Kāwai: For such a time as this by Monty Soutar (Bateman Books, 2022), 372pp, $49.99
Takina ou kāwai, kia mohiotia ai ou tupuna—E kimi ana I ngā kāwai i toro ki tawhiti (‘Of a man looking up relatives at a distance’). I begin with a quotation from William Williams’ 1844 Māori-language dictionary definition of the term ‘kāwai’ to emphasise the layered meaningfulness and the aptness of this title for Monty Soutar’s novel, his first. Beginning this way also parallels the author’s approach of using phrases and words in te reo Māori, followed by their English translation.
Foremost in Soutar’s kaupapa, or reason for writing this book, is an attempt to present the forgotten or amnesiac past of Aotearoa New Zealand, while showing empathy or at least an understanding that we can all benefit from. As Soutar puts it: ‘Māori have long memories. It’s about remembering the past, and that’s a huge part of the motivation for this book. If you don’t educate people about the past, you are bound to repeat it.’
So, the first two pages of Kāwai consist of whakapapa, the Māori way of remembering: outlining the genealogy relating to the main character’s whānau. This family tree begins with Haere, the eponymous ancestor of Ngāti Haere, then follows down through the generations of ancestors to ‘The Young Man’, who was born in 1961. The next two pages list characters who appear in the novel, much in the way of Victorian novelists like William Makepeace Thackery. This is particularly helpful for readers who may not be familiar with Māori names.
The use of real people, authentic rituals and non-anachronistic religious practices are all spiced with the author’s own creative interpretation. Dr Soutar uses oral history, whakapapa and genealogical records, family manuscripts, Māori Land Court records, and other archival material to authenticate the lives of the characters in his novel. In te ao Māori, the Māori world, this can be both problematic and painful as many Māori feel that, in this telling, they are surrendering taonga (treasures), especially in the realm of family manuscripts.
Some may feel whakamā, or shame, when personal whānau details are revealed, while others may see it as giving away ngā puku, family secrets that may be used against them or their whānau members, living or dead. But regarding the knowledge he has received through his various sources, Soutar has said: ‘I don’t think my ancestors entrusted me with it so I could keep it to myself. I think because I had the skills to convey this through writing, perhaps that’s why. Maybe this wasn’t all chance. That I had a greater purpose in receiving this material.’
The prologue to Kāwai acts as both a portent and portal for the rest of the story. Taking place in 1980, it provides the main underlying kaupapa for the novel’s direction. A young man who has just completed his first year of a degree in Education returns to his ancestral marae to try and capture some sense of his Māori past, after his family has left for life in the city. His father, a school teacher, tells his son to get a Pākehā education because ‘knowing Māori won’t get you a job’. But the boy (perhaps the young Soutar?) is drawn back to the ancestral home by a force he feels rather than understands. As he pauses outside his ancestral pā, he is abruptly conscious of just how ignorant he is of his hapu and his place in it, and even of the place of the marae in the scheme of things. By overcoming this ignorance, both Māori and Pākehā, Soutar wants to show people living in Aotearoa New Zealand that this is a way to heal the trauma of the past that informs the present.
The novel proper begins in the year 1734 at Te Maniaroa. In the aftermath of a bloody battle, Tāwae, a young rangatira, gradually regains consciousness. As he tries to make sense of his surroundings, he can smell a familiar scent, which he slowly realises is the smell of blood and death. He has been lying under a pile of recently slain bodies and realises he must get away quickly, as he hears the grotesque humour of the victors mocking and insulting the dead of his whānau and hapū.
When Tāwae finally begins to move away from the place of slaughter, he mutters to himself: ‘Ki te mate au, ko wai he mōrehu hei kawe kōrero ki te iwi e auhi ana?’ Thinking this, he expresses one of Soutar’s central concerns in writing this pukapuka: to bear witness. ‘If I should die, who will report what happened here to our grief-stricken people?’ Of course, here the author is making the point that war did not start with colonisation and the coming of the Pākehā.
Ka rere te awa o te wā: The river, time, flows on. Six years later, it is 1740 and Tāwae is living with his wahine at Ngāpō Village on the east coast of the North Island. Kiri is in the throes of giving birth. Her labour is brief but intense and soon after the baby is born, she cries out ‘Ā, taku tama’ as she welcomes her boy child to the world. She then says: ‘E taku tama, kia ora tōu ngākau i tōu taitamarikitanga. Hei te tau titoki rā anō ka tuku whakarere i to tinana ki te mate.’ She is telling her son to enjoy his childhood because in the future he will be handing his body over to the clutches of death. Thus Soutar, the storyteller, readies us for another tale.
Henceforth, the novel becomes a powerful tour de force, combining scenarios inspired by Māori history and experience to depict the conflict and carnage, the vengeance manifested by utu, the witchcraft and kaitangata feasts of human flesh, the treatment of slaves and women. (When I told one of my friends about the penis fantasies some of the women characters had when observing defeated slain warriors, she said it must have been written by a man, and I confirmed to her it was!) However, despite, or perhaps because of, the relentless depictions of murders, blood-letting, revenge and tragedy—most of which could apply to the majority of human history (think of the violent and tortuous history of most European societies, the Anglo-Saxons, the Huns, the Celts, not to mention the terrors of Hitler’s and Stalin’s atrocities, and right up to Putin’s behaviour in the present day)—Kāwai is a powerful and emotionally-moving imaginative recreation of Aotearoa New Zealand’s lost or ignored history.
Amid all the grand historical vistas, Kāwai is also about the small, everyday existence of human beings as they love and live their lives together. There is tenderness between men and women, parents and children, comrades and friends, and nuanced depictions of relationships. Later in the novel, for example, when Kai, the baby born at the beginning, has become a well-known and revered warrior chief, he visits his ailing wife, Wai. He asks why she doesn’t talk to him anymore. She replies: ‘My thoughts and opinions are not valued around here. You would think they might be, as I am high born just as you are. But you’re the one with all the glory. There is only room for one hero in our house.’ She tells him to take the advice of their tipuna, Hau, and find another wife. This upsets Kai, who says he doesn’t want another wife and walks away confused and angry.
Kāwai, in my view, is a Great New Zealand novel—a novel that will both enter the canon and be read. In the epilogue, the young man and the old man of the prologue talk about the stories the old man shared, which have become Kāwai, tenei pukapuka (this book). Kai, the name of the present-day young man, has asked the old man what proof he had for all these stories. The old man splutters, almost choking on his tea: ‘What proof do I have?’ Kai deeply regrets asking the question.
Dr Monty Soutar is of Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki and Ngāti Kahungunu descent. He is a Māori historian with a passion for inspiring rangatahi, particularly young rural Māori. He has a research and teaching background spanning almost 40 years and served in the New Zealand Army. Soutar also worked for two years with the Department of Māori Affairs. His two previous non-fiction publications were Ngā Tamatoa: The Price of Citizenship. C Company 28 (Māori) Battalion 1939–1945, published in 2008, and Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E! Māori in the First World War, which was published in 2019.
In becoming a fiction writer, Soutar is on a mission to reach a wider audience so that the ongoing history of Māori as tangata whenua might be better understood and appreciated by all. Kāwai is the first book in a proposed trilogy. The second and third novels will cover intertribal musket warfare, the New Zealand Land Wars, urbanisation and beyond.
Monty Soutar is a kaitiaki of Rongoitekai Marae in Ruatōria, on the North Island’s East Coast. As he has stated: ‘My thinking is tied up with identity. If you know who you are, where you came from and who your ancestors were, you’re more likely to go through life with confidence. I think that’s the reason I’ve been able to meet my life’s challenges—I know who I am, I know my past. I don’t live in the past, but it gives me reassurance, so I can move forward.’ Whakapapa and a sense of identity are his source of confidence; they give him the conviction and energy required to write this trilogy of novels. When he begins a whaikōrero or formal speech as a kaumātua on his marae, he chants Ko Hikurangi te maunga, Ko Makatote te awa, Ko Te Aitanga a Mate te hāpu. (Hikurangi is the mountain, Makatote is the river, Te Aitanga-a-Mate are the people). And in the end, that sense of being people of the land, who possess a rich harvest of stories through their ancestors, is the narrative being told in Kāwai: the proof, you might say.
MICHAEL O’LEARY is a writer, small-press publisher and bookshop proprietor based in Paekākāriki. He holds a doctorate from Victoria University Wellington Te Herenga Waka and is the author of many novels and collections of poetry.