Monday, March 28, 2022

Something New

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

“THE FISH” by Lloyd Jones (Penguin Books, $NZ36) ; “GRAND – Becoming my mother’s daughter” by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin Books, $NZ35) 


Question: When is a fish not a fish?

Answer: When it is a symbol of… something, but I know not what.

In Lloyd Jones’ latest novel The Fish, we are presented with a very real New Zealand family into which is inserted an element of fantasy, or perhaps an element of nightmare.

Like nearly all Jones’ novels, The Fish is told in the first person by (in this case) a narrator who is never given a name.

Let’s call him Narrator.

Late in the novel Narrator says he is in “late middle-age” and perhaps we could see all his memories as retrospective, but the tale begins in his childhood. When Narrator is nine years old, his grown-up sister Carla is hustled off to Sydney for reasons the little boy doesn’t understand. From childhood to young adulthood, Narrator writes to Carla, seems to idealise her, and believes she has a glamorous career as a model.

Quite different is his other sister who is also never given a name. She is aggressively fixated on sex. Other sister at one point taunts the little boy Narrator with her naked body, and little boy Narrator is also drawn into seeing a couple shagging in a car. He has a primitive understanding of what sex is about. Other sister leaves home and lives in a caravan in a caravan park. Other sister entertains many men in her caravan.  She also, later in the novel, becomes a “boat girl” (prostitute working the wharves), takes drugs, blacks out and at various times is institutionalised. In Narrator’s mind there is clearly a dichotomy of idealised sister far away, and degraded (or degrading) sister nearby. But most important about other sister is that from one of her boyfriends (or clients?) she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Fish. She is thenceforth called only “Fish’s mother” by Narrator.

What is Fish? We are told that he has scales and gills and protuberant eyes and a blubbery mouth, can swim far and fast and leaves a horrible fishy smell wherever he goes. At least so we are told by Narrator. But as Fish grows up, we are also told that he can ride a bicycle, dance (if ineptly), do gymnastics, sort-of read and write, can sit transfixed by television like any other boy, play chess brilliantly and later is adept at running a scrap yard.

So is Fish fish or…um… flesh?

The whole concept of Fish troubles me. I can accept the transformation of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa into an insect because he so fully becomes an insect (see my take on Metamorphosis elsewhere on this blog). But Fish is never quite one thing or the other. Narrator’s flawed-but-forbearing parents see Fish as somewhat strange but treat him as a human boy and adolescent. Other people in the novel react in the same way. So what is Lloyd Jones attempting to achieve by creating this very ambiguous character?

I thought I had sorted out this problem in the earlier parts of the novel. As I interpreted it, the presentation of Fish really represents older siblings (or in this case a young uncle Narrator) and the way they often react to babies or younger siblings. After all, babies are smelly especially when their nappies are changed, they make a lot of noise, they might seem strange to children as they feed at a mother’s breast, they disrupt an older child’s accepted dynamic of family life and – perhaps worst of all – they take up a lot of the attention that the older child might have expected to be his. They are, to the child, alien, as if they were another species. If seen in these terms, then very, very unreliable Narrator is the envious child who has an extreme form of sibling rivalry (even if he is an uncle) to the point of referring to Fish as “it” and refusing to give Fish’s mother a name. Given that the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s, Narrator’s attitude could also have been influenced by the whispering of his parents about the fact that (oh, the shame!) Fish was born out of wedlock.

My theory seemed a very good one and of itself made a coherent story. But it simply can’t hold for the rest of the novel where, right up to the time when Narrator is a university student, Fish remains Fish or “it” and Fish’s mother remains Fish’s mother. Only very late in the day does Narrator accept Fish’s given name Colin.

So what is Fish and what is the point of Fish? In fact, does the author himself know?

The Fish is laced with stories related to the sea, to coasts and to mythological sea creatures. Narrator’s family live near the sea and often walk on the sand dunes. Narrator is given a copy of Moby Dick when he is a child. Later Narrator reads Robinson Crusoe to Fish. Fish’s mother runs away and Fish does a lot of swimming in his quests to find her. In the 1960s, there is a bizarre scene where Narrator’s parents visit leader-of-the-opposition Norman Kirk seeking police help in finding their missing daughter. There is a single death by drowning in the family, and to cap it all there is a long narrative of the 1968 sinking of the Wahine and many deaths by drowning. Through Fish, are we being asked to consider the nature of sea creatures and thus to consider the limitations of us human beings? I don’t know. Does Lloyd Jones?

Some of Jones’ familiar preoccupations are here. As in his autobiographical History of Silence, there are the strained relationships within a family – and I note that Narrator, as a child, loves bouncing a ball off a wall, just as young Jones apparently did. Narrator is also a youngest child, as Jones was. As in his Hand-me-down World, there are the problems with communication, like Narrator’s letters to his sister Carla and her letters back, and like the difficulties in communicating with Fish. Communication can also be deceptive, for as he matures Narrator discovers that his sister Carla is not the paragon he thought she was, that she might be living by “professional boyfriending” (i.e. prostitution) and that much she has written to him is false. And of course there are references to the power of story-telling and literacy and reading – the core concepts of Jones’ Mister Pip. How autobiographical are the following statements by Narrator? : “I was nine when I wrote my first letters. And sixteen when I stopped for good. But I didn’t stop writing. I don’t think I could have if I wanted to. It would have been like and order to stop breathing….”. And “It is here that I have come to make a start on writing a story. I am not sure what it is about. Is it about a freak or about concealment or shame?” (p.119) Self-referencing though it is, the last sentence here almost forces us to choose the latter option. “Concealment and shame” was what fuelled History of Silence.

Crowded with ideas and images though it is, I found The Fish to be a muddled work where the author seemed not to have found the particular target he wanted to hit. Allegory? Satire? Fantasy? Social comment? They’re all over the place.


Footnote: As a rule, I consider only the book itself that I am reviewing, and pay no attention to what other reviewers are saying. However, I was struck by the review of The Fish that Paula Morris wrote for Newsroom (28 February 2022). On the whole, she appeared not to approve of the novel. She was very astute in pointing out the novel’s many anachronisms for a story set in the 1950s and 1960s and she spent some time noting all the mythological sea-creatures references Jones deployed (more than I had noticed) as well as suggesting more relevant mythologies that Jones could have referenced. She also suggested that there was a misogynistic streak in the novel, given that all the women characters are presented negatively (including patient Mum who seems to lose her mind). She might have a point there. 

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I’m not unique in noting that confessional and very personal memoirs by women are a current trend in New Zealand publishing. In the last two years alone, I have reviewed on this blog Caroline Barron’s Ripiro Beach (about medical trauma), Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book (about family trauma) and  Rosetta Allan’s Crazy Love (thinly disguised as a novel, but an autobiographical account of the author’s wilder youth and her most challenging dilemma as an adult.)

            There are now many others of similar genre.

Best known in New Zealand as a radio broadcaster, Noelle McCarthy takes a rather different approach in Grand – Becoming my mother’s daughter. True, there is a running battle between daughter Noelle and mother Caroline (or Carol), who is generally called Mammy. But this is as much love-hate as anger. It comes to a sort of reconciliation and the author’s admission of how much she herself is like her mother. This is not a memoir that beats up parents.

Grand is structured as a series of Noelle’s childhood, adolescent and early-adult memories fired by the news that Mammy is dying of cancer but refuses radiation therapy or chemo. Noelle hops on a plane in New Zealand and rushes back to Cork in Ireland, her original home, so that she can connect with Mammy while she can. And the memories flow as we hop between “present” and past.

What’s soon clear is that Mammy had more trauma in her life that her daughter did. Mammy had two children out of wedlock – one possibly the result of rape -  in an age when such birth was shameful (in many countries, not just in Ireland). One child died shortly after birth and the other was adopted out. This was before Mammy married a steady man and had four more children, the eldest being Noelle. Of Mammy, Noelle comments “Day by day, she is a mother of three, then four, children, married and decent. But there is nothing she would hold her tongue about when drinking” (p.31) And obviously one thing that Mammy often laments in her cups is the loss of her first two children.

The McCarthy family did not live in dire poverty. Father was a plumber usually in work and making respectable earnings, somewhere in the upper working-class or lower middle-class bracket. Things were sometimes strained. Even so, Noelle was able to get into a high-school that mainly took in the daughters of the wealthy, and she sometimes felt barbs of snobbery. She was invited into her classmates’ prize homes, but was encouraged by Mammy never to invite girls back to her own modest home. It would be too shaming. Despite this, Noelle flourished in the school which taught a solid syllabus and she excelled in public-speaking competitions. Later she made it into university, got a Bachelor degree, but then lost interest in study and never completed the thesis that would have earned her an M.A.

As for her rebelliousness in adolescence, it was a run of minor or foolish misdemeanours. One or two episodes of shoplifting. Getting drunk with her schoolmates. Getting so blotto at one party that she threw up. And of course first sex.

            But the main issue is the ongoing struggle between strong-willed, devoutly Catholic mother and strong-willed daughter. Born in the 1970s, Noelle McCarthy was not of an older  Ireland where clergy were dominant. There’s no clerical scandal in this memoir and Noelle respects her mother’s religion, and of course is part of it, even if she gradually moves away from it. What divides them is alcohol and her mother’s over-use of it. When her husband is at work and not available for baby-sitting, Mammy regularly drags her children along to pubs,  drinks heavily, and often makes a fool of herself. At home her drinking leads her to shout angry rants or lachrymose wailing over her lost children. On one occasion Noelle has a physical fight with Mammy to prevent her going to a school event when she thinks Mammy’s public drunkenness would shame her. The teenaged daughter often pours mother’s booze down the sink and in one case smashes a bottle. Rows ensue.

            There are other things daughter sees as provocation. Mammy has the habit of buying her inappropriate presents. She also has the habit of scouring charity shops for things she doesn’t need, in effect filling the house with junk.

            It isn’t as if Mammy is totally unhelpful. Mammy had training as a nurse. When, at 13, Noelle begins to menstruate, Mammy gives her appropriate advice on the use of tampons instead of the old sanitary pads. When, after casual sex, young Noelle fears she has been impregnated, Mammy gives her advice of contraception.

            After walking away from university studies Noelle meets a New Zealander who encourages her to emigrate. She leaps at the opportunity and doesn’t see Ireland again for another 20 years. Within three years of landing in New Zealand, after waitressing and working for student radio, she snags a good position in broadcasting, hosting an afternoon show. [I remember enjoying on air her cheerful and forthright Irish voice.] But she also parties, parties, parties in Auckland, stays out at night drinking, wakes up most mornings hungover and becomes a serial drunk. Her drinking gets reported in the gossip columns. She knows she’s losing it when her laptop goes kaput because of all the red wine she’s spilt over the keyboard and she gets nervous twitches while broadcasting. She loses her job as a broadcaster.

Irony of ironies, she realizes she’s become just like the mother whose boozing embarrassed her. Finally admitting she herself is an alcoholic, she dries out, but it takes six months before she feels healthy again. She says “People think that when you stop drinking , things get better. They don’t. They get worse to begin with. Of course they do. I am bare, flayed, missing a layer.” (p.147) She signs on to Alcoholics Anonymous and follows its 12-step programme for a decade.

And there’s another way she feels more like her mother. She has gone through various lovers.  (She’s of a generation where, for some, serial cohabitation is the norm.) But now, when she plans to go on a date, she reflects “I’m admitting I want this: a partner, a home, a family eventually. I used to look down on people who dared to work towards this stuff. I laughed at everyone who was unironic about all the things that adult life requires: showing up for someone else, being faithful, paying taxes….” (p.162) In straightening out, she meets and marries a nice guy called John and they have a baby girl when she is 37. She now has the responsibilities of a mother. Just like her mother.

The bland synopsis I have given you is only a raw outline of Grand – Becoming my mother’s daughter. The book is more complex and nuanced than I might have suggested. Noelle McCarthy’s siblings (a sister and two brothers) are given minor roles. Her father gets some display and it is clear there was some trauma in the lives of her father’s parents, including a suicide. Aunties and uncles and old family friends buzz in and out of the narrative in their garrulous Irish way. But McCarthy is very focused on the mother-daughter dynamic. It takes more than realising she is her mother’s daughter for Noelle to be reconciled with Mammy. Even when she returns to Ireland as Mammy is dying, sparks still fly between them. Only when Mammy dies do tears fall and Noelle realizes what she has lost.

Grand is lively, vivid and exuberant in its prose. Its language and precise recording of detail catch the smells and sights of Cork and bring to life family gatherings and barneys and clannishness. We know what sort of food they eat, what sort of sweets the kids are given, what state the house is in, what the family’s codes and inherited catch phrases are. Noelle McCarthy gives the specifics of time and place and behaviour. She writes fluently. She is never short of words. I want to avoid ethnic stereotypes, but this is close to the confident Irish speaking known as blarney. There is a refreshing honesty to it. A grand read.

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.     

                                        FOUR NOVELS BY LLOYD JONES

I have just reviewed  Lloyd Jones’ latest novel The Fish, which inevitably, in terms of ideas and preoccupations, has much in common with Jones’ earlier works. The only one of Jones’ New Zealand-set novels I have neither read nor reviewed is his first The Book of Fame (published in 2000). Since then I have read and reviewed all his work, but in most cases for newspapers and magazines which, of course, impose strict limitations in word counts. 500 or 600 words are regarded as the average length for a magazine or newspaper book review, which means that inevitably most book reviews tend to be terse and perhaps lacking nuance.

So here are terse reviews of three novels by Lloyd Jones, with reference to a more elaborated fourth which has already been carefully assessed on this blog. Though I might now find some of my judgements a little harsh, I have not changed any of these reviews from the way they first appeared in their respective publications. 

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The following review of MISTER PIP appeared in the NZ Listener on 7 October 2006.

How do you convey in story the power and formative influence of literature?

There are right ways and there are wrong ways. From this novel’s set-up and its blurb, I feared that Lloyd Jones might have chosen one of the wrong ways.

Mister Pip’s blurb says that the novel is “a love song to the power of imagination and storytelling. It shows how books can change lives.”

Here’s the set-up.

In Bougainville in the civil war in the early 1990s, regular schooling for villager children is disrupted. Elderly eccentric Mr Watts, the last white man in the area, agrees to become a teacher. His classes consist of reading Dickens’ Great Expectations to the kids. Government troops (known contemptuously as “redskins”) and the local boys who have become armed rebels (“known as “rambos”) pass through the village sometimes with scary or horrible results. And despite everything, the children are touched and begin to see new imaginative possibility in their lives. They relate to the orphaned status of Dickens’ Pip and to the theme of being uprooted from home. They begin to see characters such as Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham and Mister Jaggers in terms of their own culture.

Presented thus, this must sound as glib and simplistic a fable as the blurb threatens. Something like those bits of Steven Spielberg’s movie version of The Color Purple where a black kid gets intellectual nourishment from Oliver Twist .

By this stage, shouldn’t we be at least a little wary of benign white men bringing enlightenment to young indigenes? Doesn’t it smack of intellectual imperialism?

The answer to both questions is that Lloyd Jones is many steps ahead of us.

Far from being simplistic, his tale canvasses a whole range of problems under its general endorsement of the imaginative power of literature.

At different times, the possibilities are raised that even great literature can be mere escapism, or can encourage a deformed view of reality, or even be downright dangerous when it is taken literally. (Soldiers get angry and vengeful when they can’t find this Mister Pip the children are talking about.)

As for that troublesome cultural imperialism, the novel confronts it head on. Postcolonialism and the culture of migrant workers lured off to Australia lurk in the general background.

The atheist white man Mr Watts spars verbally with one local God-fearing mother. He usually gets the better of their exchanges, which come across as a kind of secular missionary-ism to the unenlightened Whereupon the plot reaches an awful climax (the sort reviewers are shot for revealing) and we are forced to reassess the judgments we made about these two characters. Indigenous values are more robust and meaningful than the sparring at first suggests, and indigenous people are not passive receptors of imposed cultures, no matter how beguiling literature may be.

Jones’ trickiest gamble is his simplest. Like Great Expectations, the novel is narrated in the first person by an adult looking back across a lifetime – or, at any rate, somebody in her mid-twenties looking back to events that began when she was 14.

Matilda is the daughter of Mr Watts’ sparring partner. So how dare a white male novelist adopt the mask of a black female narrator? This could be the cue for the type of PC brouhaha that long ago accompanied William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner.

Once again, though, Jones knows exactly what he’s about.

The mask sometimes slips. But with its deadpan reporting of civil war atrocities, its quizzing of the outside world and its rueful admission that all cultural influences have their limits, Matilda’s voice is the perfect vehicle for Jones’ key themes. This is a brilliant narrative performance, and not half as simple as it at first appears.

As for the civilised fiction of Charles Dickens, it is not the only formative fiction that reaches poor, non-European nations. Remember the rebel soldiers are called “rambos”. If imaginations are to be formed by Pip or by Rambo, Pip is obviously the preferable alternative.


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The following review of HAND ME DOWN WORLD appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 31 October 2010


An unnamed African woman, working in a tourist hotel in Tunisia, is wooed by a European man, who persuades her to bear his child. When the baby is born, the man cons her into signing adoption papers. He then disappears with the little boy back to his wife in Berlin. The African woman desperately wants to see and, if possible, reclaim her son. She migrates illegally to Sicily, then makes her way across Europe to Berlin. Single-mindedly, with help or hindrance from various people, she looks for the man who seduced her and took away the child she bore.

A straightforward enough story, surely? In other hands it could have had a straight linear plot, leading to a final confrontation. But not as Lloyd Jones tells it in his first novel since Mister Pip. In a recent interview, Jones said the the “central starting point” of all his novels was “an attempt to answer the question – how can I find a new way to tell this story?” The answer he comes up with in Hand Me Down World is essentially the same one Joseph Conrad came up with a century ago in masterpieces like Lord Jim. It’s the “cloud of witnesses” technique, where the story is told by a series of first-person narrators, each of whom has a radically different perspective on events.

As she travels across Europe, the nameless African woman (who at a certain point acquires the name Ines) encounters an exploitative Italian truck-driver, an anarchist, a film-maker looking for Roma (that is, gypsies) to film, an African pastor working in Berlin, a German couple whose parents have a guilty Nazi past, and various other people. Each takes up the narrative, interprets the woman’s story and, at certain points, passes judgement on her.

Like the classic movie Rashomon, the noverl puts us in the position of seeing the inconsistencies and inadequacies of their evidence. We suspect most of them of being unreliable narrators. This is the “hand-me-down world” of the title, where we know other people only at one remove, and can never be sure  if we know any essentials truths about them anyway.

There’s a great danger in this technique, though, unless it’s in the hands of a literart genius like Conrad. Depth can be sacrificed for breadth. We get a panorama of various characters, and we hear their different voices, but there’s not much room for them to develop psychologically. They remain pretty one-dimensional. Hand Me Down World is also weighted with a little symbolism. One character is literally blind (more problems with perception). One of the narrators is a New Zealander who has a thing about lung-fish and their adaptability – a little bit like the desperate adaptability of illegal African immigrants in Europe, I guess.

I have to admit that I felt a rush of relief late in the piece when the African woman  takes up the narrative herself and events move in a rather more straightforward way. Even here, though, Jones has a few tricks of the sort that reviewers shouldn’t reveal. There’s an interesting context of Europeans exploiting Africans and illegal immigrants together with the whole dangerous business of people-smuggling. These are not Jones’ focus, however, so much as his meditation on the partiality of perception.


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Lloyd Jones’ A History of Silence, an autobiographical work about trauma suffered by his parents and its impact upon their children, was reviewed at length on this blog in 2013. It is interesting that, although it is a memoir of Jones’ parents and upbringing, it suggests much of the novelist’s interest in family dynamics as expressed in his most recent  - and obviously fictious - novel The Fish. 

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The following review of THE CAGE was published in the Sunday Star-Times on 28 January 2018

            Most of Lloyd Jones’ novels are written in the first person, and you always have to ask yourself what sort of person the narrator is. There was the young indigenous woman who narrated Jones’ best novel Mister Pip. There were the multiple, and rather confusing, narrators in the less successful Hand Me Down World. Of course A History of Silence was written in the first person because it was a memoir. But even there, we had to ask what sort of image of himself Lloyd Jones intended to convey.

            Jones’ latest, The Cage, presents us with a bit of a conundrum. The narrator is an adolescent male, but neither he nor his country is clearly defined. Somehow the kid’s family has disintegrated and, thanks to relatives, he is living in a country hotel. But what country is this? At one stage children are heard singing Pokarekare Ana, there’s a reference to Young Nick’s Head, and when the kid sees local landscape from a plane, it looks like New Zealand.

            Yet despite these touches, we are really in the non-specific world of fable, maybe with a soupcon of the post-apocalyptic.

            Two strange, tramp-like figures come to town. Usually referred to as “the strangers”, they seem to have survived some huge disaster, which they are simply unable to explain. They are at first treated as curiosities, then as figures of suspicion. Are they a danger to the town? Why won’t they say clearly what has happened to them? Soon they are locked in a cage out the back of the hotel. A group of ”Trustees” is set up to monitor them, and the young male narrator has to observe them and make regular reports on them. Tourists come along to gawk at them.

            If you thought you were in for a realist novel, you will by now realise that The Cage is more like a parable by Franz Kafka. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a man was turned into an insect. In The Cage, two men are brutalised (in the real sense of the word) by other human beings. Though they protest sometimes, though they sometimes ask for things, they are gradually turned into brutes.

            The “strangers” are nicknamed “the Doctor” and “Mole” by the people who have incarcerated them. Their cage is placed over a septic tank, or “sewage pit” as it is usually called in the novel. They have to live in their own excremental filth, so there are many allusions to the stench that surrounds them. They are fed food through the wire mesh of fences.

            And the narrator remains oddly inert. He observes. He reports. He sometimes plays his clarinet. Occasionally he feels twinges of pity, but he doesn’t intervene in any meaningful way.

            No worthwhile novel can be reduced to a series of neat “messages”. But it is clear that in The Cage, Lloyd Jones aims to say something about the human capacity to inflict pain upon others; to get used to seeing others as inferior; to categorise others as “alien” because they do not come from the same background as we ourselves do; and especially to move into seeing others as things to be manipulated rather than as fellow human beings. And from the prisoners’ perspective, there is a hint of the Stockholm Syndrome, where captives get used to their captivity and see their captors as potentially benevolent.

            Whether the novel conveys these things dramatically and convincingly is another problem.


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.

                            BUT SURELY THESE THINGS DON’T HAPPEN NOW?!



            We didn’t think it could happen, did we? Wasn’t it all settled? The Berlin Wall came down. Francis Fukuyama said it was The End of History. Communism had definitively failed. Fascism in all its forms had long since been discredited. The only future was for all countries to become liberal democracies. Sure, there was China. But it was slowly going capitalist even if it still called itself Communist. And yes there were a few crazy rogue states like North Korea, but it was understood that under the impact of this global liberalisation, even such states would eventually bow to the inevitable. Besides, weren’t international platforms like Facebook and Youtube making it easier for the whole world to see the freedom and benefits of liberal democracies? Who could possibly turn against them?

It was easy to see the world this way, especially if you lived in Europe. Hadn’t the Cold War ended not with a bang but a whimper? The Soviet Union had collapsed from within. Gorbachev tried to reform Communism, but soon found that any real reform would make Communism disintegrate. Which it did. Some Soviet puppet dictators had to be overthrown by force, as in Rumania. But Russian Soviet armies retreated without a fight from all the Eastern European countries they had once intimidated – the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, what was then East Germany - even Ukraine and Belarus. The Cold War didn’t turn hot. The majority of Eastern European countries embraced liberal democracy.

In Russia itself, as it became the Russian Federation,  there seemed to be interesting experiments in true multi-party democracy.

Well okay, there was the rise of oligarchs – old apparatchiks who knew how to become billionaires by snapping up, at knock-down prices, national assets and enterprises.

Well okay, some of the new political parties in Russia seemed to be a sham, with bribed deputies complacently endorsing whatever the government said. And – oh dear! – genuine opposition parties were stifled and protests were always shut down… But the Russian Federation was new to democracy, wasn’t it? We couldn’t expect democracy to flourish at once. It took a long time, so let’s not criticise. Besides, weren’t Russians now free to drink Coca Cola and eat McDonalds? Surely they would fall in love with the West.

But what about this guy Putin? He was a bit of a problem. He’d had a leading opposition leader killed. He sent agents to England to kill two Russians who knew too much. He failed, but the warning was clear. He forced through a bill which effectively made him president for life. He was a nationalist of an extreme form.

But surely he wouldn’t go to war? That was unthinkable. Besides, in both Belarus and Ukraine, he had leaders who obeyed his autocratic whims. But in 2004-2005 Ukrainians were able to overturn a rigged election and have a genuine election which installed a democratic regime not as compliant as Putin wanted. And in 2014 Putin tore the Crimea from Ukraine and put more effort into arming ethnic Russians who lived in two south-east provinces of Ukraine.

But this didn’t concern us, did it? Ukraine was still there, even if a fifth of its territory had been taken from it. We shouldn’t make rash judgements, and we certainly don’t want to challenge Putin. That might start a war. Anyway, Ukraine was far away. Not really our concern.

Then the invasion began and our complacent vision collapsed.

Would any European leader dare to do such a thing, autocratic or not? Such actions belonged to an earlier era – an era our great-grandparents might remember – when Mussolini grabbed Abyssinia (Ethiopia) with no excuses. But the Second World War was long ago. The world order was settled. Imperialism was something that was decried. Surely these things don’t happen now?

Here’s the bitter lesson. They do and they can.

Step by step we see an old playbook being followed.

Item 1936: Hitler says “I’m only re-militarising the Rhineland and it’s part of Germany anyway.” “Um… okay”, say Britain and France a little uneasily. Item 2022: Putin says “You think I’m surrounding Ukraine with my armed forces? I’m only holding military exercises in my own territory.” “Um…okay “, say NATO countries a little uneasily.

Item 1938: Hitler says “I’m only interested in the Sudetenland where most people are ethnic Germans. I have no further territorial interests in Czechoslovakia.” “Um…okay,” say Britain and France, signing the paper in Munich. And in short order Hitler invades the rest of Czechoslovakia. Now Britain and France see Hitler for what he really is. Item 2022: Putin says “I’m only interested in Ukraine’s Donbas region where most of the population are ethnic Russians.” This sounds sort of plausible to some NATO members. And in short order Putin attempts to invade the rest of Ukraine with overwhelming force. Now NATO sees Putin for what he really is.

Item 1939: Hitler and Stalin stitch up a deal. Hitler’s propaganda machine fakes an incident on the border to “prove” that Poland is being aggressive and threatening war. Films are made by Goebbels showing this Polish “aggression”. So Hitler invades Poland from the West and Stalin invades Poland from the East. Item 2022: While his forces are bombing civilian targets and forcing millions of Ukrainians to flee, Putin’s propaganda machine is telling the Russian people that Ukraine is being “liberated” from fascists and besides, the whole war is the fault of Ukraine because they have secret laboratories making chemical weapons.

Are these comparisons forced and unreal? I don’t think so.

As Hitler threatened all Europe with sheer military might, so Putin declares to the world that he has put his nuclear weapons on alert. The threat is obvious. “Challenge me and I am willing to start a massive world war.”

Where does this madness come from? Is the autocrat fuelled by humiliation? The old KGB man is unreconciled to the loss of Soviet power and the “defeat” of the Soviet Union in the Cold War in exactly the same way that the former corporal Hitler was humiliated by Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Hitler wanted to rebuild the Reich (Empire) and grab back all the lands that were now independent of Germany. Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Empire even if it’s given a different name.

Any simple lesson to be drawn from all this?

Only that there will always be demagogues eager for power. Only that such leaders can impose misery on the world. Only that liberalisation of the world is not inevitable. Only that human nature doesn’t change.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this.



Monday, March 14, 2022

Something New

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

“TUMBLE” by Joanna Preston (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “JUST LIKE THAT” by Kevin Ireland (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ25); “MUSEUM” by Frances Samuel (Te Herenga Waka [formerly Victoria] University Press, $NZ25)


This posting I continue with the apologetic tone I took last posting. Again, I apologise for taking so long to review some of these poetic works because of other commitments.

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First apology to Joanna Preston. I have only now found the time to read her very accomplished collection Tumble, which was published in November 2021. Tumble is the second collection by this Australian-bred, and now Canterbury resident, poet.

One train of imagery in Tumble is inspired by a strong sense of European heritage, beliefs and mythology. In Tumble specifically New Zealand imagery is rare. An end-note tells us that Preston’s longer poem “Fare” is set in Christchurch, but “Fare” is a bleak, modernised re-working of John Keats’ “La belle dame sans merci” where a man-woman power relationship is explored in the bewitching of a cab driver by a charismatic woman as he drives her through a modern city. The city could be anywhere; and is Christchurch only because we have been told so.

Other poems also feed on traditional European images. The Biblical Lucifer descends upon Nevada in “Lucifer in Las Vegas” and creates Hell on Earth, with “one-armed bandits – sheer genius, / like teaching cows to milk themselves.” “Census at Bethlehem” re-considers the Nativity as a freezing winter night, emphasising Mary’s physical pain at the approaching childbirth. “Atalanta” references the classic Greek tale of the strong woman who runs a race, but gives it current resonance. She is “running / away from them, businessmen / queued at the traffic lights / thinking of home”.

Exemplary as the recreation of an ancient world is Preston’s very best poem “Chronicle of the Year 793” set in the early medieval monastic community at Lindisfarne. The great skill of this poem is the way Preston climbs into the mindset of the community, who read disasters to come in fabulous portents. We understand that a destructive Viking raid is pending, but at poem’s end we are left in suspense about the outcome, still fearing what the monks feared. In other words, we share the community’s mindset.

Let me not over-emphasise the European mythic strain in Preston’s work, however. If our long European cultural formation is one major interest of Joanna Preston, another is the relationship of woman to man. The proem “Female, nude” and “A bird in the hand” both say something about the sexual power of women and men’s resistance to it; and there are certainly carnal images of women in “Woman in the water”, one of her best poems, and “The dollhouse”, which simply describes a doll’s house, but with such details as to make it a sly critique of the family, something like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

Related to this are Preston’s explorations of women-as-objects-of-men’s-desire, that is, of women being turned into objects. Most forceful expression of this is “The disembodied woman” where a woman loses all sense of self as she is ostensibly being admired. An endnote says “The disembodied woman” is related to Marilyn Monroe, who says “A body, blind and deaf to itself, / artifice making up what nature lacks. / I know I belong to the audience. / I’ve never belonged to anything else. They / made me their mirror.” Likewise the poem  “In camera”, with an apparently 19th century setting , again considers the idea of a woman turned into a spectacle by a photographer taking her image. Not that Preston is presenting women as either helpless or flawless. As I read it, “Astonishment” represents symbolically a woman’s return to hard reality, which she does not care for, after a moment of pointless passion.

Like all good collections of poetry, Tumble has a wide range of reference. It is not limited only to the historical past and the status of women. Preston is capable of the paysage moralise, with “Wintering over” and “The salmon”, poems about daunting nature with a hint of Ted Hughes in them. “Lares and penates” weaves a traditional [European] scene into mythology and an awareness of the sheer otherness of nature. Despite what I have said above about the paucity of specifically New Zealand imagery, “Fault” and “The Ministry of Sorrow” are poems counting the human cost of the Christchurch earthquakes and very definitely identifying that city. And then there is “Lijessenthoek”, a prose poem about visiting a First World War cemetery in Belgium to find the grave of a soldier, part of the poet’s ancestral family, who died in battle. Self-effacingly, the choice of prose in this case suggests that an unembellished, matter-of-fact prose statement is more appropriate to the memory of massive loss than poetry would be.

How can I sum up this collection? It is  polished, it is finished, it is the product of somebody who knows how to weave mythology into the modern scene without being precious about it. It had a satisfying solidity to it. And just in case you were wondering, the title “tumble” appears in the very last poem, “Nightfall”, when we readers are put to bed at night, tucked back into the womb of darkness.

FOOTNOTE - I rejoice that some months after I posted this review, Joanna Preston's Tumble won the Ockham Book Awards Prize for poetry.


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Second apology is to Kevin Ireland, whose latest collection Just Like That was published in late 2021. Born in 1933, the nearly-nonagenarian poet has been part of New Zealand’s literary scene for over six decades. Just Like That is his 27th collection of poetry. Perhaps to remind us of this poet’s age and status, the front cover sports a photo of the handsome, clean-shaven young poet, taken in 1959, while the back cover shows the poet now, moustached, bespectacled, and with his arms crossed firmly over his paunch.

In terms of current prosody, Kevin Ireland is a heretic. He insists on writing in neat,

orderly stanzas, four or five lines per stanza by preference, instead of letting his words dribble haphazardly down the page. He knows there is a difference between prose and poetry. If he’s polemical he’s polemical discreetly and does not beat a big drum. Worst of all (and this is the man’s greatest sin) he does not write in a cryptic code decipherable only by a small clique. Kevin Ireland makes his meaning clear. Obviously the man has not been to an approved writing school. He should therefore be condemned and burnt at the stake….

            Translation – Ireland writes lucidly, clearly and understandably. The nerve of the man!

To begin with the obvious, Ireland is an old man with a very mellowed view of life, but he is not unaware of the world that is still turning and changing. The opening section of this collection is labelled “Poems for Pandemics”, being ten poems that deal with the whole ongoing Covid mess, occasionally preachily but shifting cleverly to comment on the growing number of old people still alive in “The elderly pandemic”. Images of decay and destruction are passed into poems about the pain of ageing such as “The mind and body problem solved” and “Rosy Glory” which begins “It adds a risky feeling to the morning / when you check your latest slide towards collapse, / you’ve been attacked again at night by demolition experts / with a flair for comic artistry. They’ve worked you over / in your sleep – pounding, crumpling parts of you / into a battered wreck.”  

Following this opening section, 55 poems are corralled together under the heading “Poems on Inscrutabilities, Irrelevances & Incongruities” which can mean just about anything, after all. A love poem to wife; a lament for the closure of a favourite restaurant; how in old age you tend to turn clumsy and unwittingly perform “slapstick comedy” as you totter or fall. Clear social observation is found in “Where did the paper-boys go?”, recalling not only the disappearance of young boys delivering newspapers and mowing their parents’ lawns; but also noting that it now tends to be women who trudge the streets delivering junk mail. Likewise “Time of the bedsitters” recalls the privacy bedsitters once gave even to the semi-bohemian life; and “The first fiver” recalls when – presumably in the post-Depression years – the poet’s father treated a five pound note as if it were an absolute treasure. “Heading back by tram” thinks of an old mode of transport while confused by new ones. In each case, these poems are not sweet nostalgia but a recognition of change – that is, an alertness to the present.

Flaunting his heresy with regard to current pieties, Ireland writes “Old military families”, which goes against the current grain by telling us that we should judge people of the past in terms of the values of the past “Whatever they got up to / and wherever they went, they were people / of their times. I can’t impose a distant right / or wrong on them, for history does that job / with its sure inconsistencies.”

One of the poet’s main preoccupations is the nature and inspiration of poetry itself. If he sometimes seems a little flippant on this matter, that is merely a façade hiding his real feelings about the genre. “The one good reason for writing” takes a poke at critics and says his only reason for writing poetry is that “it keeps me in at nights, which / means I save a pile of cash for treats to come / when I go out with friends and splash the lot.” More nuanced is “Working things out”, where he asserts poems do not always have to be about “momentous issues”; while “The best we can do” rejoices in not being too solemn in poetry and the value of being a bit of a jester. “Inner meaning” wrestles with the difficulty of putting an image into poetic words; and – though I may be misinterpreting it - “Words out hunting” appears to give a critique of younger poets who are too self-consciously engaged in knocking others down. And yet “Encirclements and arrows” comes close to confessing that he’s through with poetry and tired of it.

Obviously Ireland sometimes addresses the pains of ageing  as in “Small catastrophes” concerning a fall; and “At the official dinner” which suggests deafness. Obviously, too, he references or gives tribute to old friends and comrades, living or dead, such as Roderick Finlayson, Duncan McCormack, and Michael Illingworth. “Peter Bland Exposed” jocularly probes his shared and joyful silliness with the poet; and the title poem “Just Like That”, the last poem in book, is addressed to Karl Stead.

I can’t go into academic-speak or tortured aesthetics to explain my reaction to this collection. All I can do is say how much I enjoyed it and relished Ireland’s matter-of-factness. It’s fun, it’s shrewd and it’s relatable.  

And if Kevin Ireland’s idea of paradise is a glass of wine at the end of the day, fair enough.


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Museum is Frances Samuel’s second collection of poetry and it’s taken eight years coming. I’m glad she’s back. Her first collection Sleeping on Horseback was reviewed on this blog back in 2014. Then, I noted her precision of observation in what were often dreamlike settings. This I diagnosed as real surrealism, or as I put it “the externalization of states of consciousness by means of literal and objective things”. In Museum, there is much in the same vein, but the poet has moved on in many ways and broadened her perspective. The blurb tells me that Frances Samuel worked for years in a museum and often wrote texts for exhibitions. For most of this collection, a museum is one of her major trains of imagery.

It’s most prevalent in the first of the three sections into which the collection is divided. It is called “Super(natural) World”. Related to museum exhibits, we meet a cactus whose arms have fallen; the microscopic creatures called ‘water bears’; dried moss which recalls  tramping in the wild; the wonder of fossils under ice; worms that keep their heads underground when lightning threatens; and the behaviours and strategies of seeds as they wait, often for eons, for the moment when they well germinate and blossom. One of Samuel’s wittiest and most concise poems is “Tornado” which tells us that no matter how much we human beings may empathise with other living creatures, we are still incorrigible carnivores. Then there is a beautifully nuanced poem like “Exhibition (Bees)”, wherein the confident museum guide, showing visitors around, suddenly realises that she is as alien to the exhibits and their story as the visitors are. “The difference between me and a visitor / is that a visitor walks slowly. / Today I’m walking slowly enough… / I look like a person who needs someone / to show them the way out.” Even what has become familiar to the guide can suddenly appear as a revelation.

There is a very interesting train of thought, articulated most fully in the poem “Exhibition (Biomimickry)”, wherein the poet likens dried specimens in a herbarium to herself “There is a word for the fading colour of a leaf as it dies / I am thinking how I am also captive to paper, / stuck on and identified, illustrated / and tied to a rope ladder of classification.” Is there, I ask myself, a word meaning the opposite of anthropomorphism? When we think anthropomorphically, we attribute human characteristics to non-human things and creatures. Here, the poet attributes non-human characteristics to human beings.

The museum environment is still present in the collection’s second section “(Im)material World” but it is not as dominant. Samuel now addresses such general topics as robotics and the scientific nature of colours. That surrealism I noticed in her earlier collection is expanded. “How to Catch and Manufacture Ghosts” could be a painting by Dali with its imagery of sheets being shaped into ghosts and overtones of 30 days in the desert [which reminds me of someone…]. Similar deserts appear in “Pilgims”. In “My Bones”, a man hangs upside-down like a bat. What one imagines comes to life. “Life-drawing class” has a punning title in that real, physical life emerges from art. Works of art that come to life are also found in “Painting”; while “Miniature Sketch” reads in totoDo the sketch / then make the real thing. / Did you do it? / Did you make the real thing?”. “Exhibition (Colour)” is an almost matter-of-face definition of what colour is and how it blends and un-blends but there is a return to frank surrealism in  “Fashion”, which is at the very least ironic in its account of  people on a bus clothed in genuinely natural materials – feathers, weeds, earth etc.

That the third section is called “Object Lessons” may signal a coming-down-to-Earth.

True, there is “The Kindness of Giants”, but it is more fairy tale than surreal. Yes, there are poems where plants perceive us such as “Exhibition (Explain Yourself to a Plant)”.

“Whakairo” is a straightforward account of the norms of Maori carving as seen by the carving itself. But most interesting is the way Samuel now addresses domestic matters. There was only one such poem earlier in the collection, it being “Breathing”, which mentions “my baby”. Now we get a number of poems touching on motherhood such as “Recommended Exercise”, “The Passionfruit Vine”, “Red Whistle, Orange Lifejacket” and “Fatigue Font”, the last of which is the most confessional poem in the collection, dealing with sleepless with a wakeful baby.

            What is the main effect of Museum? It is the product of an inquisitive mind constantly trying to define humanity in relation to what is not human, fired by those things we have stored and taken to be treasures. It balances the living with the ossified and decides in favour of what it living and breathing. And the tone moves from surreal to whimsical to dead serious. A stimulating collection.