Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, by Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2011) 198 pp. $37.95
To be an essay writer is to be an eclectic: one who gathers together curious observations and out-of-the-way facts, and then conjures with them so as to offer another interpretation of some aspect of the world. At least, this is what the series of book-length essays that Martin Edmond has produced over the past two decades seem to do. He’s a memoirist, whose ‘memoirs’ are quest books, rehearsing investigations, making enquiries, retailing anecdotes and philosophical ruminations in pursuit of some invariably elusive subject — as in Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which is a circuitous examination of the visionary painter Colin McCahon — or perhaps ‘Colin McCahon’, because Edmond, as he tells it, only ever ‘met’ McCahon twice, and both times briefly without McCahon really knowing who he was or even exchanging words. So the person Edmond pursues in his book, as if shadowing him even as he elegises him, is partly a creature of his imagination, vivified from second-hand reports, scrutiny of the artistic legacy, and guesswork: the artist bodied forth as a sort of Scotch mist, an atmosphere, whose very presence depends on the darkness of the ‘dark night’.
Edmond’s chief narrational pathway into the McCahon myth is the artist’s famous disappearance in Sydney, when McCahon, over from Auckland with his wife Anne to attend the opening of an exhibition of his paintings, seems to have wandered off in a fugue state one morning while visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens. He became a missing person for nearly 24 hours, before the police identified him as someone they’d picked up as a nameless, homeless vagrant in Sydney’s Centennial park and taken to the near-by Caritas Centre of St Vincent’s Hospital.
Dark Jelly, by Alice Tawhai (Huia Books, Wellington, 2011) 237 pp., $30.00
With an epigraph by the French existentialist Albert Camus, Dark Jelly by Alice Tawhai promises to challenge readers from the very first page, as she introduces us to a world of nocturnal lives and daytime dreams, paranoia and superstition, skewed enemies and chemical friends, and the stains of ink and time.
Across the stories we meet people incarcerated through crime, bad luck, or choice; although the reasons vary, names are always significant. In the opening tale, ‘Big Y, little y’, Yolanda sits in a sanatorium battling a trio of voices, Once, Twoce and Threece, which emanate from electrical sockets; but even their abuse is easier for her to deal with than her husband, Ty, and the painful history of which his presence speaks. Meanwhile, the jail narrative ‘Roses are Red’ hinges on the disparity between the prisoner’s perception of himself as ‘Caesar’ and the wardens’ view of him as ‘Johns’. He invites danger by carelessly conflating the red-headed female ‘screw’ in his thoughts with his girlfriend, Rose. In ‘Ice’, a woman’s husband briefly returns home from jail with an all-white dog, Ice, and a declaration of alcoholism. Although the only time the wife spent in prison was visiting her husband, we can see that she was just as incapacitated as he was during his time inside: her life froze. Since neither characters are identified for readers beyond the prosaic ‘he’ and ‘she’, we are given to understand that their shared history with ‘Ice’ is all that links them, now.
Rangatira,by Paula Morris (Penguin, Auckland, 2011) 296 pp., $30.00
The title of Rangatira, or Chief, has such grand connotations that I expected a magnificent tale, and in many ways this novel satisfied that expectation. Ngati Wai Rangatira Paratene Te Manu mulls his past over while he sits for the painting of his portrait by the artist, Lindauer. The painter’s planned trip to England has jogged the chief’s prodigious memory. Elderly Paratene appears calm, but twenty years before, with fourteen northern rangatira he travelled to England, and their trials were many. We learn Paratene prefers quiet reflection to excessive socialising, or to arguments at the Native Land Court where proceedings have dragged on.
Difficult events pile up against each other; strange juxtapositions occur. I empathised, wanted to somehow make things easier. The ridiculous get-up Paratene describes having to put on when a studio photographer prepares to take the Maori chief’s photograph serves to illustrate general misunderstandings between cultures. Then dubious agreements and arguments intrude in other ways: events go awry or are badly played out. The trials and tribulations experienced in England made me gasp: so many grubby and devious situations upset matters and offend against good manners and decency, let alone diplomacy and protocol, while these Maori are supposed to be honoured guests.
Travesty, by Mike Johnson with illustrations by Darren Sheehan (Titus Books, Auckland, 2010), 243 pp., $35.00
After finishing Mike Johnson’s Travesty, and re-reading his previous novels and poetry, I have come to the conclusion that, with it, he has achieved the epitome or culmination of something. He has achieved a kind of ‘worldmaking’ — to borrow American philosopher Nelson Goodman’s famous term — that confirms his position as one of New Zealand’s most important fiction writers.
Travesty is an unusual work of fiction. For 204 of its 244 pages Johnson creates an unknown world, the imaginative space of an unknown place. It is a world related to known concepts, and to literary genres such as science fiction and fantasy — and yet it is foreign. The writer’s characters are bizarre and involved in irrational quests. His material world is recognisable, but also thrown into some indeterminable time and place. Reading Travesty is like trying to make out a mirage that is always shifting before your eyes: you are unable to quite grasp it, but somehow you seem to know enough to read and understand it. This, I am certain, is the writer’s intention, and evidence of considerable skill.
Johnson’s characters live in Travesty’s Rathouse, each engrossed in their broken yet richly personal lives. Over the course of the book, the writer takes each of them, including a baby rat, out into Travesty’s wider world to face or to make their fate. It is this seemingly-simple movement that shapes the work and allows the novelist to weave his characters’ realities around each other and thus create the dark, glistening and many-threaded world of Travesty.
Sarah Jane Barnett
The Broken Book, by Fiona Farrell (Auckland University Press, 2011), 208 pp., $34.99.
Trace Fossils, by Mary Cresswell (Steele Roberts, 2011), 64 pp., $19.99.
Originally conceived as a travel book about walking, The Broken Book took an unexpected turn when the Christchurch earthquake, in Farrell’s words, ‘sent a jagged tear’ through the text. Well known for her fiction, poetry and plays, The Broken Book is Fiona Farrell’s captivating foray into autobiography. The book contains four essays about walking, which are interrupted by twenty one poems. You never know when a poem will arrive: they are tremors in her text.
The essays follow Farrell to the Winter Palace in Menton, the Botanic Gardens in Dunedin, through the Cévennes in France, and finally onto the shaky ground of Christchurch. As with many walks, the destination is a convenient way to let the mind wander. For example, Farrell retraces Robert Louis Stevenson’s path through the Cévennes. Stevenson heavily loaded his ‘diminutive she-ass’ Modestine with supplies, and beat her raw when she stopped. He then composed the bestseller, Travels with a Donkey. While following his route, Farrell thinks sorrowfully about Modestine, which makes her think of autumn in New Zealand. This in turn leads to thoughts of young steers being taken from their mothers. And so Farrell meanders.
Farrell’s tangents vary from the transfer of power, to divorce, resurrection, tuberculosis, love, literature, and crisis. This sounds heavy, but the book is balanced by her sharp wit and evocative prose. She has the poet’s deft hand for simile. There are also the wonderfully odd details, such as Stevenson dying of a brain hemorrhage while making mayonnaise with his wife (somehow making up for Modestine). Walking is in her blood, Farrell reveals. Her father worked as a meter reader after the war so he could work outside. Her great grandfather ‘pushed a barrow over the Kilmog to fetch sugar and flour from Dunedin’. She too admits to being restless in confined spaces.
The movie may be slightly different, Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, 2011) 150 pp., $30.00;
Shift, Rhian Gallagher (Auckland University Press, 2011) 74 pp., $24.99
If ever a title was deliberately misleading, here it is. This movie is still running, there is no way in which it could be any different (it’s already different enough), and the same script writer, director, star, producer and editor reappears in a dazzling array of get-ups. The voice that oversees the performance in many guises — rhymed aphorism, yarn, parable, philosophical speculation, or Vinnie O the Godfather laying down the literary lore — is unerringly that of a confident, accomplished poet who certainly doesn’t see why he can’t have a go at anything he chooses. It’s so refreshing that Vincent O’Sullivan seems open to all sorts of poems, seeing each as worth writing in itself, not just as part of a scheme (after all, he is the scheme).
The focus on making one’s own movie or meaning emerges early in the book with such poems as ‘Channel X’ and the deftly rhymed ‘The case against …’. The latter also introduces the parallel idea that while you may be telling your own story, everyone else’s may be different, or contradictory, or not a story at all. If at times the avuncular ebullience is a bit much, we can return to the hard-earned compassion of ‘Late morning, call it’ and ‘Between the lines’, or the genuinely complex but unpretentious cultural awareness of ‘When’, or ‘Evening with friends’. There is also poignant, perhaps initially unresolved memory in ‘On the same road you can’t help thinking’ and ‘Once, as a student’. Memory ruminated into present wisdom, without nostalgia.