Monday, November 26, 2018
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We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SEE NO EVIL” by Maire Leadbeater (Otago University Press, $NZ49:95) “LET’S GET LOST” Text by Nicola McCloy - photographs by Jane King (Penguin / Random House, $45)
When a book is subtitled “New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua”, you know it is a book of advocacy – that is, a book arguing a case. In See No Evil, Maire Leadbeater, veteran activist in many causes, is not concerned to tell a general history of modern Papua or Indonesia, but to indict the complacency and complicity of New Zealand in Indonesia’s take-over of the western half of the land we used to call New Guinea. (Indonesians prefer to call it West Irian or Irian Jaya).
As her friend, former Green MP Catherine Delahunty says in her Foreword: “There is no claim here that New Zealand is a global superpower with the ability to turn the situation around single-handedly, but it is a wealthier neighbour whose self-interest has aligned it with state violence, torture and structural genocide.”
Leadbeater sets out her argument succinctly in her Introduction. As the Dutch decolonised in the 1940s and 1950s, and as the Dutch East Indies ceased to be, New Zealand’s government at first favoured a united and independent Papua / New Guinea. But this was the era of the Cold War, so New Zealand agreed with Australia and the United States that Indonesia would be a helpful buffer against Communism. Hence by the 1960s it joined others in giving Indonesia a free hand in West Papua.
Having set up this argument, See No Evil then delves into more detailed history. The Papuan peoples were labelled “Melanesian” by Europeans and have accepted that appellation. Racially, culturally and linguistically they are quite distinct from the Malay peoples who became Indonesians, and very few Indonesians lived in West Papua. When Papua was colonised by Europeans, the eastern half was divided between the Germans and the British. Then after the Second World War – and after brief Japanese occupation of some areas - it was administered by Australia. Meanwhile the western part was a Dutch colony.
The Dutch were apparently more benign colonisers than the British or Germans and, when they resumed control after the Second World War, they were a great improvement on the Japanese occupiers. But after 1945, the world admired the Indonesian national liberation movement, and Indonesian nationalists lay claim to all of the Asian empire from which the Dutch were withdrawing. New Zealand and Australia at first supported continued Dutch control of West Papua until such time as Papuans themselves could vote on independence. Those West Papuans who could make their wishes known were opposed to an Indonesian takeover. But by the 1950s, the US saw Indonesia as suffering from too much communist influence, hoped the Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno would be a bulwark against Communism and therefore did not want to thwart his expansionist ambitions.
As Leadbeater sees it (in Chapter 4) the Dutch administering West New Guinea were more humane administrators than the Australians administering East New Guinea. They mixed more easily with Papuans on social occasions and were genuinely trying to form a cohort of Papuans capable of ruling the country, even if at that time, in the central highlands, there were still many Papuans beyond western influence. Walter Nash, New Zealand’s prime minister at the end of the 1950s, advocated one united and independent Papua / New Guinea. The Netherlands set out a 10-year timetable for ceding independence, under UN supervision, while continuing to train Papuans.
In 1961, a New Guinea Council was inaugurated, the Morning Star flag (of Papuan independence) was raised and local elections were peacefully and successfully held in coastal areas. But at this moment of hope, there was increasing Indonesian infiltration of West Papua. The United States, wishing to accommodate Indonesian ambitions, brokered a new “agreement” between the Netherlands and Jakarta. This New York Agreement involved allowing Indonesia to take over administration from the Dutch in 1963, after seven months of United Nations supervision, and then only after another 6 years, in 1969, to “consult” the Papuans on the question of independence. In New Zealand, the academic Kenneth Cumberland was one of the few to protest publicly against this arrangement and to still hope for a united, independent Papua.
The New Zealand government by now had very mixed feelings about Indonesia, and in 1963-65 New Zealand forces were among those who fought against Indonesia in its “confrontation” with Malaysia. America was also now worried that Sukarno used too much anti-colonial rhetoric and sometimes welcomed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a major ally. It also seemed clear that as 1969 approached, Indonesia would not honour the planned plebiscite on West Papuan independence. Indonesia had already made Indonesian the only official language in West Papua.
In 1965, in Indonesia itself, some generals were assassinated. Leadbeater says this was not a communist initiative, and its perpetrators had nothing to do with main PKI, but it gave the military strongman Suharto an excuse to crack down on Communists. Between 500,000 and 1 million suspected communisits were killed by the Indonesian army and police and there was also a purge of ethnic Chinese. From this point on, Suharto was clearly taking over from Sukarno, though it was was Sukarno, with his incoherent foreign policy, who referred to 1965 as “The Year of Living Dangerously”.
By now, Indonesia was moving both troops and settlers into West Papua. Despite moneys that the Dutch had contributed as they left, Indonesia did little to improve West Papuan infrastructure or health services. There was little international protest. Increasingly New Zealand, Australia and others saw friendly relations with 112 million Indonesians as being more important than the needs or wishes of a few million Papuans.
In the central West Papuan highlands, there was a rebellion against Indonesia’s gradual takeover, but it was put down with great brutality. Finally in 1969, the Indonesian government and troops used coercion to rig a supposed “Act of Free Choice”, forcing Papuans to accept their overlordship. Western and Arab and Asian nations (such as India) accepted Indonesia’s position. In 1975, (Eastern) Papua New Guinea ceased to be under Australian control and became independent. In West Papua, there was continued guerrilla resistance throughout the 1970s, but the Papuan independence movement (the OPM) suffered factionalism and split. A dirty war was carried out by Indonesia, in which napalm and the strafing of villages played a part. Villages in the highlands were forcibly “modernised” by being re-aligned to break up tribal and family connections. By 1984, there were about 220,000 sponsored and unsponsored Indonesian migrants in West Papua and the Papuan population was being “swamped” in coastal areas and ports.
Not to be overlooked in all this were matters of economics and international investment. In the 1930s, a major oilfield was found in West Papua by an American team (Leadbeater says its existence was not revealed to the Dutch colonial government) and large seams of gold were found in the interior mountains.
By the 1990s, having bought a major concession from the Indonesian government, the Freeport-McMoRan company was controlling huge copper and gold mines, paying massive kickbacks to corrupt Indonesian officials. Freeport-McMoRan was the largest taxpayer on West Papua and the source of over half West Papua’s GDP. But it was also a major polluter and none of its profits found their way to the West Papuan people.
There were internal challenges to the Suharto regime by the 1990s. In 1997, Suharto was persuaded to step down and there was some liberal reform in Indonesia itself – but not very much, as the military still had great power. There was hope for a “Papuan spring”, with Indonesia proposing “special autonomy” (as opposed to independence) for West Papua. But this proposal was never really followed through, and the behaviour of the Indonesian army did not augur well for the future. Indonesia had lost East Timor after a popular, UN-supervised referendum there. In revenge, the Indonesian army went on a rampage in East Timor and killed much of the population before UN forces were able to take over. Such “punishment” could be West Papua’s in similar circumstances.
So far, in a bland and boring fashion, I have simply summarised the relevant history as it is narrated by Maire Leadbeater. But this ignores the main target of her criticism, which is the way successive New Zealand governments have complied with Indonesia’s absorption of West Papua. Her comments on this matter tend to come in self-contained paragraphs.
Of the massacre of communists in Indonesia in 1965, she writes: “Western nations, including New Zealand, were influential actors in the drama. From the documentation available it cannot be concluded definitively that the US or any other Western government played a direct role in fomenting the events of 1 October, but there is plenty of evidence that officials were waiting in the wings for the PKI to misstep or mount a coup so that their friends in the Indonesian military could move against them. New Zealand, as a junior partner in the Western alliance, was kept well informed.” (p.120)
Similarly, of Indonesia’s “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, she says: “The New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs prepared a briefing paper for the New Zealand UN Mission in September. There was no attempt to disguise the fact that the Indonesian authorities used coercion, bribery, intimidation and indoctrination to achieve the desired result. But it was now done and dusted.” The New Zealand report said there was no “practical” alternative to what the Indonesians had done, Indonesians had in effect been in control of West Papua for six years, and New Zealand would therefore not protest in the UN should there be a debate on the matter. (p.157)
She notes that in supporting the Columbo Plan, New Zealand allowed Indonesian military pilots to train in New Zealand, as well as welcoming over 500 Indonesian students. In 1972, Suharto visited New Zealand and was given an effusive state reception by National Party prime minister Marshall. The same friendly attitude towards Indonesia continued with Norman Kirk’s Labour government and the later Lange government. New Zealand governments were mainly interested in trade and regional security, with little thought for the Papuan people.
Leadbeater’s final chapter has the self-explanatory title “New Zealand chooses the wrong partners, but West Papuans find Pacific allies”. In the last two decades successive New Zealand governments (National-led and Labour-led) have endorsed a common defence strategy with Indonesia; and New Zealand had programmes training Indonesian pollice. But, says Leadbeater, “The strategy of engaging with Indonesia’s security forces in an effort to improve their practice has failed. It is time for a re-evaluation, especially in the light of claims that the West Papuan people are experiencing a slow genocide.” (p.232) Leadbeater here defines genocide not as methodical extermination, but as deliberate imposition upon West Papuans of appalling living conditions, limitations of medical aid, and especially the huge influx of non-Papuan Indonesians, ensuring that the island’s culture and traditional identity are wiped out.
As a slight sign of hope, she refers to some positive news coverage of Papuan independence-seekers at times when Indonesia has eased censorship a little. She is impressed by the way churches and other humanitarians have continued to support West Papuan aspirations and the favourable media coverage Papuan leaders receive when they visit New Zealand. But in her “Conclusion”, she still notes that the current Labour-led government of New Zealand has essentially continued the same policies of preceding governments, making trade and good relations with Indonesia their priorities.
I might have a very few little quibbles with this book. The tone is lowered when that old charlatan Rewi Alley is quoted as a reliable source (pp.126-127). The survey of Indonesian events probably underplays the upsuge of popular Muslim feeling that was a major factor in the anti-communist movement – and the fact that Indonesia now is a very Islamic country aligned with some questionable forces.
These are, however, quibbles only. This is a detailed work of polemic. I ended it thinking how similar Indonesia’s gradual and often brutal conquest of West Papua has been to another, and even more lethal, conquest by a totalitarian nation. Just as Indonesians “swamp” Papuans, so do Han Chinese “swamp” Tibetans as China has taken over Tibet and suppressed its culture. And the pile of corpses there has been even greater. Now the Chinese are apparently following the same policies among the Uyghur people of its westernmost province.
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Compared with what I have just been discussing, the book that follows might appear trite and frivolous – but I hope you good readers will indulge me as I make this odd juxtaposition. Subtitled “Great New Zealand Road Trips”, Let’s Get Lost is a travel guide, but not one of those dreary compilations that simply list places to stay, prices and the most popular sights to see. Author (Nicola McCloy) and photographer (Jane King) certainly make recommendations, but they have also produced a real travel book with its own quirkiness.
Their technique is to regard journeys in New Zealand as real road trips – not just hops from A to B, but long, leisurely drives with many stops on the way, following those road signs that take you off main routes, lead you up side-roads, and bring you to those local attractions that more hasty tourists miss in their rush. The attractions may be an unexpected vantage point from which to view spectacular scenery or a neglected historical site, or one of those low-tech tourist attractions like somebody’s collection of teapots or a well-restored country pub.
Their itineraries are five North Island trips and four South Island trips – viz. Northland, Coromandel, the North Island’s East Coast, Taranaki and the Central Plateau, Manawatu and Wairarapa; and on the South Island the north-west (Marlborough, Tasman etc.) , the West Coast, North and Central Otago, and Queenstown to Southland. In each case, we are provided with driving times between desired destinations and suggestions as to the number of nights each trip should probably take. The assumption is that we will linger and spend whole days at one destination before moving on.
I will admit that Nicola McCloy’s prose style is often gushy. Apparently she has never been disappointed in any destination she has aimed for. In Let’s Get Lost quirky local attractions are always fascinating, the scenery is always wonderful, and keepers of pubs, cafés, and bookshops are always charming, helpful and hospitable. Well, the book is an incitement to a form of tourism, after all.
Woolgathering among the photos is naturally one of the main attractions of Let’s Get Lost and for me personally it is a reminder that the one part of New Zealand I have never explored is the North Island’s East Coast (sorry, but I’ve never visited Gisborne or the East Cape). I will take this book with me when I go there.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS” by Graham Greene (first published 1936)
At one time or another I have read most (but not all) of the novels of Graham Greene (1904-1991) and, given that most of his works were filmed, I have seen many of the films associated with him. (See my post on The End of the Affair and The Quiet American). But quite a bit of Greene’s ouevre has sat unread on my shelves for years and every so often I will take down and read a work by Greene that I haven’t previously cracked. Most recently it was not a novel, but his first travel book Journey Without Maps.
In early 1935 young Greene, than aged 31, chose to make his first trip outside Europe. He had already visited places like France and Berlin and Lithuania but, though he was later to become a compulsive globetrotter, the rest of the world was unknown to him. So he chose to visit the small West African republic of Liberia.
Apart from Abyssinia (Ethiopia), which was just about to be overrun by Mussolini, Liberia was then the only state in Africa that was not colonised and ruled by whites. This intrigued Greene. But I’m fairly sure there was another motive. As I noted in my posting about Greene’s first published novel The Man Within (1929), the shadow of Joseph Conrad still hung over him and influenced his way of looking at the world. Africa to him was the Africa of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, cruelly conquered, administered and exploited by Europeans, but primitive and daunting, perhaps a place of nightmares and perhaps an archetype of the murky human soul. Three times in Journey Without Maps, Greene uses the phrase “heart of darkness”, once he directly cites that novella by name, and he also refers to a character from Conrad’s little-read Arrow of Gold. The title Journey Without Maps can be taken literally – in 1935 much of Liberia was unmapped and unexplored by Europeans. But Greene also gives a metaphorical explanation of his chosen title and of the meaning of his journey: “The method of psycho-analysis is to bring the patient back to the idea which he is repressing: a long journey backwards without maps, catching a clue here and a clue there, as I caught the names of villages from this man and that, until one has to face the general idea, the pain or the memory.” (Part 2, Chap. 1) Travelling through Liberia is travelling through the dark places of his own psyche.
It’s easy enough to convey the literal course of his journey. Greene sailed from Liverpool, via Madeira and the Canaries, to the British West African colony of Sierra Leone. He comments a little dyspeptically on boozy and hearty English passengers on the ship before he reached Freetown. He crossed the border from Sierra Leone into the north-west part of Liberia, having, naturally, to bribe corrupt border guards. This was the beginning of a three hundred mile trek through country in which many of the local Africans had either never seen a white man before or at least had not seen one for decades. It was far from comforts and conveniences because “in the climate of West Africa books rot, pianos go out of tune, and even a gramophone record buckles” (Part 1, Chap.3) First he journeyed from village to village through Liberia’s northern provinces, where the sun beats down through sparse bush. At one stage he crossed through a chunk of neighbouring French Guinea (now called just Guinea). Then he turned south towards the coast, now going through dense and quite trackless rainforest, where it often poured down. He notes the differences between tribal groups but especially notes how different Liberian indigenes are from the Muslim, fez-wearing Mandingo traders across the border in Guinea
And what does he encounter and describe on this journey? Dark and tiny villages in thick bush; guinea worms in streams, choking dust on the track, cockroaches, jiggers digging under toenails and laying eggs, ants everywhere, rats swarming down the walls of huts at night, snakes, and fear of elephants in the rainforest. He suffers fever in the last leg of his trek and declares, with a typical echo of youthful melancholia: “The fever would not let me sleep at all, but by the early morning it was sweated out of me. My temperature was a long way below normal, but the worst boredom of the trek for the time being was over. I had made a discovery through the night which interested me. I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living. I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable.” (Part 3, Chap.4)
He finally makes it to the coastal area of Grand Bassa and then takes a boat to Liberia’s shabby little capital Monrovia, where he spends nine days. He makes small and telling comments on the general politics and culture of Liberia in the course of his bushwhacking. But it is only in the last chapter, titled “Postscript in Monrovia”, that he takes general stock of the country’s status.
As he sees it, despite being governed by black Africans, Liberia is as much a Western colony as any other African country at that time. It was, after all, an artificial creation, founded in 1847 as a settlement for former slaves from the United States of America. Greene waspishly suggests that part of the motive for the nation’s foundation was that American slaveowners were getting rid of their “bastards” – that is, the offspring they had fathered on slave women. He also notes that the freed slaves who settled Liberia were descendants of people who had been dragged from West Africa over two centuries previously, and they were therefore not people who thought as Africans, but as Americans. They were Westernised. In effect, though they were black, the ruling elite of Liberia, living mainly in the coastal areas, looked down on the peoples and tribes in the interior of the country in exactly the same way that white colonisers would have done. The people in the interior regarded them as alien, and as worse than the French or British imperialists in nearby countries. Greene remarks at one point “Everywhere in the north I found myself welcomed because I was a white, because they hoped all the time that a white nation would take them over.” (Part 2, Chap.2) To make matters worse, at the time Greene was travelling there, the American Firestone corporation had gained an exclusive concession in Liberia to exploit its rubber. Therefore vast tracts of land were given over to latex extraction, with the result that relatively little agriculture could be undertaken in the interior.
Journey Without Maps is a vivid and robust travel book, but of course there are things that mark it out as a book written over 80 years ago. Not on every page, but frequently enough, young Greene unselfconsciously uses racial epithets that would now be frowned upon. An African woman flirting with a drunk European is a “stout black bitch”; African children are called “piccaninnies”; the porters Greene hires are “boys”. He has a total of 25 African porters carrying his baggage through the jungle, one in particular, called Amedoo, becoming his personal servant. At one point Greene bargains his porters out of getting higher wages and he sometimes has to sort out quarrels between porters of different tribes, like a colonial administrator. In his long journey, it is Greene’s habit to walk ahead of his large team of porters, but sometimes, when he is feverish, he is carried by the porters in a hammock. Add to this the solar topee that he wears and the huge load of luggage his “boys” have to carry - including his indispensible supply of whisky and quinine – and inevitably, to modern eyes, this evokes the stereotypical image the “Great White Hunter” who lounges and adventures while the Africans work.
Yet this is far from being the main effect of Journey Without Maps for, like Conrad, Greene sees a moral equivalence between African and European and whenever he mentions something primitive, bizarre or disgusting in Africa, he is quick to point out that it is no stranger or unnatural than European norms. Masked “devils” (shamans) conduct “bush schools” in which young initiates are scarred with knives in a primitive form of tattooing, and the “devil” strikes terror in the village even if the villagers are fully aware that behind the mask there is a village elder. Greene encounters an Alligator Society, a Terrapin Society, and a Snake Society for those who worship these animals as fetishes. There are people who claim to be able to make lightning with malign intent and there are rumours of cannibalism and human sacrifce deeper in the rainforest. But Greene reminds us that the masked shaman is very like the traditional British Jack-in-the-Green from an earlier pagan age; and at one point he likens the protean and apparently changing nature of this “devil” to a character in Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss. He also uses the technique of inserting into his text flashbacks to England where he recalls the “seedy” (one of his favourite words) side of English life - the army officer with a penchant for brothels; the genteel old woman revering the crazed “prophetess” Joanna Southcott; the verminous English gypsy buried in rock-hard coldness of winter; the old pervert eyeing up young children in a Kensington Park, as grotesque and strange as anything seen in Liberia.
His comments on Christian missionaries in Liberia are a little more positive, but they also have their ironic edge as he encounters a convent of Episcopalian nuns, a whiny American Lutheran woman, a German Seventh Day Adventist missionary, a very practical Methodist medical missionary, and a black Catholic convert who brings a boy to recite the Catechism to Greene. [In this book Greene gives a rather dispirited account of his own conversion and baptism, saying he accepted Catholic teaching intellectually. but not emotionally.]
In many respects, then, Greene’s view of African society is very akin to that of Chinua Achebe’s Nigerian novel ThingsFall Apart. Greene is sceptical of any benefits (black) American colonisation may have brought to this country. For all its strangeness and even horrors, indigenous ways are seen as being coherent and cohesive in their own terms. But they are not idealised and there is no hint of the “noble savage”. Original sin is universal.
Despite its unfortunate racial epithets noted above, Journey Without Maps is an enlightened book for its age.
There are, however, two things for which I would criticise it.
First, I believe Greene sometimes shows false modesty. Early in the book, he claims to be embarrassed when he finds a film made of his thriller Stamboul Train (the American film was titled Orient Express) playing in a dingy local cinema in Tenerife in the Canaries. He says his novel was written only for money and the film was rubbish. I wonder, was he really embarrassed? Remember, Greene was only 28 when he wrote Stamboul Train and this was the first time one of his novels was made into a movie. At that age, I’m sure he would have been very happy with the royalties he got.
Second, and with the deepest of regret, I have to note a habit of Greene’s that was later in his life to become an abiding failing. In his journey, Greene meets the African-American mercenary Colonel Elwood Davis, who had been under investigation by a commission of the League of Nations for atrocities he carried out against the Kru people. Greene talks with Davis and is basically charmed by him, depicting him more-or-less as an interesting buccaneer and gifted raconteur. (Later, he has a similarly over-positive assessment of his meeting with Liberia’s President Barclay). I believe this was the first time Greene was taken in by a lethal criminal or rascal. Later in his life, Greene served in the British secret service (three years stationed in Sierra Leone in the Second World War) and became friends with Kim Philby. He would never shift from his favourable assessment of Philby, even when the man proved to be a Soviet “sleeper”. Indeed he wrote an admiring preface to Philby’s KGB-blessed autobiography My Secret War after Philby defected to the USSR. Similarly, late in his life, Greene wrote a painfully hagiographic book Getting to Know the General (1981) about Panama’s strongman General Omar Torrijos Herrera. It would seem that the writer who was so disenchanted with “seedy” middle-class British (and American) democracy could persuade himself that nearly any alternative was good. The atrocity-committing Colonel Davis was the first major criminal to be depicted favourably by Greene.
By the way, from our perspective eighty years later, there is a grim footnote to all this. Between 1989 and 2003, under the notorious Charles Taylor, civil war ripped Liberia apart. Between 500,000 and one million Liberians were slaughtered. Charles Taylor is still serving out the 50-year prison sentence he was handed by the International Court of Justice for all the atrocities he approved. Compared with Taylor’s, Davis’ atrocities are small beer. Gosh, how we have progressed!
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So far, I have given you an honest reaction to Greene’s book as I read it. There is, however, one very important footnote that has to be added, and it concerns the way a writer can, by omission, distort the very nature of the things he is reporting. In Journey Without Maps, Greene very occasionally notes that throughout his whole Liberian trip he was accompanied by “my cousin”. He mentions “my cousin” fleetingly only four or five times in the whole book, once noting that “my cousin” is a woman and having only one brief passage in which he gives her some part in the story – he reports their shared misery when he had fever (Part 3, Chap.4). If you weren’t reading closely, you could easily miss that she was even there. She is never given a name.
After reading Journey Without Maps, I waded through the two chapters (57 pages) that Norman Sherry devotes to Greene’s Liberian trip in his biography of Greene (Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene Volume 1 – 1904-1939, first published in 1989, when Greene was still alive). The unnamed cousin was Barbara Greene. She was even younger than Greene when they undertook this journey. She was 23, and basically came with her cousin on a whim and because she was bored with London. Norman Sherry – who retraced Greene’s Liberian journey in 1980, and found the country now ridden with violence – makes it clear that Greene made some elementary mistakes in his journey. He thought his trek through the interior of Liberia would take two weeks. It took four weeks. This was in part because he did not take advice from both a more experienced traveller and his African porters, and he insisted they take what turned out to be the wrong track.
More important, in his account Greene omitted the fact that it was his young cousin Barbara who nursed him when he had fever and was apparently near death. Both Barbara and Graham kept diaries throughout their journey. Norman Sherry quotes from both diaries, which are sometimes more frank than Journey Without Maps is. In her diary, Barbara Greene noted that one of the village chiefs they met ogled her extensively and seems to have asked Graham how much she would cost.
Barbara Greene wrote her own account of the journey called Land Benighted, later re-published under a different title as Too Late To Turn Back. I have not caught up with this book, but apparently it gives a very different perspective on some of the events that appear in Journey Without Maps.
Why did Graham Greene basically cut his cousin out of his story – especially as she was the only person who shared with him the whole expedition from England to Liberia and back again? There seems to have been no animosity between them (Sherry quotes from friendly letters they were still exchanging years later). My guess is that to mention her in any detail would have destroyed the illusion Graham Greene wanted to create of being the solitary European traveller cleansing his soul in the trackless African wilderness.
Lesser footnote: For the record, two of Greene’s later novels are set in Africa, but neither is set in Liberia. The Heart of the Matter is set in Sierra Leone (where Greene worked for three years in the 1940s) and A Burnt-Out Case is set in what was then the Belgian Congo. The only fictitious use Greene made of Liberia was in one of his short stories, “A Chance for Mr. Lever”.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
LET’S PRETEND IT NEVER HAPPENED
So what is your attitude towards the removal or destruction of historical monuments which some people now find offensive? Although it is not a new phenomenon, there has been much discussion about it over the last year because of attacks upon monuments to the old Confederacy, in some southern parts of the United States.
I confess that I am in two minds about the whole issue.
Of course we approve when we see old newsreels of American soldiers blowing up the huge swastika that overlooked the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally site. Of course we remember with pleasure that, when the old Soviet Union collapsed, the peoples of Eastern European countries gleefully tore down all those dreary statues of Lenin that had been imposed upon them. It was fun, too, to see the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet Union’s secret police, being toppled in Moscow itself. (But alas, under the new-style autocracy that is modern Russia, statues of Dzerzhinsky have been re-erected in places).
Where the symbols of totalitarian regimes are destroyed by those hoping for democracy, there seems to me to be no ethical problem.
And (shameful confession here), I must admit to sometimes being amused at demolitions that were not aimed at a totalitarian regime. Good on the IRA splinter-group that blew up Nelson’s pillar in Dublin in 1966, say I. It was intended by its creators to be a sign of English dominance – one of those cultural reminders of Irish submission, saying in effect “croppies lie down”. It had no place in the Irish capital. Near where it once stood, there is now a statue of the Irish socialist Jim Larkin.
But what about situations in which a population is divided over the worth of an old statue or monument?
Some white southerners in the USA still have heroic ideas about the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, and resent initiatives to remove or demolish statues to their military heroes. For others, however, the Confederacy represents the defence of slavery; and any physical reminders of the Confederacy merely give it respectability. I can fully understand African-Americans’ desire to remove monuments of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He may have been a skilful cavalry commander, but he was also notorious for his rabid upholding of slavery, for massacring any dis-armed black Union soldiers whom his men had captured, and for being a founder-member of the original Ku Klux Klan. Really not a man who deserves to be honoured in a town square.
But what about (apparently) more honourable Confederate soldiers such as “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee and others? Do their statues really deserve to be torn down? When this was being discussed in 2017, my own opinion was that if statues of such men were deemed offensive, then rather than tearing them down, there should be erected next to them monuments to Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King and other people who worked for liberation. But my argument hasn’t flown. By now, dozens of Confederate monuments have been removed, including the large statue of Robert E. Lee that stood in New Orleans.
Why am I being so delicate about this matter?
First, I think removing monuments and statues of which we now disapprove can be a species of sanitising the past – in effect of pretending the past never happened. This can be at one which the distortion which I mentioned on an earlier post about so-called “historical” novels (see Like Unto DNA for Dinosaurs) - the distortion which says that all the people worth remembering from the past must have had exactly the same set of values that we have. We ignore the fact that people who upheld what we now see as bad causes can have behaved personally with great courage.
Second, encouraging the destruction of disapproved monuments can be a never-ending process, if we choose to call out everyone from the past who held values of which we no longer approve. In America itself there are calls (as yet, not from a majority of people) for reminders of Christopher Columbus to be destroyed – after all, didn’t his arrival lead the way to mass extermination of North American indigenes by Europeans? And what about the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson or that rank imperialist Theodore Roosevelt? Obviously they should be expunged from Mount Rushmore. And so on and so on, with the sort of hysteria and overstatement that now seems typical of American public discourse.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, there was a “Rhodes Must Fall” movement in South Africa, which led to the demolition of statues of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Quite understandable, I think, in a country coming out from under the heavy hand of white domination. The push to remove a statue of Rhodes from Oriel College at Oxford University in England was, however, unsuccessful – partly because the Rhodes Trust threatened to withdraw the funding of Rhodes Scolarships, granted each year to many international students, including some of the very ones who were railing against this imperialist statue. (I pause here to note that I think Rhodes was a reprehensible figure and he is no hero of mine – but this does not alter my argument about how pointlessly destructive such removals can be.) While we’re about it, why not demolish all statues of that arch-imperialist Winston Churchill, architect of the foolish and destructive Gallipoli campaign?
We had a taste of this destructive impulse in New Zealand. During the 1995 protests in Moutoa Gardens in Whanganui, the statue of the Liberal premier John Ballance was beheaded and effectively destroyed. This was in part for his racial views, typical of his times but now seen as anti-Maori. It was shocking to some, inasmuch as Ballance is generally interpreted as the leader of a New Zealand’s genuinely progressive political party. Understandably, there are ongoing efforts to have his statue reinstated, even if not necessarily in the same place.
I must end with another question. If we were to remove, from every country, statues of, and monuments to, ALL monarchs, mayors, soldiers, conquerors, politicians, statesmen, artists, poets and scientists, of some of whose values we no longer approve, how many public statues would there be left in the world? My guess is – virtually none. We would have succeeded in pretending that the past never existed.
Monday, November 12, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“NOWHERE NEARER” by Alice Miller (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99) ; “THE FAREWELL TOURIST” by Alison Glenny (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “VIEW FROM THE SOUTH” by Owen Marshall - photographs by Grahame Sydney (Vintage, $40)
Nowhere Nearer is the second collection by Alice Miller, a New Zealand poet now living in Berlin. Four years ago on this blog I reviewed her debut volume The Limits, and admitted my bafflement with much of her meaning, finding it sometimes almost wilfully opaque. But I did grasp that much of it implied angst over 20th century catastrophes.
I would not describe Nowhere Nearer as obscure in its meaning. True, one or two poems do seem to hint, somewhat vaguely, at emotional matters in the poet’s private life. But in the main, Miller’s ideas and references are crystal clear. Nowhere Nearer is dominated by a sense of the ineluctability of time and death; and our inability to escape from the past and the cultures that have shaped us. If I were to choose lines that sum up the volume’s mood, they would be from the poem “How to Forget”, which references Freud and declares “of all the crowds to listen to / it’s the dead who know most” and later remarks “It is astonishing to be / alive, we say, which means / it is astonishing to be here / among these future dead.”
This collection leans heavily on European High Culture and ancient European mythology. Consider the imagery you find here – many poems are haunted by old Vienna or by palatial ruins, be they Christian or pagan (see the poem “Palace”). Dante enters Hell in one poem, as does Orpheus in another. Yet another (“Boy”) is like a grim retelling of the story of Icarus. The river Lethe and James Joyce’s Buck Mulligan make an appearance and the poem “The Fall” crams in Chekhov’s three sisters longing for Moscow and Flaubert and Tolstoy and others.
For all this cultural richness, though, the tone is generally bleak and grim. The opening poem “Saving” tells us “some of the moments we cling to most / are the futures we never let happen.” This is a formula for life-long regret. The second poem “Out of this World” (whence comes the volume’s title) tells us that beginnings are never endings and we never reach our destinations. “Observatory” suggests time is eternal repetition – the eternel retour in which there is no progress. “How to Remember”, with an odd form of extreme Cartesian rationalism, sees Vienna as an unreal city created by the mind: “We borrowed stage sets we can shift, paint, switch, / but now we will never see the main event. / What we really see will always disappoint us. / Reality does what it likes”. As for the poem “Europe”, it suggests the whole weight of history crushes us even as we are trying to live the moment. “As the Crow Flies the Sun Rips Day Open” tells us “We’ve bought a history we do not want / and we must watch it every day / until the minutes crack.” In “The Hold I Have” death is a certainty. In “Epilogue” love is an illusion
In pointing out the collection’s dark and unrelenting vision, am I being negative about it? Certainly not. I think Alice Miller is doing the bracing work of a latter-day Schopenhauer, telling us that life, as we subjectively experience it, is so grim that we simply have to develop the intellectual resilience to deal with it.
I am wondering to what extent Miller, giving a broad panoramic view of history and concentrating on Europe, has been influenced by the example of Auden?
“Eva Braun in Linz” quotes specifically from Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. It is a hauntingly horrible poem, not just about Hitler’s girlfriend [and, at the last moment, wife], but also about the persistence of sinister memories concerning things that would otherwise be seen as harmless. I believe Auden’s world view invades other poems. In “St Peter”, Miller suggests resignation before the facts of history and our helplessness to do anything about them. This line of thought puts me in mind of the lines that end Auden’s “Spain, 1937” : “History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help or pardon.” Even the poem referencing Icarus could take something from Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts.
There are some puzzles for me in Nowhere Nearer. “Fourteen Mistakes” is partly straightforward mentions of things that highlight the strangeness of attempting to attune to other places; but also partly impenetrable surreal images. It baffles me. “My Girl in California”, however, shows great craftsmanship in its insistent staccato rhythms and its tight focus.
Allow me to finish with a paradox. The poem “The Roof” appears to diagnose the malaise of the modern world as rootlessness; as the lack of a secure sense of home. Yet for me Miller’s most accessible and most accomplished poem in this collection is “The Sound”, in which she fuses together, in description of a real New Zealand place, both Polynesian and European mythology. Despite the volume’s intimations of stasis and ineluctability, this does actually suggest a way ahead in the melding of things that seemed immutable. This is a bit more positive than Schopenhauer ever was.
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“There comes Poe with his raven like Barnaby Rudge, / Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge” wrote James Russell Lowell in 1848. It was the perfect response to Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who could hit the poetic and narrative heights but who, regrettably, was also prone to overstatement, bathos and crude melodrama. A real mixture of genius and fudge.
I have never before felt so inclined to invoke Lowell’s jingle as I do after reading Alison Glenny’s debut collection The Farewell Tourist. The best of it is brilliant – evocative of time and place, startling in its imagery, and as very chilly as the poet intends it to be. But the worst of it? Oh dear… let me leave that for later in this notice, so that I can first tell you how accomplished a writer Glenny is capable of being.
Glenny has visited the Antarctic and done postgratuate Antarctic Studies, and from this develop her major themes and trains of imagery. The wonderful first section of this collection is called “The Magnetic Process”. Its nineteen pages consist of nineteen paragraphs (or prose poems if you prefer) which are like a series of surrealist paintings – Magritte or some such. A man and a woman are connected with images drawn from the “heroic age” of polar exploration (Amundsen and Scott are referenced in the notes at the back). She appears to be at home, imagining the freezing polar wastes. He appears to be on the ice itself, although their specific locations are sometimes ambiguous. Details can be almost photographic realism – but then surrealism depends on the exact and realistic depiction of impossible things. She loses a notebook he gave her. As a child he played with a telescope. He loads material for exploration. Explorers eat the emergency stew called hoosh. Fragile photographic plates are smashed accidentally. Yet we also have her dreams and his dreams blurring the edges of reality. In the first section of this sequence, their fingers touch and produce sparks. He whips up a magnetic storm around her. The music of a piano merges with geology. She takes a fossilised glossopteris to the doctor’s. She is at home imagining the ice shelves. His sense of perception gets disoriented.
To get the flavour of this, I quote in full the two sections of “The Magnetic Process” to which I kept coming back.
First, Section VII: “He called it the little observatory. The instrument, he explained, was for measuring the electrical state of the atmosphere. The wooden box, with the latch that was too small to be opened by a mittened hand. Later, the photographer disappeared into a bag with only his arms showing. Darkness was necessary, he explained, if you wanted to capture light.” It is a literal narrative, not a dream, but note how it captures reality from an odd angle. It is not only the paradox in the concluding sentence that does this, but also the phrase about the photographer disappearing into a bag. Of course, with the cumbersome photographic equipment of the early 20th century, photographers literally went under a hood when they took their pictures. But “disappearing into a bag” slyly suggests the distance between objective detail and its photographic depiction. The photographer disappears into his own representation.
Second, Section XII: “Some afternoons a fog rolled down the hallway. On others, the staircase groaned with moisture. A finger laid carelessly on a bannister dislodged a ledge of rime. She lifted the hem of her dress to avoid the damp in the passageway, wore knitted gloves in the kitchen. She was lying in the bath when the glacier pushed through the wall. She sank deeper into the water to escape the chill that settled on her shoulders Trying to ignore the white haze, to lose herself between the pages of her book.” This is an episode of finely-crafted imagination. In reading it, we at first say that the chilly house triggers in the woman’s mind images of the frozen south. But once the glacier pushes through the wall, our attention turns to the fragility of human habitations themselves. This really is surrealism, like Magritte’s painting “Time Transfixed” (an image of a steam train emerging from a fireplace).
I hope I’ve said enough to show what is really admirable in this collection.
But what about the “two-fifths sheer fudge”? Well, it comes after “The Magnetic Process” is over. The rest of the volume comprises a couple of pages giving modified dictionary definitions of the words “Drift” and “Erasure”, there are “erasure” statements of a gnomic quality, and a long section (fully 21 pages) of “footnotes” to non-existent texts i.e. two thirds of each page is blank, with only the footnotes on display. Yes, I get the drift of them (Yup! I can make bad puns too), especially as they connect with the line I’ve quoted above about a woman trying to “lose herself between the pages of her book.” Yes, I can see that if you read the “footnotes” in sequence, they do imply a sort of narrative dependent on the grand lacuna that sits above them on the page. Yes, I can see that the almost-blank white pages inevitably resemble snow covered wastes, if you’re cued to see them that way. Yes, I understand Bill Manhire’s comment quoted on the back cover, when he awarded this book the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award – “the text is not written primarily for the ear… [it] takes full advantage of the white pages on which the words appear.” So it’s an objet d’art as much as a verbal text. But even when I have taken all this on board, the final 46 pages of this production still has the effect of Writing School game-playing. In the short run, footnotes-without-text is an amusing concept. In the long run, it is tiresome preciosity.
“Pushing against the boundaries of what poetry might be” is how the opening words of the blurb describe this book. I would say that after the first twenty pages, it ceases to be poetry at all.
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From the much-honoured novelist, short-story writer and poet Owen Marshall comes not a collected poems but a selected poems. In this respect View From the South is kin to Cilla McQueen’s Poeta and Vincent O’Sullivan’s Being Here (both reviewed on this blog). These are poems which the poet himself has selected as being the best from his three collections so far, but with some previously unpublished poems added. As his introductory note makes clear, the accompanying photographs by his friend the painter Grahame Sydney are an essential part of the collection’s effect. Indeed, were I in the business of art criticism, I would comment as much upon the photographs as upon the poems – all those images of lonely South Island roads and hills and snow on trees and an abandoned car and a pier battered by the sea and corrugated iron. They really do complement the poems and I spent much time gazing at them whenever I paused in reading the text.
But the text is the thing, and straightforward in its declarations it can be. As an Aucklander I have to forgive Marshall for his opening “South Island Prayer” where he says he does not want to die “rotting in the heat” of Auckland but wants to die “with the old Southerly Buster” on the larger, less-populated island which he has long regarded as his home (Marshall was born in Te Kuiti). Marshall may not have planned it this way, but he is part of a tradition of South Island poets who rhapsodise over the southern landscape – Mary Ursula Bethell, young Curnow, young Baxter, and (more satirically and critically) David Eggleton and Richard Reeve.
In the opening section (“Nature and Place”) of the four sections into which Marshall divides his selection, the images are South Island ones of wind and clouds at dusk and mallards and paradise ducks and stone walls and above all vast uninhabited space. There are brief references to overseas excursions and to the poet’s Welsh forebears, but the big island is his heartland. Quite a bit of admiration and nostalgia for (Pakeha) pioneers is packed into this. Consider the last lines of the poem “Clyde”, where “For me the pleasure is to find / an old schist wall behind the shops, rusty / iron links to which the horses were / tethered a hundred years before. I see / them standing patiently behind stone / buildings while their owners show gold / at the bank, then settle at the boozer / with greater satisfaction than any of us / gathered in the chill of this modern day.”
On the whole, Marshall is comfortable in his chosen island environment. He is at home. As far as I can see there is little – if any - anxiety about colonialism or postcolonialism in Marshall’s world and I think I am right in saying that there is no reference whatsoever to Maori culture. “Storm Over Mount Peel” may take place in South Canterbury, but its images are of raiding Vikings and Valkyrie riding the wind. Perhaps this is a South Island thing – again speaking as an Aucklander, I am aware of how less Maori presence there is in the South Island than in the North, and how easier it is for Pakeha of Canterbury or Otago to ignore such of it as there is. In surveying “History and Arts” (third section), Marshall deals with Norsemen, Greeks, Romans, the dogs sensibly eaten by Roald Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition and the original elephant known as Jumbo. New Zealand itself is not a place to reflect on historical tragedy.
When Marshall moves into his second section (“Family and Friends”) he reflects on old loves from adolescence and regrets from that time of life (later in the collection there’s a poem about listening nostalgically to Roy Orbison) ; taking a daily walk; attending funerals; being a grandfather; observing a grandchild’s first artless reactions to a movie and other things that suggest a mature, well-balanced mind enjoying the simple things in life. The words “subvert” and “subversive” are used far too often and too easily in current criticism, but I happily declare that Marshall’s “In Praise of Oddity” is a genuinely subversive poem, celebrating the eccentricity and non-conformity of ordinary people. One of the highlights of this collection.
So to the last section, “Heart and Mind”, where the poems are largely metaphysical. Marshall clearly has some nostalgia for the certainties and simplicity of his childhood Christianity (see the poem “Eary Christianity”), but he is unsure about God, dethroning him in one poem for the concept of Time itself. He aches a little for something definitive, feeling “The scratching behind an opaque, sightless / sky, like a dog left desolate” (opening lines of “Something More”). Seeing man as the centre of things is no substitute for the dethroned God: “Dismiss the arrogant assumption that everything / is fashioned for our benefit and understanding. / The incongruities, random beauty and horror / of existence have purposes beyond ourselves” (opening lines of “The World is not Made for Us”). So the vague ache is still there, partly compensated for by absorption in nature itself. But only partly compensated.
Marshall’s diction is sometimes mildly forced and slightly old-fashioned, as if from mid-20th century poetry. He likes (good for him!) to write in neat verse paragraphs. When he chooses to be, he is adept at rhyming couplets (in poems like “Paddock Nights” and “Simple Rhyme Chimes”) and he does an extensive Haiku sequence. He is most gifted, however, in the simple, straightforward literal statement which proves to have great resonance beyond itself. It is refreshing to read poetry that does not read like a test in acrostics, and I enjoyed greatly reading my way through this collection.
I’ll conclude by noting some personal favourites.
A moment in the book that makes me say “Snap!” is when Marshall’s observation of aggressive and pesky birds matches my own. This is from the poem “Birdstrike”: “Civic entitlement / is mine, but magpies enforce / archaic rules of trespass and I / don’t linger to debate with such / steely black-and-white resolve.”
“Book Launch” is a poem that will chill the heart of anyone who has had a book launched, because of the dead cold accuracy of its observations.
And finally, bravo for “The Slam-Dunk Poet” which, from a sensibly conservative perspective, takes down that awful competitiveness that plagues younger practitioners of verse.
Irrelevant and silly footnote: I know it’s aesthetically interesting, but I’m not sure why the dust jacket of View from the South covers only two-thirds of the hard cover beneath it.