Monday, October 10, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE CATASTROPHE” by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press, $35)

I have to admit that I am not as well acquainted with the work of Ian Wedde as I should be. I know that he has published a dozen collections of poetry, that he is currently New Zealand’s Poet Laureate, that he now has six novels to his credit and that, at the age of 65, he is firmly established as part of the national literary scene. But, blushing furiously at my word-processor, I confess that the only one of his works I had read before The Catastrophe was his 2006 novel The Viewing Platform. That was both biting satire on the tourism industry and shrewd comment on the way the whole concept of tourism changes our perception of culture.

So, coming to The Catastrophe, I was primed to see Wedde as pre-eminently a satirist of the mores of the affluent.

In a way I was not disappointed.

There is a strong satirical element to this trim and well-organized novel and it does have its funny moments. But it is not comedy so much as a collision of two cultural realities. And sometimes it is a sad and slightly absurd story.

‘The Catastrophe’ is the name Palestinians give to the way over a million of them were stampeded out of their homeland at the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. But the novel begins with a very personal catastrophe.

Christopher Hare, down-on-his-luck New Zealand-born food writer and restaurant critic, sits in a restaurant in Nice. His wife Mary Pepper – who used to feature in his columns as “The Glace” (“Iced Tea”) – has left him and set up as a successful artist in her own right, photographing food in arty ways that amount to a sort of food pornography. His editor has basically given him the boot. Tastes have changed. Lip-licking spreads and superior articles on food aren’t selling glossy magazines as fast as they used to. Now is an age of financial collapse.

Into the restaurant dashes an armed woman, who shoots dead a man and a woman and dashes out again, leaving a Gucci bag behind her. On an impulse, Christopher Hare picks up the bag and rushes after the woman to return it. He finds himself in the getaway car, her hostage. It turns out that she is a Palestinian paediatrician, Dr Hawwa Habash. The couple she shot dead were her estranged husband and his new woman. But her motives were as political as they were personal. She was appalled to discover that her estranged husband was a profiteer who made money by ripping off Palestinian refugees in their miserable camps in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Here is the basic set-up. A guy who lives as a “junket journalist”, in a superficial world of consumerism, is now mixed up in a deadly serious political situation.  In the Palestinian doctor’s hideout, Christopher Hare waits uncomfortably as his captors decide what to do with him.

For this novel to work, you have to simply accept that Christopher Hare would act as impulsively and recklessly as he does in the opening chapter. Maybe he’s miserable enough to risk throwing away his life by returning a bag to an armed woman who has just killed two people. Maybe Hare is really hare-brained. It’s never made entirely clear.

Told as I’ve told it here, the premise could sound a bit like Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul – political naïf  brought up against the realities of terrorist tactics. But that is definitely not the way The Catastrophe develops.

The novel runs on two time streams.

In the present, Hare gets to know the Palestinian doctor, who understands his consumerist world better than Hare at first assumes she will. Wedde writes with a detailed knowledge of Palestinian culture and poetry and efficiently suggests the complexities of Palestinian society. Perhaps to avoid clichés about the Islamicist influence upon Palestinians, he makes Dr Hawwa Habash and her circle Christians.

In the past, we get Christopher Hare’s Bay of Plenty and Tolaga Bay background reconstructed in his memories (complete with Italian and Maori forebears); and Mary Pepper’s junketing and photography career reconstructed in her memories.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

In an interview with Iain Sharp in the October issue of Metro, Ian Wedde says he’s particularly proud of this novel because he thinks he has succeeded in creating a “well-told story”. He’s right. He has. And he reels it in when he has explored just enough of the cultural ironies.

The yawning gap between professional gourmet and starving refugees lurks in the background. The phrase “food is love” is often quoted. To feed the starving is an act of love, but is there really love in the eroticisation of food as found in wine-and-food-peddling media? Or for that matter in all those tiresome chick lit novels we’ve had recently which mix recipes with sex?

In the foreground is a man whose wife sees him as having a “maddening combination of indifference and excess”, almost the perfect description of a lifestyle journalist. The hearty love of food of his Italian forebears has been corrupted into a commodity. Of course there are multiple meanings in the characters’ names. Hare runs from the realities of his upbringing and the big political situation. Pepper goes well with a served dish like hare (or maybe once spiced up his life).

This is satire on one strand of our media-made reality and – like The Viewing Platform – comes close to being a reflection on reality itself. 

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