Monday, September 28, 2020

Something New

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

“REMOTE SYMPATHY” by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University of Wellington Press,  $NZ35)



While I was reading Catherine Chidgey's new novel, I kept thinking of a classroom experience I had in the 1980s. I was teaching History to 6th Formers (Year 12 in the new parlance) and we were studying Nazi Germany. Most of the class were girls. As part of the course, I showed them a documentary about the Shoah. They sat with little reaction through scenes, probably already familiar to them from other films, of ovens, gas chambers and emaciated corpses piled up in liberated death camps. But a couple of brief shots made all the girls gasp in horror. They were images of Nazi women who had served as guards in the concentration camps. I asked the girls why these shots upset them.  Because women don’t do things like that,” they said.

Years later, on the internet, I came across photos of women happily frolicking at a sort of picnic with three men. They looked like perfectly ordinary people having a good time. The three men were SS officers. The women were voluntary auxiliary staff who helped them at Auschwitz, which was fully functioning a mile or two from where this happy photograph was taken. Given the right (or wrong) circumstances, women and men are capable of doing the most monstrous things, to the point of believing the most monstrous things are both necessary and normal. And the disturbing thing is that they look just like us. Indeed, in their complexity and contradictions, they are just like us, because they are human.


            From this fact, Catherine Chidgey’s Remote Sympathy does not draw some simplistic lesson about all of us being guilty. If everybody is guilty then nobody is guilty, concepts of right and wrong simply vanish and we can’t talk about good and evil. But she does understand that the guilty are human and as complex as anybody else. In her second novel to be set in Nazi Germany – after The Wish Child – she presents even an SS officer as a rounded and credible human being.

Remote Sympathy has three protagonists. Dr Lenard Weber, who perhaps has a few Jewish ancestors, has had to divorce his Jewish wife to maintain his position, but has ended up as a prisoner in Buchenwald anyway. SS Sturmbannfuhrer Dietrich Hahn is one of the chief administrators of the concentration camp, keeping accounts. He lives with his wife Greta and their little son Karl-Heinz in one of the luxury houses provided for SS officers, just a short distance from the camp. Greta Hahn misses their former home in Munich and she has had to suppress the Catholicism in which she was raised because “the churches are the enemies of the Reich”. But she settles in comfortably enough, although she occasionally finds some things unsettling and unnerving. What exactly is her husband’s job?

These three voices narrate the novel. We are given the “imaginary diary” of Frau Greta Hahn. We hear Dr Weber’s experiences from letters he writes in 1946, and SS officer Dietrich Hahn’s experiences from a tape-recorded interview he does in 1954  (so we know from the start that the doctor and the SS man survive the war). Much that these three narrators say sounds nothing like a diary, letter or interview, but we easily accept this as a literary convention, like the epistolary convention of many authors since Samuel Richardson.

    It is never my intention to give away all the plot development of a new novel.The author has the right to expect her intended surprises to be real surprises for the reader too. But I can give the general situation which we come to know well before we are halfway through Remote Sympathy. When he was younger, Lenard Weber created a machine which he hoped would cure cancer without surgery and by electrotherapy -  electric waves would shake apart and destroy tumors. He has long since realised that his machine doesn’t work and is probably sheer quackery. But when cancer develops in Greta Hahn, her husband is desperate to find a cure, learns about the doctor’s machine and invites Weber into his home to treat his wife.  Knowing how useless his invention really is, Weber accepts, with his own survival in mind. As a prisoner in Buchenwald, he is thus given easier duties and limited preferential treatment, even as other prisoners are being worked, starved or beaten to death. And as the “treatment” continues, some level of sympathy and mutual understanding develops between the doctor and the SS officer’s wife, even if the doctor has to be cautious, subservient and circumspect in everything he says.

There are many ironies built into this novel, beyond the situation of the SS officer being in one sense dependent on the prisoner. There is the irony of Buchenwald, the concentration camp, being right next to Weimar, the centre of German liberal enlightenment and the home of Goethe. An old oak tree, believed to have sometimes shaded Goethe when he was writing, is now surrounded by Buchenwald, so a symbol of barbarism sits side-by-side with a symbol of high culture. Together with the voices of the three main characters, we sometimes hear the collective voices of the citizens of Weimar. Like Frau Miller and Frau Muller in The Wish Child, they are complacent and conformist, believing every propaganda slogan, reviling Germany’s enemies, and to the bitter end refusing to believe anything barbarous is going on in the camp up the hill. There is the ongoing irony of Greta Hahn, in the earlier stages of the novel, fussing over trivial domestic matters (windows smeared by people who hung the curtains; how her curtains are hung) while a stone’s throw away people are being systematically murdered. There are also incidental ironies like Dr Weber, early in his career, a man who regards human beings as mere circuitry of a machine like the famous Transparent Man, listening to one of his patients muttering scraps of hymns as he is being treated. A tension between religious belief and hard positivist materialism is one thread in this novel.

While the ironies always have point, the strength of the novel is the roundedness and credibility of its main characters. Both Greta Hahn and Lenard Weber develop slowly in their attitudes as they reach some sort of mutual understanding. It is no sudden and improbable meeting of minds.

Catherine Chidgey’s real skill in characterization is best illustrated by SS Sturmbannfuhrer Dietrich Hahn. He is not one dimensional. He has real concern  about his wife’s health. He feels real sorrow as her cancer advances. In some sense he is a good father, making toy animals for his young son. But he is also an opportunist and self-evidently a liar who has perhaps come to believe his own lies. We understand how much he has absorbed Nazi doctrine when he takes to referring to the family’s Jehovah’s Wtiness “servant” Josef (i.e. prisoner forced to do domestic chores) as “Niemand” – “Nobody”. Enemies of the Reich are not to be treated as people.  In his interview, nine years after the war is over, he repeatedly emphasises his own probity in running the camp, claiming that he kept accounts honestly and never embezzled; claiming that he was under orders to save money, so it wasn’t his fault if prisoners starved to death for lack of food; claiming anything about prisoners being tortured or worked to death was the fault of his subordinates. In short, he is the model of Hannah Arendt’s Schreibtischtater (“desk murderer”) – the guy who gives the orders and then pleads that his own hands are clean. And even in the matters of stealing money and personally profiting from the camp, we know he is lying. He is the unreliable narrator who never considers how much he is really revealing.

What is being displayed – in Dietrich Hahn, in the wives of SS officers and often in the citizens of Weimar -  is wilful ignorance, choosing not to know things. Dietrich Hahn says “I was always mindful of the inmates basic needs… but like all the other officers, I preferred not to have to visit the compound unnecessarily; you risk seeing something or catching something.” (p.85)   Elsewhere, Dr Weber looks through a window in Buchenwald and sees a farmer ploughing a nearby field, taking no notice of the camp which he can clearly see. (p.298) Like Dietrich Hahn, the farmer chooses not to know. This sort of wilful ignorance, obliviousness or choosing not to know, is quite different from the genuinely innocent ignorance of the two children who are at the centre of The Wish Child. Choosing not to know is complicity.

Countering this, the novel has another thematic thread about the need to document and know. Much imagery points to this need, especially in scenes where Dr Weber examines and develops photographs in Buchenwald’s photography room, where SS officer Hahn has installed him to do lighter duties than other prisoners.

And what does the title Remote Sympathy mean? It can be unpicked in many ways.  It refers literally to Dr Weber’s “cancer-curing” machine which, he explains, is supposed to operate on “the theory of remote sympathy – that treating one part of the body could affect a seemingly unconnected part [because] the body is a circuit.” (p.99) But then there is the cautious, self-distancing sympathy Dr Weber feels for Frau Hahn, even if he has to remain subservient and is saving his own life. And there is the very, very remote sympathy of German “Aryans” for the suffering of other peoples – a sympathy so remote that it barely exists. And the decaying of sympathy among the prisoners themselves, as they face starvation, are brutalised and each begins to look after himself first. And the remote sympathy we as readers feel now that these events are fading into the historical past. And - it has to be included, because for one character there is a strong religious experience later in the novel - perhaps the remote sympathy of God who merely looks on. There is the horrible irony, late in the novel, of a copy of the Bible being hidden inside a copy of Mein Kampf. This image could be interpreted in more ways than I would dare to attempt.

Is this novel ultimately about delusions and self-deception, including the desperate hopes that its main characters have for things they cannot ever have? Or is it about the power of hope? Judge for yourself.

At over 500 pages, Remote Sympathy is a long novel, but the length is fully justified by all the sharply-observed detail and by the “slow burn” of historical events as the war advances to its end, bombs begin to fall and SS men and others move from worry to panic. More than anything, though, it is the careful development of characters that justifies the length. Fired by real historical knowledge, Catherine Chidgey is an acute observer of human strengths and weaknesses and a very accomplished story-teller. This is a great novel.  

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 CHILDREN ACT” by Ian McEwan (first published in 2014)

            Twice before on this blog, I’ve dealt with novels by the British novelist Ian McEwan

(see the posts on On Chesil Beach and Sweet
Tooth) and I have vented my opinions of his work. To save myself some time, here is what I said in one of my earlier reviews: 

I admit to having a limited and bumpy relationship with McEwan’s novels. I enjoyed Enduring Love, despite its pervasive sardonic tone; found On Chesil Beach an interesting, if limited, reflection on defunct sexual mores; and believe Amsterdam to be the slightest, and probably least worthy, novel ever to have won the Booker. (Gossip says it won as compensation to McEwan for not winning with better novels in previous years). I admit to not having read Atonement, which some people rate McEwan’s best. (I read the “Dunkirk” section when it was extracted in Granta, but apart from that only saw the movie version.)

As you can see, I’m not a great McEwan fan, but being a fair-minded person, I recently decided to read another of his novels just to check if I’d misjudged him. So I plucked The Children Act out of the local library. (Yes, I’m aware that in 2017 it was made into a movie starring Emma Thompson – at least seven of McEwan’s novels have been filmed - but I missed that one).

Despite all protests to the contrary, The Children Act is very much a “problem” or

“thesis” novel. A High Court judge has to decide a case of life-and-death and we are meant to ask if her judgement is right, or whether she has been too influenced by personal feelings. Because the case she judges involves religious beliefs, we are also asked to decide whether religious beliefs should have any weight in a court of law. These clearly are Big Issues, and while I think novels can legitimately deal with Big Issues, I also suspect that such novels are often praised by journalist-reviewers who think that Big Issues of themselves make for a Serious and Important Novel. And – to rush to my judgement before I lay out my evidence – I find The Children Act a schematic performance with unbelievable straw-man characters and a very skewed argument.

The “Children Act” of the title is the act which [in Britain and elsewhere] rules that 18 is the age when legal adulthood begins, and therefore that legal decisions concerning young people under 18 have to be made, or endorsed, by their parents or guardians. So here is High Court Judge Fiona Maye, nearly 60 years old, addressed by her colleagues as “My Lady”, who specialises in the Children’s Division and spends much of her time ruling on messy custody battles between fractious divorcing parents. But sometimes she has to rule in medical matters concerning children. Before her court come two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Kevin and Naomi Henry. They are clearly good parents, they are sincere, strong in their religious faith which, by their own testimony, has straightened out their previously messy lives, and they love their 17-year-old son Adam. But Adam is very sick with leukemia and needs a blood transfusion; and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe blood transfusions are contrary to Biblical teaching. Adam’s parents – and apparently Adam himself - refuse the blood transfusion which the medical profession says he should have. So here are lawyers for the medical profession and lawyers for Adam’s parents arguing the case in Fiona Maye’s court.

Up to a point, McEwan deals even-handedly with the case. Obviously the lawyers for the medical profession are rational and clearly-spoken people. But Adam’s parents are not presented as fanatics or fools and their lawyer makes many plausible points against blood transfusion.

Even so, the argument becomes very skewed once High Court Judge Fiona Maye decides to visit Adam personally in hospital, to see whether he has really rejected treatment of his own free will, or whether he has been unduly influenced by his parents. Adam, it turns out, is sure of his faith and really does believe blood transfusion is wrong. But he is also an alert, perceptive, sensitive young man who writes poetry and aspires to play the violin. Indeed (and at this point I thought “Bollocks!”) he plays his violin for the visiting High Court Judge and she sings along to “Down By the Salley Gardens”. And quite clearly the 60-year-old judge gets a kind of sentimental crush on the 17-year-old boy.

I don’t say that, in his methodical and thesis-minded planning of the novel, McEwan hasn’t prepared us for this. Even before the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ case comes up, we know that Fiona Maye is emotionally vulnerable. She has long lamented the fact that she has no children, and to make matters worse her marriage to Jack, an historian and academic, may be on the rocks. You see, Jack has suggested that he be allowed to go off and have an affair with a much younger woman, pleading for “open marriage”, and Fiona has been appalled and has kicked Jack out and is reassessing her sterile life… and now she meets this sympathetic boy. So here is that thing about whether she is letting her emotions cloud her judgement. She goes back to court and decides that Adam should be given the blood transfusion… but has she been swayed in this by her own feelings for the boy, her own desire for him to live because he fills an emotional void in her life?

I confess that at this point in the novel I was almost laughing. McEwan’s strategies are so obvious. Pause for a moment, dear reader, and consider this scenario. What if the youth Fiona Maye meets were an uncouth, foul-mouthed, pimply-face yobbo rather than a civilised, poetry-writing, violin-playing paragon?  Would his life be any less important? The type of situation Ian McEwan sets up is very much akin to those old anti-lynching movies Hollywood used to make, where the lynch victim always just happened to be innocent of any crime. A real anti-lynching film would have told us that lynching was wrong even if the victim were guilty as hell, because in and of itself lynching, which ignores due process of law, is always wrong. McEwan skews his whole case as soon as Adam (what an obviously resonant name!) personally enters the novel. Okay, McEwan has to have somebody with whom the judge can become emotionally involved. But it still manoeuvres readers into thinking what a pity it would be if this particular young man - such a nice violin-playing, poetry-reading chap - were to die; whereas a more credible morality would say what a pity it would be if any youth should die in these circumstances.

Where the novel goes from this point reaches further and further into the realm of implausibility… so I won’t bother synopsising it. I began to wonder if the word “Act” in the title was meant to be a verb as much as a noun, not only because the legally-defined child (Adam) acts, but because the actions and thoughts of Fiona Maye are those of a child – extremely self-centred. The youth gets a crush on her and he (unbelievably for one debilitated by a serious disease) stalks her around England. She impulsively reciprocates his feelings for one brief moment, then regrets it. What an immature twit. It ends in tears. The characterisation of Fiona Maye is artificial at best.

Additional, thesis-related thoughts occur to me. Aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses fairly easy targets for a secularist novelist like McEwan? The JWs’ rejection of blood transfusion has been dealt with in novels and movies before, in loaded form where rejection of such medical treatment is seen as self-evidently foolish. (By coincidence I recently watched on Youtube the ancient British film Life for Ruth, made in 1962, which argues the case in just these terms.) I am sure that 99% of readers (including me) would already be inclined to reject JW beliefs on this particular matter, before they had even read the first page of The Children Act. McEwan might have found it harder to argue his case against religious beliefs if he were dealing with a more mainstream, and more sophisticated, religious group than with this small sect. In the cases which Fiona Maye remembers, McEwan takes passing digs at other religious groups anyway -  quarrelsome conservative Jews in a custody battle; a Catholic bishop opposed to separating conjoined twins because one of them will certainly die. Really, in McEwan’s novels, religion is already a priori condemned and dosesn’t stand a chance.

I have often said negative things about reviewers who praise or condemn novels solely in terms of the issues and ideas they deal with, rather than also considering how the novel is written. Style and substance are always intertwined. I don’t want to be a hypocrite in this matter, as you will have noted that I am here criticising McEwan in terms of his (very loaded) ideas. But of style, let me say simply that every calculation McEwan makes to build up his thesis is plain to see. With just a little gussying-up, his characters are really ideas representing positions he either accepts or rejects. You can, as the cliché says, see the joins.

While I have not seen the film that was made from this novel, I was amused to read one lukewarm review of it in the NZ Listener. The reviewer complained of the film’s melodramatic moments, saying that in the film “subtle tragedy gives way to melodrama” and that the film (scripted by McEwan himself) betrayed the novel. Sorry my friend, but the novel itself is already unsubtle melodrama. This was pointed out in another review of the film (in the Guardian) which said that the film merely exposed the inherent flaws in the novel – especially the notion that a cancer-stricken patient, recently at death’s door, would be able to stalk a High Court judge around much of England. Quite.

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.


I am sorry that I do not have any words of wisdom for you. Instead, I am going to tell you a little anecdote about something that disturbed me.

Before doing some shopping in the local town centre, I was killing time by browsing though the shelves of the local library, in the hope that there was something I really wanted to read. My eye was caught by the colourful cover of a book called, intriguingly, Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil. When I scanned the back cover, the blurb told me in very general terms that it was about how future wars could be avoided and how some past wars need never have happened. The author had a very Jewish name. This piqued my interest so I checked the book out and took it home.

But here was the first shock. When I opened the book and read the first few pages, I discovered that it was violently anti-semitic. I scanned quickly through the book, reading a page here and a page there of its 450-odd pages. It claimed that the world was in thrall to a vast Jewish conspiracy, that the Holocaust never happened, that Hitler was a progressive leader who was only doing what was best for the German people and that Jews were responsible for the outbreak of both the First and the Second World Wars, not to mention every major war in Europe for the last four centuries. The text was thick with long quotations from authors of similar views, and long quotations, taken out of context, from more credible people.

Looking at the author’s very Jewish name – Gerard Menuhin – I now assumed that the name must be the pseudonym of somebody trying to mislead potential readers. But here came my second shock. Looking up “Gerard Menuhin” on the internet, I discovered he is indeed Jewish and – horrible to contemplate – he is one of the sons of the revered violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Apparently he is well-known as “a self-hating Jew” or “a Jewish anti-semite”, and he has frequently contributed to far-right German nationalist publications.

What formed such a man? He was Eton College and Stanford University-educated. His father was Jewish but his mother an English Gentile.  Did this create in him some unresolved tension or resentment of his father? I don’t know. But whatever happened, a twisted bitterness was the result.

Finding this book, respectably bound, coded and covered, in a public library disturbs me in a number of ways. I am not somebody who wants to censor or remove from library shelves books that I personally find objectionable. Libraries would lose many volumes if it was up to my personal taste alone. Doubtless, too, there are many books I admire which other people might find positively cranky or weird. Even so, I seriously wonder how Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil even made it onto the shelves in the first place. Did the library system’s purchasers not examine it beyond its vague and misleading cover blurb? Couldn’t they be bothered reviewing the contents? Did they think it something that only historians or sociologists would read as an example of reprehensible extremist talk?

Once again, I don’t know. I returned the book to our local head librarian and had a little chat with her about the contents. She was mortified, pointing out that obviously local libraries do not review every book, accepting them from the national library service and relying on the recommendations of readers and publishers. As I chatted with her, her assistant looked up the book in her computer and discovered only two copies are held in New Zealand libraries. Meanwhile, they have removed the book from their shelves pending further investigation.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Something New

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

“IN THE TIME OF THE MANAROANS” by Miro Bilbrough (Victoria University of Wellington Press,  $NZ40) “YELLOW MOON – E Marama Rengarenga: Selected Poems” by Mary Maringikura Campbell (Headworx, $NZ25); “THE LIFERS” by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $NZ27.50)

            Now in her fifties, Miro Bilbrough is, the blurb tells me, an expatriate Kiwi settled in Australia, where she is a respected film-maker and artist. But her adolescence in the 1970s was a New Zealand one. This memoir replays it vividly.
            Her parents had split up. She had been farmed out to a grandmother who was of the extreme left but who was severely puritanical in her attitudes. Life with her in Wellington is told with ironic gusto, but as she reached adolescence, young Miro chose to shift in with her father and her little sister. They lived in a remote, low-tech shack of a house near the Wakamarina River in the north of the South Island. Father’s views were anti-materialist, and “alternative-lifestyle”, but not as alternative as the “Manaroans”.  Bilbrough doesn’t like the word “hippy”. It seems to her a little demeaning and she struggles against it, but eventually she gives in as she can find no suitable synonym. So hippies the Manaroans were. They often dropped in on father and daughters to drink, philosophise, smoke pot and sleep. They lived at the end of a long, winding, unsealed road, at Manaroa near a remote bay in the Marlborough Sounds. Father joined their commune.
Miro spent some time boarding in Nelson and attending high-school, but when school was done with, she joined too. Living in a caravan which she painted herself, she became a Manaroan. It didn’t last too long. She eventually developed her artistic talents, did illustrations that were accepted by the government bulletin for schools, and shifted back to Wellington to study at a visual design school, having made it out of adolescence and into young adulthood.
As always, such a bland synopsis does not give you any of the flavour of this book. Told throughout in the present tense, it is not a linear narrative, but a set of moments in the author’s younger life. Bilbrough observes people, observes rituals  and mores of “straight” (i.e. “square”) suburban schoolmates, rebellious and unsettled teenagers like herself, flatmates, fellow-students and, of course, the hippies. She is alert to nuances of schoolgirl and hippie-girl behaviour, rivalries, games of teenage one-up-manship and especially how clothes and words were always for display, always designed to make a statement of some sort.
Only a woman writer could or would be able to describe clothes and make-up as precisely as Bilbrough does, always using these descriptions to socially “place” people in terms of fashion. Take this example, typical of many, where she is describing a children’s illustrator “With a bouffant that adds quarter her diminutive height again, Cleopatra eyeliner, an amount of facial powder that quotes the Elizabethans, and a waist fiercely accented by belted full skirts and overhanging stalactites of lace, [she] is an illustration herself. That the bouffant appears slept in only adds value.” (pp.132-133)
Throughout, the most attractive feature of this memoir is Bilbrough’s use of language, her ability to sum up mood and the era in a phrase or a few sentences. I’ve encountered few expressions of formless teenage angst better than this : “Adolescence had hit my mood centres and transformed me into an unruly devastation of discontents pining for, I don’t know.” (p.22) After describing the hair of two young men, she relates it to youth fashions of the 1970s: “It is the early seventies; hair is unusually significant and, besides, both teenagers know that politics are performative. They delight in being routinely mistaken for girls by adoring old ladies and less adoringly, train conductors.” (p.36) She produces this killer sentence on the cluelessness of the commune when, on hearing of the death of somebody they knew, they don’t know how to respond: “In the absence of anything to be done, we don’t know how to do it.” (p.229) I won’t call her prose poetic, but she has a great way with phrasing. Here she is, as a young teenager, trying to ignore a type of cake-treat she doesn’t like on display in a shop window: “I never purchase one of these sugary installations, but I am aware of their presence, like a failure of desire.” (p.55)
Bilbrough does account fully for the hippy experience, with its occasional nudism, seasonal work to keep the commune going, bland vegetarian food, being stoned, eating (and getting sick on) cannabis cookies, and long periods of boredom. There were also times of rebelliously wishing for more of the mod cons and junk food available in town (see, for example, pp.153 ff.) .
More than anything, though, the young Miro yearns for a partner, which translates into early, fumbling adolescent sexual experience. After some pubescent wanking (her word), there are the under-age loss of virginity, brief sexual encounters, dating disasters in her high-school days and being groped in various ways in the commune. All of this sounds singularly joyless. At one stage she says she was diagnosed by a doctor as having “vaginismus”, a tension in the muscles around her vagina which did not allow for easy sexual intercourse. In fact, nothing in her sexual life sounds particularly happy, but only the unfulfilled desire of a young woman who is a little lost and doesn’t yet really know how to negotiate the world. Even when she makes it to Wellington and says she found her first true love, it ends in two pregnancies and two abortions.
There is also something particulaly repellent about sex in the hippy context. Of Sylvie, a more experienced woman in the scene, Bilbrough writes: “She has recognised that the sexual revolution and its hippy offshoot, the myth of free love without acknowledgement of emotional need and commitment, serves its male proponents first and foremost.” (p.72) This idea is enhanced later when she speaks of socialising “Manaroans” : “Amidst the swirl of the group, people hold themselves aloof, even when disappearing off together for the night. Dedicated to keeping the sexual possible alive, this cagey, obscurely low-commitment style of conducting affairs does not admit of emotional need.” (p.94) Related to this we later hear of “the relative absence of boys my own age with whom to negotiate sex in conditions of relative equality; the opportunism of older hippy men. I wouldn’t know how to begin to describe these murky transactions.” (pp.160-161)
Apart from sex, there is also the fact that many people pass through young Miro’s life without ever staying long enough to become friends. As she says “In this culture of comings and goings, the sheer number of people I become acquainted with is wildly inverse to the number I retain. This perpetual gaining and shedding leaves a powerful imprint. I am situationally agile… My observational eye has been piqued. There is anxiety, too.” (p.145) She certainly keeps her “observational eye” as her sharp character-sketches of people show, sometimes proving inadvertently how judgemental of others the adolescent eye can be. And this may possibly be the memoir’s greatest weakness. Often it resolves into a series of vignettes or pen-portraits of people who passed through and who, in the end, blur into one another.
For all the alternative lifestyle that she and others embraced at least for a time, Bilbrough finally finally quits what she calls “the whole malnourished hippy trip” (p.239). In her closing words, after presenting us with a gallery of old photographs of some of the dramatis personae, Bilbrough gives a kind of apologia for how she feels now about her youthful experience. It is not quite a refutation of her younger self and her way of looking at the world. Indeed it asserts how necessary it all was to her growing up, and she makes a half-hearted attempt to present the old Manaroan community as pioneers in Greenness and care for the environment. But underneath it all I sense a certain defensiveness – as if she wants to admit that maybe the square and settled life would have been better for her adolescent self, but she can’t quite bring herself to say so.
Possibly others will read this conclusion differently.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Sometimes I think editors and publishers lay too much of a burden on poets whom they are promoting. I certainly think this as I look at the foreword and publisher’s note that precede the poems by Mary Maringikura Campbell Yellow Moon - E Marama Rengarenga. Apirana Taylor’s Foreword says “The blood of poets flows in Maringikura’s veins”. Mark Pirie’s Note tells us she is “a daughter of two of New Zealand’s most well known poets and writers Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Meg Campbell”. Doesn’t this raise unfair expectations, and imply somehow that the poet has simply inherited her gifts? Surely she deserves to be be judged on her own terms and by her own skills?
This objection having been stated, I make it clear that I enjoyed much of Yellow Moon - E Marama Rengarenga. The first half of this collection consists of new and uncollected poems; the second half reprints an earlier collection called Maringi, which was first published in 2015. Mary Maringikura Campbell’s poems are usually very short, as much statements as poems. Most are written in the confessional first person and many in direct address. She enjoys creating simple vignettes, as in the following complete poem, “Small town”:
Bends in the road
a small town
north of Pukerua Bay
A full moon
Bright as a torch
in your face
My parents sleep
outside my window
A giant gull disappears
mid air
nothing is as it seems
Similar charm is presented in “Ra – The Sun”, a childlike snapshot of the sun going to bed in the sea. Campbell sometimes adopts the tone of a suppliant praying to traditional gods and sometimes drops down to earth and refers to men who were unsatisfactory partners.  There are moments of self-affirmation that are a little glib, such as  “A Better Fit” which reads in toto :
I am stronger
I have layers
I am a better fit
My life is as it should be
I found my feet
not far from my toes
At last
I belong
More than anything, however, the poet is concerned with family, ancestry, children and grandchildren. As far as I can make it out “Teresia” lament for a dead sister and “Most Revered” endows a coconut tree with the motherly power of being able to nurture her. “Parents” seems to berate her parents for underestimating her, although “How We loved” suggests the opposite. There are invocations of the gods and of visions as in “Signs”, dedicated to a grandchild. Some poems I really wanted to like for their sentiment, but found them falling into bathos. “Imagine” tells us to honour as a goddess an ordinary woman struggling to bring up her children, a view I would happily endorse. But the language goes commonplace and editorial:  A mother of five kids / and the rest/ doing her best to feed and clothe / to love and hold, to protect / what she has.”
Despite such losses of quality, Mary Maringikura Campbell has the skill to fill “Going to Town” and “Foxy Boxes” with internal rhymes halfway to being rap. Like many poems in the book, they might work best declaimed at a live poetry reading.

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A completely different and far more complex world is presented in Michael Steven’s The Lifers. This is Steven’s second collection of poetry (on this blog there is a brief notice of his first collection Walking to Jutland Street) and it is impressive.
When I first grappled with the title of this collection, I thought it would deal exclusively with criminality, given that “lifers” usually designates people who are jailed for life. My mistaken interpretation seemed to hold good in the first few poems.
The collection opens in Auckland in 1996, with a drug-dealer at a casino snorting cocaine and then selling bags of crystal meth to construction workers and others coming onto their daily shift. Next comes the account of an armed robbery - a security van is ambushed and robbed of its money outside a bank in the Auckland suburb of Penrose, followed by the robbers’ getaway. Then we cut to an older-style crim with a vignette of Ron Jorgensen, notorious for the Bassett Road murders in the 1960s,  now semi-retired from the criminal life and painting to pass the time. And elsewhere there is the violent piece “Strains: Big Bud” about a skull-cracking mugging in a prison yard. Criminality and drugs come into a number of other poems, too.
But it gradually becomes apparent that “lifers” refers to those who live life-long in New Zealand (like a sentence?), or to those who simply grapple with what life itself is. Yes, there is “A Brief History of Treason” referencing Cain and Abel and suggesting inherent violence in human beings. Yes, there is the brilliantly dark panoramic poem “The Old Town”, long, evocative and in many parts, being a series of night-time vignettes, set (presumably) in some European city – perhaps Prague, given that Kafka is referenced. Here night creatures of the mythical past meld into addicts getting their fixes and others simply lost in the darkness.
But there is also “Dropped Pin: Woodhouse Forest, Muriwai”, which is almost the idyll of a Kiwi hermit. And there is “Dropped Pin: Three Lamps, Ponsonby” on a disoriented woman finding temporary peace in a chapel. And there is “Yellow Plums”, recalling a not-entirely-satisfactory visit to the grave of James K. Baxter. “At Eastern Southland” is another panoramic poem, building a vision of a of a chill corner of New Zealand. In a couple of poems Steven references the impact of electronically produced music, and laments a vanished quality of life in Dunedin. I am not suggesting that these are poems of rejoicing. But I am suggesting that their survey a quality of life goes far beyond criminality. The sequence of four poems “Reading to my Son” credibly connects the raising of a child with the whole of literary history and religion.
As you will be aware by now, one of my abiding sins is to synopsise a work without paying sufficient attention to its style. On this, just a few simple statements: Michael Steven is a master craftsman. In The Lifers he moves from prose poems to the eight loose sonnets that make up the sequence “Leviathan” to free verse to the disciplined stanzaic forms of “At Eastern Southland”. His eye for detail is acute and he is fertile in imagery – so fertile that I will not start quoting him or I might go on a bit. His view of life in New Zealand and elsewhere might be chilly and dark, with just a few rays peeping through the storm clouds, but those rays are there. This is not the work of a pessimist, but of a realist. An arresting collection.

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 INHERITORS” by William Golding (first published in 1955)

There must be a certain amount of frustration for a writer whose career produced eleven novels (really fourteen, if you realize one “novel” is a trilogy), a number of short stories, and some plays – and who yet remains best known for his first published novel. This was the fate of William Golding (1911-1993), who was (for the little that it’s worth) knighted for his literary achievements, but who more importantly won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. Mention his name and most people know he wrote Lord of the Flies (published in 1954). Given that it’s often set as a school text, and given that it’s twice been filmed and once turned into a stage-play, it is certain that Lord of the Flies has been read more often than all Golding’s other works combined. This is a pity because – especially in the first half of his writing career - Golding wrote a number of resonant novels, all of them (like Lord of the Flies) having the inspiration and structure of a moral fable or allegory – Pincher Martin, Free Fall, The Spire and The Pyramid among them.

In a Guardian article some years after her father’s death, Golding’s daughter wrote that the one of his own works Golding most treasured was his second novel, The Inheritors, published the year after Lord of the Flies. Like the preceding work, it dealt with the inherent moral flaws of human beings, not caused by environment but embedded in our very nature. (This theme, as I pointed out in another posting, was also dealt with years earlier in Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica.) Christians would call it Original Sin, and in many respects The Inheritors is Golding’s version of the Garden of Eden and the Fall.

The tale is set in distant prehistoric times. An earlier, and apparently gentler, version of human beings find themselves confronting the “new people” whom they have never encountered before and who will eventually supplant them. All commentators on The Inheritors readily identify these two groups as, respectively, Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens Sapiens, or us. This seems reasonable to me, so I will refer to the main characters in the novel as Neanderthals, and therefore the story must be set about 40,000 years ago, which is the time when, for a thousand years or so, Neanderthals in Europe interacted with our more direct ancestors, who are “the inheritors”.

The Inheritors follows a “family” of Neanderthals - the younger adult male Lok; his female partner Fa; the young girl Liku; the older male Ha; the older female Nil, who has recently given birth and is still lactating; and the very old male Mal, who is more-or-less the visionary of the group. We might as once grasp that that, if “old” Nil is lactating, then she can’t be all that old by our standards, pointing to the obvious fact that our distant ancestors probably lived relatively short lives. As for the visionary nature of old Mal, he sees “pictures” in his mind, which seem to be memories as much a prophecies. Golding often refers to the adults in this group seeing “pictures” and conveying them to one another. This has led some commentators to assume Golding is suggesting that these Neanderthals communicate by a form of mental telepathy, but I’m not convinced of this. I think, rather, that Golding’s reference to “pictures” assumes that these Neanderthals have very limited vocabulary in their speech, and no abstract words. Their “pictures” simply mean their thoughts, which they can articulate only in terms of literal images. It is an important moment, well into the novel, when one character conceives of the abstract concept “like”. In Golding’s vision, lacking abstract vocabulary may well be a moral adavantage for the Neanderthals in that they relate more directly with their physical environment than they would if they were hemmed in by abstract concepts.

It is the male Lok who is the novel’s protagonist – the character through whose eyes (although the novel is written in the third person) we see events. Yet the group’s simple religion is matriarchal. As old Mal explains it in Chapter 2: “There was the great Oa. She brought forth the earth from her belly. She gave suck. The earth brought forth woman and the woman brought forth the first man out of her belly.” A doll-like fetish of this Earth Mother Goddess is carried around by young Liku. It is also clear that, although the male Lok is the novel’s focus, the female Fa is cleverer than he is, sees more “pictures” than he does (i.e. has more thoughts) and in a way takes charge of him. When an existential threat to them is detected midway through the novel: “She became very solemn and there was the great Oa, not seen but sensed like a cloud around her. Lok felt himself diminish. He clasped his twig with both hands nervously and looked away….Fa spoke… ‘Do what I say; ‘Fa do this.’ I will say: ‘Lok do this’. I have many pictures.” (Chapter 6) Indeed it is Fa who devises an important plan which, at a crucial point, Lok ruins by disobeying her.

This Neanderthal “family” cares for one other and remembers anybody in the group who has died. When Ha has apparently died: “The feeling that Ha was still present by his many evidences grew so strong in Lok that it overwhelmed him.” (Chapter 4). When old Mal dies (“Oa has taken him into her belly.”) he is buried with a simple stone over him to mark the place – a basic sort of ritual ceremony.

The Neanderthals have some limited skills. They can keep warm in the overhang where they live by controlling fire. But, as depicted by Golding, they have no more advanced technology, and they are afraid of water, even if they live near a booming waterfall. It is a great shock to them early in the book when the log, over which they walk to cross a shallow stream, is no longer there and some of them actually have to enter the water.

Perhaps most significant in Golding’s depiction of Neanderthals, they are basically pacifistic, not aggressive - gatherers but not hunters. They have no weapons. They eat berries and grubs and wild honey, but eat meat only if it has already been killed by other creatures. In Chapter 3 Lok knows it is “very bad” to do so, but he and his group nevertheless eat the remains of a doe which has been killed by a “cat” (presumably something like a sabre-toothed tiger).

The arc of the story has the Neanderthals gradually becoming aware that other, very different, human creatures live in their neighbourhood, and gradually realising that these “new people” can be lethal. It is through the eyes of the Neanderthals  - especially Lok – that we see this. So Golding has set himself the task of reproducing the mentality and patterns of thought of a different species from ourselves. One point is obvious. Like most other mammals, these Neanderthals have a far more acute sense of smell than we do. Smell is one of their key means of gathering information. It is through smell that Lok first realises there are alien, unidentified strangers (“a smell without a picture”) in his vicinity:

He began to use his nose consciously, crouching sideways and sniffing at the rock. The smells were very complex and his nose did not seem to be clever. He knew why that was and lowered himself head downward till he felt the water with his lips. He drank then cleared out his mouth. … He stood for a while over the monstrous booming of the fall and attended to his nose. The scents were a pattern in space and time. Here, by his shoulder, was the freshest scent of Nil’s hand on the rock. Below it was a company of smells, smells of people as they passed this way yesterday, smells of sweat and milk and the sour smell of Mal in his pain… Each smell was accompanied by a picture more vivid than memory, a sort of living but qualified presence, so that now Ha was alive again. He settled the picture of Ha in his head, intending to keep it there so that he would not forget…. …There was something else. It was not noticeable when all the people were considered together, but sort and eliminate them and it remained, a smell without a picture. Now that he noticed, it was heavy by the corner. Someone had stood there, his hand on the rock…”  (Chapter 4)

But, for both Golding and his readers, there is difficulty in trying to see things as a Neanderthal might. Quite apart from the fact that we are in the world of speculation (we have abolutely no way of knowing how Neanderthals really thought or understood), there is the fact that we have to work out what exactly the Neanderthal is interpreting – or misinterpreting.

Here, for example, is the episode where Lok first sees, full-on, the face of one of the “new people” and does not understand what bow-and-arrow are:

The bushes twitched again. Lok steadied by the tree and gazed. A head and a chest faced him, half-hidden. There were white bone things behind the leaves and hair. The man had white bone things above his eyes and under the mouth so that his face was longer than a face should be. The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle. Lok peered at the stick and the lump of bone and the small eyes in the bone things over the face. Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again. The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice. “Clop!” His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat…” (Chapter 5)

Lok does not connect the “twig” with the bow, does not understand that he has just been shot at, and he continues with this unawarenss in a later scene:

He looked towards the island, saw the bushes move, then one of the twigs came twirling across the river and vanished beyond him in the forest. He had a confused idea that someone was trying to give him a present. He would have smiled across at the bone-faced man but no one was visible there…” (Chapter 6)

As readers, we simlarly have to work out that, from a distance, Lok sees the “new people” performing religious ceremonies with a shaman dressed in the skin of a deer; drinking some sort of (presumably fermented) drink – a primitve wine maybe – which intoxicates them and makes them behave wildly; drinking from wineskins; and using dug-out canoes which Lok sees merely as “logs”. We are even aware that the “new people” fight among themselves. Even if he senses danger, Lok sees but does not understand.  He identifies one of the “new people” as Tuami, because he has heard that name shouted out. But, as he watches Tuami and a woman copulating, he does not understand what they are doing:

The two people beneath the tree were making noises fiercely as though they were quarrelling. In particular the woman had begun to hoot like an owl and Lok could hear Tuami gasping like a man who fights with an animal and does not think he will win. He looked down and saw that Tuami was not only lying with the fat woman but eating her as well for there was black blood running from the lobe of her ear.” (Chapter 9)

Dare I say that I read this as one of the less convincing pieces of Neanderthal misperception in the novel? Obviously Neanderthals must have copulated themselves. But perhaps Golding’s implication is that Neanderthals did it “doggie style” as most mammals do, and without much love play. So this is the first time Lok has seen face-to-face copulation.

I will not give a detailed account of how the story develops. It is enough to say that the male Ha is probably killed by the “new people”, Liku is kidnapped and enslaved by them, and Lok and Fa fail in their attempts to rescue her. The Neanderthal family is broken up. Lok and Fa are all that remain and they flee. So the hunting, killing, weapon-carrying “new people” (i.e. us) triumph and the peaceable Garden of Eden ceases to exist as its Adam and Eve are expelled.

In the last chapter-and-a-half, however, the novel’s viewpoint changes. Suddenly we see things as the “new man” Tuami does, and he thinks in the language of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. The “logs” are now called “canoes”, the “leaves” that drive them are called “paddles” and the Neanderthals are seen as primitive and scary – indeed as “devils”. It is clear that the “new people” were as afraid of the Neanderthals as the Neanderthals were of them. The difference is that the “new people” know how to kill (and make intoxicating drinks). But there is a little compensation. Just because he likes to, Tuami  carves patterns on the handle of his bone knife. As well as having greater consciousness and self-consciousness than the human forms that preceded us, we have art and creativity to offset our innate violence and destructiveness. It is also worth noting that, as the “new people” abduct, carry away and seem to cherish an infant Neanderthal, Golding is possibly suggesting that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens Sapiens later interbred – a theory which (I understand) had now been proven by DNA research. So we each carry at least a little of Neanderthal within us.

How do I rate this novel?

Like others of Golding’s novels, it is essentially an allegory, or, more precisely a “myth” – an explanation of why we are the morally-flawed creatures that we are. We have been this way since our greater intelligence taught us to hunt and kill and destroy our more peaceable evolutionary cousins.

But there are problems with this scheme. Golding was in part reacting against the stereotype of Neanderthals as violent, primitive, cave-dwelling brutes. Indeed, as epigram to The Inheritors, he uses ironically a quotation from H. G. Wells depicting Neanderthals in just such unflattering terms. In the process, however, Golding has over-compensated and created something like the counter-cliché of the “noble savage”. His Neanderthals are not quite credible because, being a modern human being, Golding is forced to present them as more “sapiens” than they probably were, or at least to have them express themselves in ways which, for all his attempts to make it alien to us, sound suspiciously modern.

Something external to the novel also now damages our suspension of disbelief. In the 60-plus years since the novel was written, the best scientific research suggests that Neanderthals were hunters, and were at least as aggressive among their own kind as Homo Sapiens Sapiens has been. This effectively destroys the image of Neanderthals as peaceable gatherers only. It also seems likely that Neanderthals were unafraid of crossing wide bodies of water.

In a way, this puts The Inheritors in the category of wishful thinking. Golding, correct though he may be about the innate moral flaw in our nature, is in literary line of descent with those who have created human-origin myths that suit their world view. In Leviathan, in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes said that we were violent, self-interested beasts in our most natural form, and therefore we needed a strong ruling authority to tame and control us. In direct contrast Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the 18th century, in his De l’Inegalite Parmi Les Hommes, said that in our natural state we were wonderful loving and cooperative beings, but that the invention of private property made us competitive and violent.  Then there are those feminist tracts (Herstory etc.) which tell us that we were cooperative and peaceable when we worshipped female gods, but then the horrible Patriarchy came along and spoiled everything.

Though Golding, son of an atheist father, was a non-denominational Christian, his myth is closest to Rousseau’s. And he seems to have fallen into the same trap as Jane Goodall, who for years believed that her beloved chimpanzees were peaceful; but who then discovered that they waged war on their own kind. When she discovered this, she said “This was a dark time for me - I thought they were like us, only better”. (See the footnote to my posting Meeting Our Relatives.) Golding wants to believe that Neanderthals were like us, only better. It’s a beguiling myth.

In spite of the objections I raise here, The Inheritors is still a forceful attempt to suggest what is innately wrong with us – a concept which is vigorously denied by utopians and those who would like to believe that all our moral flaws can be eliminated by a little social tweaking.