Monday, December 1, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DEAR NEIL ROBERTS” by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “HOW TO BE DEAD IN A YEAR OF SNAKES” by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press, $NZ 24:99); “DISCONTENT AND ITS CIVILIZATIONS” by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin $NZ37)
Pardon me, as somebody who prefers to give you full-length and detailed reviews, for this week gathering together three books of quite different types for briefer attention. Two of them are books of poetry. Coincidentally both have as their starting point a specific event in New Zealand history. The third is a collection of newspaper pieces.
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Airini Beautrais’ Dear Neil Roberts has as its starting point the death, in 1982, of the 22-year-old anarchist Neil Ian Roberts, who blew himself up at the Police Computer Centre in Wanganui, apparently in protest at the Big Brother aspect of the whole system. The poems are as much a diary or blog as they are an attempt to understand what this action was all about, or to relate it to New Zealand history. Beautrais was born in the same year that Roberts killed himself. She lives and works in Wanganui, so there is a personal element to her attempt to reconstruct both the mentality of the anarchist and his significance, if any, to New Zealand society at large.
Dear Neil Roberts is organised as a series of voices, presenting different views of the young man and his self-immolation, as well as presenting autobiographical moments from the poet’s own life. Some of it is bracingly ironic. The poem “Finding the Story”, for example, is about a friend who played with the fashion-statement radical-chic aspect of anarchism as in
“My friend made a flag
from a bin liner and some red fabric.
Went with a buddy through the streets,
got batoned, got in with the cool kids.”
The ‘first person’ of many poems is clearly not the poet’s own voice. The poem “Press” gives us what editorials of the day thought about Roberts. According to an author’s note at the end, “By way of explanation” is made up entirely of quotations from the detective who investigated Roberts’ death, and comes across largely as an attempt to rationalise Roberts’ motives out of existence:
“Why people turn to that I don’t know,
but from experience I know that young people
sometimes can’t keep pace with the changes in society
and become very vulnerable to persuasion.”
In quite a contrasting tone, the poem “Man” is a collage made up of quotations taken from newspapers at the time, describing Neil Roberts and regretting or lamenting his death rather than celebrating it as some sort of symbolic statement: “He was scared of growing old. / His philosophy was that growing old was pointless.”
Oddly enough, I found the most arresting poems to be “Finding the Dead” and “Time” about trying to do archival research on Roberts’ death in the local library, and finding that the old fads and advertisements in newspapers of the day revealed the gulf between now and then.
Dear Neil Roberts is a loose sequence, but it does have some controlling and repeated images, such as Wanganui’s war memorial and the celebration of ANZAC Day and fact that the poet is pregnant as she writes and is carrying a life within her.
I would LIKE Roberts’ death to have as much significance as the poet wishes it had, when she connects him to the great anarchist tradition in “A sad, flippant kind of nihilism” (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Proudhon etc.) or when she regrets that he’s been written out of the record in “History books”. But in the end I’m left with an image of a 22-year-old kid who blew himself up; and I’m thinking his mind was no more formed than a 22-year-old soldier dying in battle and probably dying as pointlessly. And I am thinking the “propaganda of the act” (an anarchist phrase Beautrais never uses) is as much a weapon of the Right as of the Left. Roberts’ self-immolation is the self-immolation of a suicide bomber.
Yet poems such as “Machine”, “Death of a beast” and “Monster relic” remind us that the Wanganui computer was primitive compared to today’s surveillance and storage of information:
“UNIVAC stored data on ceramic discs,
in units the size of washing machines,
each with a 700 megabyte capacity.
Less than a thumb drive today. You could flush
that information down the toilet, now, squash
it with a small hammer.”
And it was the prospect of today’s privacy-less electronic wasteland against which Roberts was protesting. Perhaps he had a point.
Airini Beautrais likes to write in carefully-organised three- or four-line stanzas. Her book, unlike much current poetry, has the advantage of being clear in its meaning and very accessible. I mean this as a compliment.
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Chris Tse’s How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes has quite a different starting point. Tse is New Zealand born-and-raised but of Chinese ancestry. As I remarked in Poetry New Zealand issue #43, when I had the pleasure of reviewing Tse’s poetic debut in AUP New Poets 4 (2011), Tse’s poems celebrate a Chinese contribution to an earlier New Zealand, but they also lament a separation from the ancestral culture. Thus in his poetry sequence How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, there is, for Chinese pioneers in coming to New Zealand, “a veil of regret” in greeting the new sun-flooded landscape, and “needy hands / scratch at sky for solace”. For, in an alien land, what seems familiar, and what can feed the illusion that one is still in familiar surroundings, if not the sky?
One historical point of departure for How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes is the sinking of the SS Ventnor in 1902 off the Hokianga coast. It was carrying the remains of 499 Chinese miners, being repatriated to China for burial. While most of the cargo of corpses sank to the bottom of the sea with the ship, some drifted ashore and were buried by local iwi: “The departed cargo / thought doomed / to forgetful waters / instead finds its way / to open shores / rescued by the people of the land.”
This historical event is, however, mere prologue, reminding us of Chinese funerary customs and of the way the dead are traditionally honoured and remembered.
The sequence of poems then focuses on the death of one Chinese man in New Zealand and how he is (or is not) remembered. This was the Cantonese miner Joe Kum Yung, murdered in the streets of Wellington in 1905 by Lionel Terry, a demented man obsessed with “the Yellow Peril” and believing that he was striking a blow for the white race. At least one purpose of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes is to give Joe Kum Yung an identity after decades in which most New Zealanders who have heard of the case (including this reviewer) think of him simply as “the old Chinese man” killed by the demented Lionel Terry. Because Joe Kum Yung’s murder took place in the Year of the Snake, Chris Tse takes some time in his imagery to reflect on snakes, note the cunning nature of the snake in Terry, and connecting the image to the slipperiness in the way we interpret history.
Of the way Joe Kum Yung has been turned into a “case”, with his identity taken from him, Chris Tse writes: “So there goes / a life story reduced / to one gunshot / and there goes madness / in the form of public service / and there wait / those graceless thieves / of light and sound / slipping to a snake’s crawl / to rewrite his truths.”
Having spent one section of his sequence discoursing on New Zealand’s restrictive anti-Chinese immigration laws in the early 20th century, Chris Tse says of the New Zealand-European community: “They claimed good will / and mutual understanding / but they only know to keep / their hands to themselves / such as they are entranced / by the man with the gun and his echoes.”
Of the way the murdered man has been subsumed into Lionel Terry’s act he writes: “Lionel’s legacy in the history books: / racist, murderer. / But where is Joe? / Ah - / he’s with Lionel.”
While all that I have reported here is indeed in How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, I would be misrepresenting this volume if I made it appear so straightforwardly polemical. Chris Tse’s technique is highly reflective, almost introverted, like a series of restrained soliloquies rather than strident public verse. His poetry appears in irregular and fragmented lines. Choruses speak of “we” when it is not always clear to whom “we” refers. What I am saying is that this volume requires much concentration of the reader and, despite the evident feelings of the poet, is both opaque and a demanding read.
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I know that well-established novelists and poets frequently have published collections of their occasional writing, reviewing and the bits and pieces they have contributed to newspapers and magazines. Fair enough if you really are a well-established writer and have behind you a lifetime of such occasional scribbling from which to choose. But I’m not sure of the wisdom of younger writers, who have been at the game for only a few years, trying to pull the same stunt.
Mohsin Hamid is the youngish (43-years-old) Pakistan-born, American-educated, London-and-Lahore-resident novelist who has three novels behind him, all of which were bestsellers – Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. I was attracted to Discontent and its Civilizations by its rather smartarse title. (Yes. I know it’s a parody of Freud. No letters please.) This suggested something tart and witty. The book has, as Hamid’s introduction says, been “shaped” by the author from fifteen years worth of his “pieces” in the New York Times, the New Statesman, the Independent and elsewhere, and it bears the subtitle Dispatches from Lahore, New York, London.
So far, so good.
But when I start reading Hamid’s “pieces”, I find nearly all of them to be no more than averagely good op ed pieces of the sort that are churned out by hacks every day. I’m not saying that I disagree with Hamid’s views on many issues, most of which are quite sane. I’m just saying that there’s nothing here to suggest a writer of any more talent than the average column-filler – and certainly no pithy phrases or wit that extends beyond daily journalism. I ask snarkily if a publisher would have even considered this collection had the author not already been known for other stuff.
So in reading Discontent and its Civilizations, I found myself registering Hamid’s opinions on a number of issues and then noting simply whether I agreed or disagreed with him. My score-card goes thus:
Hamid: Three autobiographical pieces about losing the use of Urdu until he returned to Pakistan from the States, and discovering a counter-culture in Lahore and dancing.
Me: Interesting, but too brief to say much.
Hamid: Three more autobiographical pieces about the way airport passport control in the West look at him askew because he is dark-skinned and Muslim; about his parents’ fears as terror reaches Lahore; about how the English press is less self-censored than the American press.
Me: You have my sympathy.
Hamid: And three more autobiographical pieces about meeting a real Islamic nutter on the London underground. (Me: Ouch!). And becoming a father. (Me: Take it from a father… this is gooey cliché.). And deciding to move with wife and kid back to Pakistan. (Me: Okay).
Hamid: Three pieces about life in Pakistan now – a crowd watches the movie Avatar and relates it to American imperialism. Despite upheavals, parts of Pakistan are quiet and thriving. Despite threats to women and religious minorities, there is a growing cohort of open-minded and well-educated Pakistani university students.
Me: Thanks. This is encouraging journalism.
Hamid: Discusses his favourite novel, Antonio Tabucchi’s Sostiene Pereira.
Me: Fair enough.
Hamid: Discusses his own novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Me: Self-advertisement, mate.
Hamid: He likes using the second person in narrative; he likes reading Paris Review interviews; he wonders about e-books.
Me: Yawn! These pieces are too short to say much of interest.
Hamid: He wants us to believe TV mini-series are the equivalent of the great 19th century novels.
And so at last, now over halfway through the volume, we get to meatier pieces in the sections headed “Politics”. Longest piece in the book is the 22 pages of “Why Drones Don’t Help”. Second longest piece in the book is the 14 pages of “Why They Get Pakistan Wrong”. Both are withering critiques of US foreign policy as it relates to Pakistan, especially in the way US “aid” props up a military elite, indiscriminately lashes out at the general population and ignores the ethnic, religious and political diversity of the country. Wisest words in the book are the five pages of the concluding article “Islam is not a Monolith”, in which Hamid begs Westerners not to believe stereotypes about over one billion people.
Okay. As I said near the beginning of this notice, I do not disagree with WHAT Hamid is saying, which is sensible and occasionally informative stuff. I’m just saying that the brevity of most pieces makes them read as glib newspaper pieces and they do not make up a book of matured wisdom.