work in Samoa. The irony here is that it takes an old whitefella to put a young Samoan in touch with his cultural roots, but the story is really more about friendship and respect and invoked emotions arising from loss and death without sliding too far into pathos.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this collection: food, sex, and family tensions. It will be interesting to see how it goes down with younger readers, as well as those of us who have followed Wendt from his early ‘angry’ work through to this more reflective, at times somewhat-introspective-seeming book, and who, like him, now contemplate the challenges and joys of being grandparents.
PAUL SHARRAD is Associate Professor in English Literatures at the University of Wollongong. He has published book-length studies on Albert Wendt and on the Indian writer Raja Rao, a book on postcolonial literary history and the Indian English novel, and many articles on anglophone postcolonial writing.
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