Monday, June 17, 2019

Something New

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

“SUPERIOR – The Return of Race Science”, by Angela Saini (Harper/Collins, 4th Estate, $NZ36:99)

In Superior – The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini, a British citizen of Indian parentage, has produced an urgent and timely polemic. Oxford-educated, Saini has a clear and simple thesis. In the age of Donald Trump and the rise of race-based populism in many parts of the world, there has been a covert return to “race science” – the flawed and essentially unscientific attempt to “prove”, by genetic studies, that different sections of the human family have different abilities, different types of cognition and (especially) different levels of intelligence. Therefore, the argument runs, there can never be real equality between peoples because some parts of the human race are “superior” and some “inferior”.
This quest is fuelled by the desire to feel that one’s own clan is more important than any other: “Every society that happens to be dominant comes to think of itself as the best, deep down.” (Prologue, p.6) Countering this, Saini argues that all attempts to produce such a genetic hierarchy are a chimera. Nobody has ever proven scientifically that there is, with regard to innate ability and intelligence, a hierarchy of groups in the human family. But “Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance.” (Prologue, p.7) For Saini, “race” is a social construct, based on the observation of skin colour, customs and traditions. It is not a biological category.
This argument is so simple and forthright that I will now shamelessly take up most of this notice by simply summarising, chapter by chapter, what Saini says.

After her prologue she details how (Chapter 1) we human beings all, irrefutably, have our origins in the Great African Rift, hundreds of thousands of years ago. We are all the same species with the same origin, and this is the conclusion of mainstream science even if there are still a few outliers who believe that different human groups originated separately. Indeed recently there has been an attempt to modify the truth of our common origins by claiming, in the system of thought known as “multi-regionalism”, that after our common origin, different groups of human beings separated and evolved in different ways, producing “superior” and “inferior” groups.  But after this opening, Saini segues abruptly into tales of the most inhumane denials of our common humanity. There was, for example, in the 19th and early 20th century, the refusal of British settlers in Australia to accept that Aborigines were fully human and hence a programme that amounted to genocide.
She notes a contradiction in 18th century Enlightenment thinking even before the “science” of race emerged: “While a few Enlightenment thinkers did resist the idea of a racial hierarchy, many, including French philosopher Voltaire and Scottish philosopher David Hume, saw no contradiction between the values of liberty and fraternity and their belief that non-whites were innately inferior to whites.” (Chap. 1, p.25) She notes, too, that archaeological studies in the 19th century buttressed these attitudes: “English biologist Thomas Huxley, a champion of the work of Charles Darwin, described the skulls of Australians as being ‘wonderfully near’ those of the ‘degraded type of Neanderthal.’ ” (Chap.2, p.29)
She then sets out (Chapter 2) to show how “race science” emerged.  Before anyone knew about genetics, the great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus was, in the 1750s, attempting to set out his systematisation of nature. He decided there were four categories of human being “respectively corresponding to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, and each easy to spot by colours: red, white, yellow and black.” (Chap.2, p.47) Although there was no scientific underpinning for this categorisation – apart from superficial observation of skin-colour – Linnaeus’ categories became the template into which later European scientists attempted to force their evidence.
In this period, in Europe, human zoos abounded in which non-Europeans were displayed in enclosures as if they were a different species. It was the existence of slavery on an industrial scale that really drove the will to believe that non-Europeans were innately inferior to Europeans. To admit the equality of peoples would be to undercut the whole rationale of slavery – so some means had to be found to “prove” the inferiority of others, especially Africans. Not that all proponents of racial hierarchies were necessarily conscious of this motive, or even approving of slavery. Saini notes: “Darwin, even though he made such a bold and original contribution to the idea of racial unity, also seemed to be unembarrassed by his belief in the evolutionary hierarchy. Men were above women, and white races were above others.” (Chap. 2, p.56) Likewise, “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Huxley went further down this path, seeing the emancipation of slaves as a morally good thing, but never believing that equal rights among races were biologically reasonable. (Chap. 2, p.57) By this stage, ideologically-driven non-scientist amateurs, such as the French aristocrat Gobineau, began to propose theories of white supremacy.
Enter (Chapter 3) Mendel’s perfectly legitimate science of genetics and heredity. This was rapidly misused to buttress claims of human inequality. And so began the bogus “science” of eugenics – the idea that some peoples were worthy of survival, some were not, and selective breeding should weed out the unworthy. Enter Francis Galton, the relative of Darwin who invented the phrase “survival of the fittest” and applied it to current society – “social Darwinism” in other words. Galton and his followers wanted to “breed out” flaws in their own human group, restrict reproduction among the poorer and less-educated classes of their own society, and restrict immigration by people from other human groups. The pioneers or birth control and family planning were fully on board with this essentially racist plan.
Take, for example, Marie Stopes, Britain’s first major advocate of birth control: “To support her first clinic, Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. Philosopher Bertrand Russell, too, suggested that the state might improve the health of the population by fining the ‘wrong’ type of people for giving birth.” (Chap.3, p.75) Take also the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany (renamed the Max Planck Institute after the Second World War). From the late 19th century to 1945, this body of eminent German scientists took for granted a “eugenic” approach to the science of genetics, and hence laid the groundwork for much Nazi ideology. Take, too, the tightening of American immigration laws in the early 20th century, to exclude Chinese, but also to exclude “inferior” European peoples such as Russian Jews, Greeks and Italians. For it is one of the ironies of race-based eugenics that once you start categorising human beings by race, your catergorisation will never end. If Europeans were superior to all other peoples then, apparently, some European groups were also superior to other European groups. So began the mythology of the Nordic or Germanic superman, the blue-eyed “blonde beast”, so superior to those olive-coloured, brown-eyed Latins. In 1916, this nonsense was propounded in a poisonous book The Passing of a Great Race by the American non-scientist Madison Grant. A young Adolf Hitler called Grant’s book his “bible”.
Some people will argue, correctly, that such modes of thinking were “not real science” – but it has to be understood that, “real science” or not,  a eugenic approach to genetics was mainstream thinking among biologists and geneticists right up to the 1950s.
This pattern of thinking was wonderful for people who now wanted to justify their right to rule over other peoples in the vast British and French and Dutch and German and other empires. It was also wonderful for people who didn’t want to extend social welfare to the poor in their own society. After all, if the poor are innately inferior to the rich, then there is no point in giving them assistance, is there? Better to apply the Malthusian idea of telling them to stop breeding.
There was a widespred refusal to admit that apparent inequalities between human groups were really the product of such things as diet, wealth and poverty, education, traditions – in other words cultural rather than biological factors. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century was the heyday of eugenics. Again and again scientists attempted to find some definitive genetic “proof” that different races had different abilities or levels of intelligence. Again and again they failed, because no such proof exists. But still the efforts persisted, so powerful was that template of different races.
After the Holocaust, and after the most brutal demonstration of where theories of the inequality of races could lead, eugenics lost much of its hold. But as Angela Saini explains: “the shift didn’t happen abruptly. The Eugenics Record Office on Gower Street in London survived all the way through the war. There is still a Galton Professor of Genetics at University College London, funded by money Francis Galton left behind. What was the Eugenics Society became the Galton Institute in 1989. In 2016, the institute established the Artemis Trust, which according to its own promotional leaflet, handed to me at a conference, distributes grants of up to 15,000 pounds, partly with the aim of assisting in the provision of fertility control, and particularly to those from ‘poorer communities’.” (Chap.3, p.83) Under pretence of being philanthropists, let’s stop those smelly poor people from breeding.
Post-1945 (Chapter 4), overt eugenics faded, and new United Nations organizations such as UNESCO stated specifically that all human beings were of the same origin. Race was now more commonly seen as a matter for sociologists to study rather than biologists or geneticists. Even so, some of the old eugenic scientists persisted with their arguments. One of the most notorious examples Saini gives is the highly-honoured Professor Reginald Ruggles Gates, who thought the new consensus was a betrayal of “real” science and who was one of the people who set up, and contributed to, the periodical Mankind Quarterly. It was financed by a trust-fund created by an American anti-integrationist at the time when Civil Rights for African-Americans were being discussed. To the raspberries of most scientific journals, it continued to claim that genetics supported the idea of the inferiority and superiority of separate races.
Moving from this, Saini discusses (Chapter 5) existing networks of far-right thinkers, in academe and elsewhere, who continue to support such ideas, overtly or covertly, and who regard themselves as “race realists”. Inevitably she discusses the notorious 1994 book The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (neither of them a biologist or geneticist). From a selective battery of very flawed IQ tests, the book argued that African-Americans succeed academically at lower rates than other ethnic groups because they are biologically of lesser intelligence. We may like to think that few “real” scientists accepted this argument – and indeed few did. The book was roundly debunked in many scientific journals. But, as Saini notes, there are some real and highly-esteemed scientists, such as one of the first decoders of DNA, James Watson, who hold profoundly racist views. And such view proliferate in an age of mass immigration, both in Europe and in America.
She further argues (Chap.6) that some apparently benign scientific endeavours were seen by many as introducing a resurgence of eugenics by stealth. Her major exhibit is is the Human Genome Diversity Project. It was devised by people who wanted to show that there was more diversity within human groups (e.g. Chinese) than there was between human groups (e.g. between Chinese and Peruvians). But the project was not received well by indigenous peoples who had previously been subjected to “tests” by eugenicists trying to show their innate inferiority. There was some resistance to giving data to the project… and some rebarbative scientists did indeed use emerging data to reinforce views of biological human inequality.
As immigration has become a larger issue in recent years, there has also been an anxious attempt to assert persisting national identities. Saini examines (Chapter 6) the furore caused in Britain by the unearthing (in 2003) of “Cheddar Man”, dating from tens of thousands of years ago and apparently Britain’s oldest surviving human skeleton. Genetic tests suggested that “Cheddar Man” probably had dark – even black – skin. At once there was an uproar from the likes of the Daily Mail, implying that crafty scientists were robbing Britain of its white heritage. This ignores the obvious fact that, after our common origin in Africa’s Great Rift, successive human migrations over millennia meant the frequent mixing and re-mixing of different groups. It is indeed quite possible that, tens of thousands of years ago, many inhabitants of what is now Britain had dark skins. But this challenges the common myth, held in many countries, that ancient migration created fixed and immutable human “types”.
And so we come (Chapter 7) to “origin stories” – the stories we tell to explain where our own particular people came from. Once, such tales were found in mythology. Now, there are often attempts to cloak them in pseudo-science, always relying on a strict selection of available data to “prove” a certain conclusion. Saini cites the “Solutrean” hypothesis. This is the theory, based on very little archaeological evidence indeed, that there was once a dominant white race in the Americas which was progressively driven out, in very ancient times, by hordes of non-white invaders. What is the true aim of such a theory (which is, naturally, rejected by the overwhleming majoity of archaeologists)? It is to justify the fact that white Europeans who came to America settled there by conquering, and often slaughtering, existing Native American populations. If we can say white people were here first, we can say we have a natural right to this land, right? An obvious comparison can be made with Nazis who cherry-picked very little archaeological evidence to teach that “Aryans” (who apparently made pottery with swastika designs on them) were the first real settlers of northern Europe.
Such claims sometimes appeal to genes – to “race science”. Saini is quite clear about this – it is an international phenomenon, not confined to Europeans. She notes that in both China and Russia, there are institutions dedicated to “proving” that Chinese (or Russians) have unique genetic features, separating them from the rest of the human race and hence proving their superiority. Similarly, in India, with the rise of Hindu supremacism in recent general elections, there is a strong drive to suggest that Indians had quite different biological origins from the rest of humanity. This goes hand-in-hand with the push to rebrand only Hindu history is real Indian history. Alas, unscientific ideas posing as science are now a global thing.
Inevitably, then, Saini has to consider (Chapter 9) the matter of “caste” in India as an essentially racist issue; and also the matter of IQ tests and how much they have been a major tool for eugenicists and other racists. IQ tests have frequently been used to suggest innate disparities in intelligence between different ethnic groups. But geneticists themselves have come to understand that, while there are genetic differences in intelligence within ethnic groups (between a genius and an “intellectually-challenged” person, for example), heredity has little to do with levels of intelligence in the general population. Even when they are not culturally loaded, IQ tests simply measure the background, culture and level of education of individuals. In other words, IQ tests tells us about culture, not genes.
Giving at length a similar common category error, Saini (Chapter 9) shows how some statisticians came up with the idea that African-Americans were innately more prone to hypertension than other groups in Amerca. On this assumption, drugs for hypertension were marketed specifically to black communities. It was found that while African-Americans did indeed suffer from higher frequency of hypertension, so did some specific European groups, such as Finns. The common factor wasn’t genes but diet – more particularly, the higher consumption of salt-filled foods by both Finns and African-Americans. It was not innate and it was not a matrer of genes, but a matter of diet. Similar claims have been made about the frequence of stress and of schizophrenia in certain ethnic groups. Always they can be traced more certainly to social factors, such as poverty and adjustment to new environments, than to biological factors.
In her last chapter and in her afterword, therefore, Saini sums up by condemning “biological determinists” and again reasserting the falsity of “race science” in attempting to find a genetic basis for human inequality.
If you have made it thus far in my verbose summary of this book, you will realise that I endorse Saini’s arguments and consider this book an excellent riposte to one form of racism.
However, I will conclude with two minor reservations.
(i.) Does ‘race’ exist or does it not? I agree with Saini’s argument that the category of ‘race’ is popularly defined by superficial things such as skin colour, eye shape, quality of hair (straight or crinkly etc.) and body shape. But there is absolutely no real scientific evidence to differentiate human groups in terms of intelligence, competence and brain-power in general. If there are such differences, they are due to social factors and not to biology. Having said all this, however, can one totally dispose of the term ‘race’, as Saini seems to do? I am not endorsing ideas of inferiority or superiority, but even the superficial differences are realities, and ‘race’ still seems a reasonable shorthand for them.
(ii.) Although she is on the side of the angels, I think Saini underplays the malign but enduring attraction of eugenics [under other names] to some people. True, she does describe eugenics thus: “Eugenics is a cold, calculated way of thinking about human life, reducing human beings to nothing but parts of the whole, either dragging down their race or pulling it up. It also assumes that almost all that we are is decided before we are born.” (Chap.3, p.71) But she mentions only in passing Marie Stopes and the connection between eugenics and racism, and the founders, on both sides of the Atlantic, of family planning and Planned Parenthood. Stopes was an ardent eugenicist, in the 1930s offering Hitler advice on how to dispose of  “unwanted” human beings such as the mentally “unfit” and the chronically ill. (Incidentally, although Saini mentions the eugenicist Professor Reginald Ruggles Gates, she fails to note that he was Stopes’ first husband.)  In America, Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, had similar ideas, and proposed compulsory sterilisation. I am fully aware that one much-circulated photo of Sanger addressing a Ku Klux Klan meeting is a fake – but nevertheless, Sanger’s deeply racist ideas are well-documented. And then, unmentioned by Saini, there is the much-esteemed biologist Julian Huxley (brother of the novelist Aldous; grandson of Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas). I give shelf-space to Julian Huxley’s Essays of a Humanist and to his two-volume autobiography Memories. Julian Huxley was the first director of UNESCO, which officially repudiated “race science”, but I find his works bristling with the same old eugenics garbage. His Galton Lecture of 1962, “Eugenics in Evolutionary Perspective” asserts  that “it is theoretically inconceivable that such marked physical differences as still persist between the main racial groups should not be accompanied by genetic differences in temperament and mental capacities, possibly of considerable extent.” In the same essay he is still promoting the sterilisation [albeit voluntary] of the poor who are over-breeding. As for his Memories, he devotes a page to telling us what fine and saintly people Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, whom he knew personally, were in promoting the cause of birth control.
Fewer of them and more of us – yep, the old eugenics daydream still has legs.

Something Old

 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.

THE LUMINARIESby Eleanor Catton (first published 2013)

            Let me begin with the expression of a mild grievance. Early in 2013, I was asked if I would review, for Landfall magazine,  a novel I had never heard of called The Luminaries. At that time,  few other people knew about it, either. Landfall appears twice a year, and like other periodicals which appear in such circumstances, it has a very long lead-time for its contributors. I set about diligently reading this very long novel, and was very impressed with it. I wrote a review which said so. But between my submitting the review and the date the review was published, months went by. And in those months, the novel was first given dismissive reviews by two elderly New Zealand literary figures writing in London newspapers; then it gained momentum and won international praise, whereupon it also received positive reviews in New Zealand; and finally it won the Booker Prize and received hosannahs. And only then did my review appear. So I was slightly miffed that my review might have been taken as jumping on a bandwagon by praising a book that was already loaded with honours. And I feel like asserting that I got there before the bandwagon was in motion. Oh well. Heaving a sigh, I here present you with my review of The Luminaries, unaltered from its appearance in Landfall #226, Spring 2013.

            In a famous passage in his autobiography (which I quote per Walter Allen’s venerable The English Novel), Anthony Trollope discussed the working methods of the mystery writer Wilkie Collins. He wrote:

Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his [novels] that he not only, before writing, plans everything on paper, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing that does not dove-tail with absolute accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful. But I can never lose the taste of the construction. The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone. One is constrained by mysteries and hemmed in by difficulties, knowing, however, that the mysteries will be made clear, and the difficulties overcome by the end of the third volume.”

With great accuracy, and especially in the phrases “the taste of the construction” and “constrained by mysteries”, Trollope catches the effect of mystery novels upon many readers. Those long Victorian detective novels, whether by Wilkie Collins or by the undervalued Sheridan Le Fanu, place a special strain upon readers. In order to make sense of them, you have to hold in your head much factual information and remember specific connections between characters in ways that are not necessary when reading other sorts of novel.

I mention this in reviewing Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for two obvious reasons. First, it is essentially a story of mystery and its construction is indeed “most wonderful”, linking a large cast of major characters and many minor ones. Second, it is set in the Victorian era (the 1860s) and, at over 830 pages of text, is at least as long as anything the Victorians penned. I admit that in reading it, I often had to check back to remind myself who was married to whom, or who was a business partner or enemy of whom. The chart of twenty characters printed at the beginning was both necessary and a great help.

In the way it establishes itself, The Luminaries has the hallmarks of a classic mystery. Young Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika at the beginning of 1866 hoping to prospect for gold; but he first puts up in a hotel, where he finds himself in the midst of a conclave of men discussing a mystery that seems to involve them all. From most of them in turn, Moody hears a version of events. Collectively they give many different and overlapping perspectives, Rashomon-like. The mystery involves the disappearance of young Emery Staines and the death in his shack of the hermit Crosbie Wells. At stake is a fortune in gold belonging to Wells, which is one reason why so many people are interested. Crosbie Wells was somehow connected to the ship-owner and criminal Francis Carver and his wife the fortune-teller and whoremonger Lydia. Crosbie was discovered dead by the rising politician Alistair Lauderback, and the situation involves the prostitute Anna Wetherell, the pushy law officer George Shepard and the Chinese goldsmith Quee Long.

Who has a right to the fortune in gold, where exactly did it come from, how has most of it been secreted, and why are all these men interested?

So, through 360 pages, Walter Moody hears the views of the shipping agent Thomas Balfour and the pharmacist Joseph Pritchard and the greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare, and the Methodist minister Cowell Devlin and the local tycoon and brothel-keeper Dick Mannering and others. All this testimony – all 360 pages of it – is given on the same day in January 1866. I offer no “spoilers”. If the chief appeal of a mystery story is the unravelling of a mystery, then it is not the business of reviewers to broadcast the solution (or – in the case of this polyphonous novel – the solutions). Be it noted, however, that significant details include the backstories of families and unsuspected blood relationships; blackmail; the use of opium; confidence tricks to increase the sale value of diggings by “salting” them with nuggets; legal chicanery; illegal violence; and the smuggling of vital items sewn into the lining of dresses.

By the time Walter Moody has heard all this testimony, and as we approach page 360, we are considerately given a recapitulation of all the evidence lest we have lost our bearings. And it is after this point that we rapidly realize the novel does not quite inhabit the territory we thought it did. For if The Luminaries were no more than a pastiche of a Victorian mystery novel – albeit with a New Zealand setting – then Mr Moody would draw all the threads together and explain neatly how everything fitted into place, the way Mr Cuff or Inspector Bucket or Sherlock Holmes do when all the witnesses have spoken and all the motives of characters have been ticked off. A rational order would have been restored. Indeed, such rationality is signalled when we are told (p.359) “Moody had no religion – and therefore did not perceive truth in mystery, in the inexplicable and the unexplained, in the mists that clouded one’s scientific perception as the material cloud now obscured the Hokitika sky”.

But neat rational deduction is not what happens in The Luminaries. Time resumes in the remaining 472 pages of the novel, new events are piled on old, and despite two long courtroom scenes, the motives of characters become more, rather than less, opaque. Some mysteries are resolved. They have to be if the novel is not to become a gigantic tease. Yet what begins as a rational explanation of diverse, but connected, events, ends as fragments of experience. It culminates in a long series of flashbacks to events from the year prior to the novel’s opening, which re-cast characters in ways quite at odds with our earlier impressions of them. This a-chronological order is foreshadowed in an early sequence (pp.105-06) where Te Rau Tauwhare translates the name Hokitika as meaning “Around. And then back again, beginning.” This is the method of the novel itself.

Some nineteenth century novelistic conventions are observed throughout The Luminaries. These include those brief synopses of the action that serve as headings to each chapter (“In which Gascoigne repeats his theories, and Moody speaks of death” etc.). But by the end of the novel these conventions are being parodied and subverted. The chapter headings become longer and longer and the chapters themselves shorter and shorter, to the point where the synopses are telling the story while the ensuing “chapters” are giving us mere impressionistic moments of time.

In this way, and without cheating those who expect answers, The Luminaries moves from being a pastiche of Victorian detective novels to being a deconstruction and critique of the whole notion of rational detection.

Would it be too much to call it an anti-mystery novel?  

If The Luminaries were no more than this, it would be a remarkable literary achievement. But it is considerably more. By Catton’s choice of leading characters, by her exposure of their suspect motives, and by the mixing of ethnicities, the novel also gives a detailed picture of a raw, volatile, exploitative colonial society; a “frontier” society still based on the myth of wide-open opportunity and the realities of extractive industries and fierce competition for capital. The time is specifically the moment when the Otago goldfields are running out, the West Coast looks the likelier prospect, and “West Canterbury” is about to become (briefly) the province of Westland. The connection between an excess of males and thriving prostitution is obvious, as is the connection between prostitution and the wide use of opiates. Along with the British, Maori and Chinese characters, there is also a German Jew (the newspaper editor Benjamin Lowenthal), a Frenchman (the law clerk Aubert Gascoigne) and one New Zealand-born Pakeha (the banker Charlie Frost) who, paradoxically, is more ill at ease in this frontier world than the assorted immigrants are. The diverse reactions of all to this new country are what make The Luminaries a convincing social mosaic.

It is historically right that much of the novel’s backstory involves dirty criminal doings in old Sydney, the cross-Tasman connection being a huge factor in all New Zealand gold rushes. It is also historically right that there is a tension between the lawlessness of the frontier society, and the propriety of language that is often used to describe it. (This was also a major theme in Charlotte Randall’s West Coast-set Hokitika Town). A real achievement is Catton’s refusal to repeat current stereotypical conceptions of Victorian-ness. For example, a number of men look longingly at the whore Anna Wetherell, seeing their own feelings as chaste and their motives as the pure ones of wishing to “save” her. This type of situation has often been the cue for satirical dramatizations of Victorian “hypocrisy”. Eleanor Catton chooses the harder course of showing the depth of the men’s feelings and the profound psychological and sexual effects of a society in which women are a small minority.

Judging by her prose style, Catton has apparently immersed herself in the writing of the era in which the novel is set. As an incorrigible pedant, I am always on the lookout for anachronisms in dialogue supposedly spoken by characters in a past age. The Luminaries has characters saying “heist” meaning robbery (p.37, p.253 and p.736); “class act” (p.64 and p.243); “taking me for a ride” in its threatening gangster-esque sense (p.103); the Americanism “john” for a prostitute’s client (p.228); the statement that “a lawyer would be able to join the dots” (p.539); a reference to “shoot-outs” (p.598); and the sneer that “you are becoming paranoiac” (p.740). I may be wrong, but I do not believe that any of these would have been common usage in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, I believe some of them were not coined until much later. That I have been able to compile only such a short list from 830 pages, however, is an indication that Eleanor Catton is usually pitch-perfect in her “Victorian” prose. This is evident in those neat paragraphs of physical and psychological characterization with which each person in the novel is introduced. It is also evident in her precise descriptions of place. Yet there is no sense of mugging up. If she presents us with some physical processes – how newspapers were then set up; the difficulties ships had crossing the bar at Hokitika’s river mouth; how young women were inveigled into prostitution – it is because they are integral to her story and not decoration for the sake of period atmosphere.

Thus far in this review, I have deliberately refrained from mentioning one element in The Luminaries that might be of central interest to a minority of readers and is evidently important to the author. This (from the title on) is its astrological symbolism and content. The separate parts of the novel are all introduced with astrological charts showing the planetary influences upon characters at each given date of the action. Chapter titles declare “Saturn in Libra”, “First Point of Aries” and so forth. I am tempted to dismiss this as mystification that adds little to the novel’s meaning, and I am not mollified by the specific exegesis of astrology that is given at pp.531-32.

But perhaps I should trust the author more, for there is one passage in the novel in which the stars become a potent symbol of the settler condition. Walter Moody turns his eyes to the skies at p.343 and finds “Orion  - upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook. There was something very sad about it, Moody thought. It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here.” At this point, New Zealand is still what is alien to Europeans. Its otherness is read in the stars. Patterns of meaning and morality have to be re-negotiated.

This sense of a new, unfamiliar world is something The Luminaries shares with the best recent New Zealand historical novels, Randall’s Hokitika Town, Hamish Clayton’s Wulf and Paula Morris’s Rangatira. But its imaginative grasp is greater.

Something Thoughtful

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.


Forgive me, patient reader, but I am once again going to unload a traveller’s tale upon you. Back in January, enjoying three weeks in Portugal, we spent most of our time staying with friends in Peniche an hour or so north of Lisbon, but we de-camped to Lisbon itself for a number of nights, took many day-trips to other towns, and spent much of one week up north in the university town Coimbra and the better-known city Porto – or “Oporto” as a few English-speakers still miscall it.

In two-and-a-half days in Porto we did what all tourists do. We took in many elaborate baroque churches. We visited a spectacular ossuary in a crypt. We lingered near the misty Douro River, admired its bridges and remembered the engineering genius of Gustave Eiffel who designed some of those bridges before he built his tower in Paris.

And of course we sought out the drink that takes its name from this city. Crossing Eiffel’s famous Dom Luis I Bridge, we walked into the cellars of the Burmester Port Company and enjoyed a guided tour – for just the two of us – conducted by Pablo, a genial young Spaniard [sic], who explained the whole process of blending and maturing port, allowed us to sip a few free samples, and easily induced us to buy a couple of bottles of the best. (Calm down, now – I know all such tours are a species of advertisement; we are not naïve when we travel; but we intended to buy some fine port anyway.)

So far, so predictable, if you’re making a brief visit to Porto.

But in Porto we also found the unexpected.

We are not lounge lizards or habitues of night-clubs or bars. If we are being tourists, the entertainment we seek in the evening is opera, jazz or live theatre. And there in Porto we saw advertised, at its local branch of Portugal’s National Theatre, a production of Shakespeare’s Otelo [sic] in Portuguese, but with English surtitles. It was directed by Nuno Carinhas, who has a track-record in producing Portuguese versions of European classics (Shakespeare, Moliere, Beckett, Brian Friel etc.).

Three years ago on this blog, in a wordy critique of Orson Welles’ film Othello called Put Money in Thy Purse Before Thou Startest Filming, I explained why it was that Othello is one of the seven or eight plays by Shakespeare that I know best. I wrote a study guide on it, have seen it performed in many different productions (both live and filmed) and have read what many critics have had to say about it. And so I thought it would be intriguing to see the play performed in another language.

In we went to the gallery of a medium-sized 19th century-style theatre.

The production was in modern dress. It had a total cast of ten and was performed on a minimalist set, occasionally with slightly fussy staging to accommodate the fact that there was much “doubling” by the actors in smaller supporting roles. The minimalist set meant that Desdemona was eventually smothered near floor level rather than on a curtained bed. Not that this worried me too much. The simplest of sets are more in keeping with what Shakespeare had in mind than anything more elaborate. The force of his plays is in language and motion, not in set-design.

Nearly every production of a Shakespeare play will cut some of the text. This was to be expected. But [following Shakespeare’s words in the surtitles], I found some of the cuts regrettable. Most of Othello’s speech when Iago first twists his mind was missing (“Farewell the tranquil mind… Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars, / That makes ambition, virtue!” etc.). As far as the characterisation of the flawed tragic hero is concerned, this is a bit like cutting “To be or not to be” out of Hamlet. It was also a pity that Emilia’s commonsensical questions about Desdemona’s supposed adultery were cut (“What place, what time, what form, what likelihood?”) – for these are question that, if answered, would cut the ground from under Iago’s schemes. Saddest of all, though, was that Othello never got to ask, of Iago, the crucial question “why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body” – the question that Iago cannot and will not answer, as it exposes his essential nihilism.

But most challenging of all was the fact that Othello was played as (and by) a white European – not as a North African Moor nor yet as an equatorial African. I understand the modern sensitivities here. Othello can easily be (mis)interpreted as a play presenting an African (or Moorish) man as credulous and “primitive”. Have the role played by a white man in blackface (as was most often the case since the play was written) and the problem is compounded by racial stereotype. Yet the fact remains that much of the taunting of Iago and Roderigo (behind Othello’s back) is based on what we would now call racism – taunts like “the thick lips”, comparisons with animals and so on. I would go so far as to say that the play implicitly condemns racism by putting such taunts in the mouths of men who are clearly villainous (Iago) or pathetically gullible (Roderigo). So in this Portuguese production, with Othello a white man among others whites, a major part of what the play is about was missing.

All of which makes it sound as if I am condemning this production in the Porto branch of Portugal’s National theatre.

Not a bit of it.

The play was performed robustly and passionately with (probably engaging in a racial stereotype of my own) much Latin heat, especially in the scene where Othello falls down into a writhing fit. Of course we were following the surtitles, but we were also listening intently to the voices of the Portuguese actors – the oratorical sonority of Othello in the earlier scenes and his manic rage in later ones. The sinuous innuendo of Iago and his frank cynicism in his soliloquies (of which he has more than Othello does in the first half of the play). Desdemona’s bewilderment, Emilia’s no-nonsense arguments, Cassio’s hurt pride, Roderigo’s whining sense of grievance – it was all there in the sound of the voices, even if the language was alien to us. And the action was vigorous and swift, as it should be.

Most impressive of all was the rapt attention of the audience. Doubtless there were a few other Anglophone tourists like us in the crowd, but most were clearly Portuguese, following and listening intently to every moment of it, and applauding vigorously at the end of each half – a contingent of teenagers among them. I have seen very good non-English-language film versions of Shakespeare’s plays (excellent Soviet-era Russian films of Hamlet and King Lear; not to mention Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese adaptation of Macbeth as Throne of Blood). But I had never seen a non-English-language live performance of Shakespeare before this production in Porto.

I know the effect was, as it always is in drama, as much the impression made by the players as by the text of the play itself. Even so, watching Otelo [sic] in Porto was a great demonstration of Shakespeare’s international appeal.

And we applauded lustily too.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Something New

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

“THE UNRELIABLE PEOPLE”, by Rosetta Allan (Penguin – Random House, $NZ38)

The Unreliable People is an important and complex novel, with a strong cast of characters, an intriguing plot that keeps us reading, and true historical resonance. Rosetta Allan has clearly undertaken much research (partly in her time as Writer-in-Residence at the St Petersburg Art Residency) and she has delved deeply into the relevant historical facts. But she does not let this research overwhelm the fiction that is her novel.

 “The unreliable people” was apparently the name Stalin gave to the “Koryo-saram”, ethnic Koreans who settled near Vladivostok, in the extreme east of the old Russian Empire. This was in the early 20th century, about 1910, when Korea had been annexed by Japan. The Koryo-saram were later willing to remain members of the Soviet Union and thought they could survive and prosper by being obedient citizens. But Stalin, in his paranoid power, had other ideas. As one character in this novel remarks “They were always such a peaceable people. Gullible perhaps. Stalin had promised them liberation and land, a joyful life as a Soviet, when what he really wanted was slaves. But what could they do?” (p.17)

Under Stalin’s reign, many ethnically non-Russian minorities were treated harshly, communities were broken up and settled in cold, uninhabitable places which they were expected to farm. Millions died. The axe fell on the Koryo-saram in 1937, at the height of the Stalinist purges. They were uprooted from the east, and taken in cattle trucks to southern Siberia and Kazakhstan. Korean-language schools were suppressed. In the process, tens of thousands of Koryo-saram died. But some survived and some married outside their community to continue as Soviet citizens. For a while, the only, tenuous sign of inherited Korean culture was a travelling “Korean theatre” in which the older people kept up some memory of traditional legends and folk-tales.

The Unreliable People is Rosetta Allan’s second novel. Like her first novel Purgatory, it sounds a theme of how people are affected when they are deracinated and separated from their original culture. At least part of Purgatory was about the disorientation of an Irish peasant in colonial 19th century New Zealand.  The Unreliable People deals with the historical disaster of the Koryo-saram in two time frames.

Katerina is an old Koryo-saram woman who was part of the “Korean theatre”, lived through the mass deportations, and can remember them vividly. Chapters concerning her skip between the 1930s and the 1970s and 1990s, when most of the novel takes place. Antonina is a much younger woman, being brought up in Kazakhstan, of racially-mixed parentage. After two chapters of her childhood in Kazakhstan in the 1970s, we move to her life as an art student in St Petersburg in the early 1990s. By this stage, the Soviet Union has gone and Kazakhstan is a separate nation from the new Russian Federation.

For most of the novel, it is very unclear what the exact relationship between Katerina and Antonina is. But their ethnic and cultural identity as Koryo-saram is very important to both of them, even if  Antonina knows little of the Korean language and has grown up speaking Russian. “There aren’t many words of the old country that survived the homogenisation of Stalin’s collective farms,” reflects one character, “Only the old people harbour much knowledge of the language, but they refuse to speak it.” (p.37)

There are many ways in which Allan shows her skill in telling such a complex story.

One is the element of mystery and of the bizarre. The opening chapters, concerning the kidnapping of a child, are appropriately nightmarish. They involve the dark clanking of a long, nighttime train-journey, a motif that occurs elsewhere in the novel. Those who have lost first-hand knowledge of their ancestral origins often rely on rumours, legends and folk-stories to fill in the gaps. But such fragments can often be dark things. The young Antonina’s head is filled with tales of “gwisin” (Korean ghosts), stories of the “screaming bridge” where the souls of the dead are said to protest their exile, a little knowledge of shamanic dances, and the Korean folk-tale of the crow king, which Allan uses to echo the destinies of her main characters. These disturbing tales are akin to the narrative of ghosts awaiting burial in Allan’s earlier Purgatory. (They are also akin to the dark and horrible tales the German children hear in Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child). Even in a secular age, the pull of the supernatural is hard to suppress. As for mystery, there is that long puzzle, one of the things which keeps us turning the pages, of the true relationship of Katerina and Antonina.

There is also great skill in the way Allan dramatises the nature of modern Russian society. Obviously, the old USSR had little to commend it, especially in the era of Stalin. The whole premise of this novel tells us so. But there is no delusion to suggest that end of the Soviet regime immmediately brought a stable democracy. The new Russian Federation, as depicted in this novel, is a very shaky thing.

In all the chapters dealing with Antonina’s life as an art student in St Petersburg, there are tales of poverty, gangsterism and bribery. For want of better accommodation, Antonina and her art-school friends doss in a disused factory. Great-Russian racial chauvinism still persists. Antonina is upset when a fare collector on a tram tries to cheat her, obviously because she looks Koryo-saram: “Such racial contempt shocked Antonina at first, but after almost four years in St Petersburg, she is numbing to the disappointment it causes her. Kazakhstan was a more accepting mix. Russian, German, Koryo-saram, Uzbek, Ukrainian, and ethnic Kazakhs. They never seemed to mind each other, not that she could tell.” (p.61) With inflation and the rouble rapidly losing value, crowds queue up for essentials and a Russian woman yells “The Soviets will rise up again. They’ll squash this Boris Yeltsin. He’s no good, you know.” (p.91) And later Antonina herself thinks “Democracy… does not deliver the bread any more than Gorbachev did.” (p.97) One wonders what her thoughts would be if the novel were set now, 25 years later, when Russia has reverted to its default setting of nationalist authoritarianism under the “post-modernism dictator” Vladimir Putin. Later in the novel we meet black-marketeers, people-smugglers, the damaged prostitute Polina and a hospital full of radiation-poisoned or deformed children, the fruit of leaky old Soviet nuclear power-stations and bomb tests.

Most important, though, is the the complexity of Allan’s characters. They are not one-dimensional. Konstantin and Natalya, friends of Antonina, gradually change as the novel progresses, ceasing to be the sort of people we originally thought they were. Our perspective on old Katerina changes as we discover what connection she has with Antonina. In the character of Antonina herself, Rosetta Allan raises a complex problem: what is the cultural status, and what is the inner being, of one who has assimilated another culture and yet is not quite of it? Why does she still feel some adherance to the culture from which some of her forebears came, even if she herself has only limited knowledge of that culture?

It would be rather trite to say that Antonina finds salvation in her art. She is at first repelled by the extreme, exhibitionist avant-garde art she sees in St Petersburg and is conformist enough to admire the more traditional art in the academy where she is officially studying. (As a flawed character, she is, later in the novel, also confomist enough to Russian ways to attempt bribery and some emotional blackmail to negotiate a personal problem.) But bit by bit she finds herself attracted more to the dissident art of another school, and through a display of such dissident art she comes to identify who she really is: “I am not Kazakhstan, she says, I am not Russia. I am not Korea. I am not the dosplacement of my people. I am not lost. I am part of the new tribe. I am Koryo-saram and my place is here.” (p.219) This is a robust assertion of her own personal identity – an acknowledgement of where she came from, but also a realization that a new context creates a new sort of person.

I add this to my list of the best historical novels to be written in New Zealand in the last ten years.

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As I’ve mentioned Rosetta Allan’s earlier novel Purgatory a number of times in the above review, I’ve decided to add here my review of it,  unaltered from its appearance in the December 2014 edition of New Zealand Books (now renamed The New Zealand Review of Books). If I were writing it now, I would of course include Vincent O’Sullivan’s All This ByChance and Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child in its opening roll-call of the best New Zealand historical novels.  Anyway, here is what I wrote four-and-a-half year ago.

There’s one current phenomenon in NZ Lit that I’m watching with great interest. It’s the fact that, with a few honourable exceptions (Hamish Clayton’s Wulf, Owen Marshall’s The Larnachs, and the historical reconstructions of Peter Wells) all the best New Zealand historical novels are now being written by women – Paula Morris’s Rangatira, Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town and The Bright Side of My Condition, Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and (with minor misgivings) Tina Makereti’s Where the Rekohu Bone Sings.

Rosetta Allan’s debut Purgatory reinforces this impression. It is smart, funny, tragic and the product of some close historical research. It delves deeply into a particular sort of mentality that came to colonial New Zealand – in this case, the mentality of an Irish Catholic peasant.  Purgatory is based on real murders that took place in Otahuhu (south of Auckland) in 1865. James Stack, Irishman, ex-fencible and petty crim, murdered the Finnegan family, a mother and four children, and buried them clumsily in the back yard of their cottage. His motive (apart from liquor) appears to have been to gain possession of the property. He was soon found out and hanged.

Rosetta Allan’s boldest imaginative stroke is to have parts of the story told by the ghost of one of the murdered children, young John Finnegan, who lingers about the property with his ghostly family until such time as they receive decent Christian burial. This meshes closely with an older Catholic concept of Purgatory – stalling between Heaven and Hell until released by appropriate prayers for the dead. It also meshes with Maori rites for lifting tapu from ground defiled with blood. In Rosetta Allan’s hands, then, it becomes a strong metaphor for old customs adapting themselves to a new land.

The ghost narrative is, however, really the framing device. Most of Purgatory is the story of James Stack, from famine and impoverishment in Ireland, through British military service to his dabbling in crime in New Zealand. Some of this narrative is necessarily sordid, including vivid and bloody scenes of the lash being applied on a British ship, convicts in Australia being exploited as prostitutes by sex-starved soldiers and a long and grisly hanging in an Auckland jail. The bush scenes down the Great South Road, where James Stack is involved in the Waikato war, are unheroic, unpleasant and painful. So are Stack’s relationships with women.

Here, though, there is something of an imaginative problem.

I think Rosetta Allan’s purpose is to suggest how James Stack has been brutalised by the times in which he was reared; and that this in itself was an incitement to the murders he eventually committed. Certainly we see him making a number of bad decisions – including involvement in one earlier killing. But his transformation from gullible peasant innocent, pushed about by circumstance, to murderer, fully responsible for what he is doing, is still rather abrupt.

Rosetta Allan writes vividly. Her dialogue is plausible. Only occasionally are there lapses into archness like the episode when a ghostly Pakeha-Maori instructs the narrating Finnegan ghost on matters of tapu. Or the moment (on p.133) where a surgeon says sententiously to Stack when they are in Australia: “New Zealand? A land of new beginnings. Much like this, I expect, with some of the old rules and some new ones too. It’s up to us what we make of it, Stack. It’s like the first page of an unwritten story. How it ends depends on us.”

Fortunately there’s not too much of this sort of thing and Purgatory, freighted by ghosts and all, gives a stark and credible re-creation of time and place.