Monday, July 18, 2022

Something New


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

“WE”RE ALL MADE OF LIGHTNING” by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, $NZ25); “SONNETS FOR SIO” by Scott Hamilton (Titus Books, $NZ25): “ECHIDNA” by Essa May Ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ25)

Khadro Mohamed is a young Muslim woman from Somalia, who lived some of her life in Egypt and has now adopted  New Zealand as her home. Her debut collection of poetry We’re All Made of Lightning is a series of lyrical and often intense reflections on both the land of her birth and her experience in New Zealand. Sometimes her memories of Somalia and Egypt are fading into nostalgia, sometimes they are brutally clear. Similarly, New Zealand can sometimes be lyricised and sometimes chastised for the ongoing issue of racial prejudice. Each of the four sections of We’re All Made of Lightning opens with a colourful painting of beloved flora, beginning with kowhai, and is then followed by an explanation of a letter from the Arabic alphabet. Natural beauty and remembered culture mesh.

The first section opens with “The Second Time”, a prose-poem narrative of going to live in the hot, busy city of Cairo and still longing for home in Somalia “Every day that I am in Cairo / I resist the urge to cut my palm wide open / To watch the skin bleed / to press by ear against the crimson / And listen to it rush / Desperate to hear something familiar”. Perhaps this is a way of telling us that it is not only in New Zealand that she feels far from home.  Even to go to another North African country is to miss a beloved culture. There follow poems of vivid memory of Somalia and family (the poem “Insomnia”) but New Zealand brings forth  “A Nomadic Odyssey” where she is “yearning to return to the gentle flow of the Nile and the dahlia skies of Egypt”. Inevitably other poems recall wars and drought and the turbulent recent history of Somalia – but these are never Khadro Mohamed’s main focus. It is more the sense of loss, as seen in the poem “Autumn Rain”, a four-part sequence about a teacher who is also a refugee

The second sequence moves urgently to poems related to 15 March – the date of the Mosque massacres in Christchurch in 2019. Khadro Mohamed refers to the mass murderer thus:  A man had taken a knife and sliced straight through the fabric of the sky. He made it rain buckets of blood and iron, and it clung to the air like a thick glue. Its residue coated every road, pavement and kowhai tree in the country.” This was experienced at a distance when the poet was living in Wellington. For the poet, it is hard to take even the well-meaning condolences expressed by non-Muslim strangers. The huge sorrow is unembraceable – impossible to encompass. Three years after the massacres, there is still a nasty undercurrent in New Zealand. “The Fine Print” concerns a racially-inspired murder in Wellington, while “How I Speak” expresses the possibility that the way she speaks may be ridiculed by non-Somalians.

Yet in the third section, she returns to more mature reflections on the country she left. The three-part “Love Letter to the Motherland” and also “I Watched You Die – A Love Letter to My Old Self” show an  awareness of her continuing connection with her land of birth, but also the realization that she is not the child that she once was, and perhaps her remembrance of Somalia is really fading into nostalgia or being idealised. She begins the poem “If I Go Back” with the words “If I ‘go back to where I came from’ I will take everything with me”. Obviously “go back to where you came from” is a taunt offered by racists who despise refugees, but she turns the taunt around by showing all the experiences and values she has brought with her to her new country. As for the fourth section of We’re All Made of Lightning, it emphasises that wherever she goes, memory will be with her. A brief Coda brings her back to her own origin, date of birth and the first breath she took.

I can’t deny that I found this collection very engaging, very heartfelt – but I haven’t yet worked out with myself whether I am beguiled by the quality of the poetry or am more drawn into sympathy with the poet and the situation she is living. Either way, it is a collection well worth reading.

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Scott Hamilton  is a palangi poet who has lived and taught for many years in Tonga. The organising theme of Sonnets for Sio is that each of the 59 poems making up this collection is a letter sent to his friend Visesio Siasau, a Tongan carver, sculptor, painter and poet. Visesio (“Sio”) is far from Tonga in New York, where he is pursuing his art on a scholarship, so the poet is addressing him from a great distance and dealing with many universal things. “Sonnets” here is a very general term – it doesn’t mean the traditional 14 lines with strict rhyming pattern. It simply means a poem that will fit on a single page.

Of course there are urbane comments on everyday life in Tonga, so that some poems read like a very colourful diary filed from Nuku’alofa. But Scott Hamilton digs deeper than the passing scene. He trawls the potent waters of Tongan history and mythology and in the process produces imagery that comes close to being magical.

There is much reference to Tongan gods, Hikule’o in particular, a god associated with death. When the poet  is diving (Poem 3), bubbles are seen as “exhaling silver planets” and seaweed is seen as Hikule’o’s hair. Later (in poems Poems 14 and 15) Hikule’o and the death he brings are related to more recent wars. When (in Poem 24) Hikule’o gives his version of the complete history of a Pacific island, he curtly summarises it as “First it is a volcano, then an atoll, & finally an American air force base.” There are also references to the legendary – possibly historical -  violent 15th century chief Kau’ulufonua, who is credited with making war to build up Tonga as a formidable Pacific power. As he explains in his end-notes, Scott Hamilton sees Kau’ulufonua as “the symbol of militarism and imperialism.”

As Tonga has a particular culture, Hamilton is very aware of how European colonialism has changed it, and yet what the palangi have introduced has itself become part of the culture. There is some puncturing (in Poem 4) of palangi who “dream too hard…In our performance pyjamas / With our alarm clocks ready like fulltime buzzers! A book of pills a bottle of Freud beside the bed!” Poems 7, 18 and 19 deal with various aspects of Tonga’s dominant Christian denomination – Methodism – not in a negative way; but Poem 17 suggests obliquely that the dominant denomination has encouraged social puritanism, which is not always honoured in Tongan private life. Concerning another form of colonialism, Poem 36 takes a shot at ethnologists like Jared Diamond and Margaret Mead. But Hamilton is not promoting any form of  Euro-phobism – in passing, he references poets like Carroll, Lear, Tennyson, Eliot and Milton and he is aware that, like it or not, whatever colonialists brought with them has now become an integral part of Tongan life.

His interest is not only Tonga. A tranche of poems take him back to New Zealand. Some are idyllic or Utopian, like Poem 8, which longs for the Waikato to revert to pre-European times. Some are simply family memories. And some do indeed rebuke the legacy of colonialism. Poem 39, one of Scott Hamilton’s best, compares the predations of “forest ranger” von Tempsky and the British invasion of the Waikato with the current motorised invasions of the Waikato by motorways, tourists, and [presumably] people commuting between Auckland and Hamilton.

I was drawn particularly to Poem 9, where Scott Hamilton defines writing a poem as “crossing a white desert / with only a cup of lukewarm tea to sustain me.” ( I know what you mean mate!) He shows great leaps of imagination in  Poem 49, which has him metamorphosed as a sea creature. Poem 53 – probably his most philosophical poem – expresses an awareness of the world’s many varieties of thought and beliefs. More than anything, though, his poetry shows a constant sense of the long, long history that stands behind Tonga and Aotearoa, the fact that current cultures did not come from nowhere and will always be an amalgam of conflicting forces. And the vividness of his imagery makes for stimulating reading.

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Essa May Ranapiri prefers to be designated as “they”. This signals being sexually non-binary, as does the poet’s photo on the back cover where the hairy-chested poet is wearing lipstick and a dress. Dare I say that I find this usage not only alien but also confusing? “They” refers to plurality. Were I to write “They wrote this book” you, like 99% of people, would immediately assume that more than one person wrote this book. This being the case I will not refer in this review to “they” but instead will designate the author as “poet”.

Echidna, poet’s second collection, is subtitled The Many Adventures of Hinenakahirua as She Tries to Find Her Place in a Colonised World. Later poet gives us a dramatis personae of 56 characters from Greek mythology, The Bible and Maori mythology.

The Echidna of the title is presented to us at first as some sort of anarchic monster begotten in Eden. Given that (real) echidna are not indigenous to Aotearoa, I am a little puzzled as to why this beast was chosen as the collection’s iconic character, especially as poet is ostensibly, as the back-cover blurb says “situating and building its own world out of a community of queer and Maori/Pasifika writing”. What are echidna, or what have echidna historically been, to Maori? Zilch, I would suggest. It’s a bit odd, especially as this collection loudly beats the drum against colonialism. Indeed some way into the text “Echidna Gets a Name Change” and becomes Hinenakahirua because “she don’t want to be white-washed by the classics no more / she is a daughter of te ao Maori & proud”.

Oddly, though, Echidna sometimes appears to be standing in for poet’s own experiences. There are suggestions of autobiography in “Echidna & Her Christian Dad” and “Echidna Goes Through Her Eno Phase” where poet was apparently going through teenager years and in “Echidna in Kirikiriroa over the Summer” where poet was hanging out with both friends and the not-so-friendly. On the other hand, I doubt if “Echidna & Rona Fucking in the Back Seat of a Car While the Moon Watches” is necessarily based on experience.

This collection is certainly “queer”-focused as in “Maui & Prometheus Have a Meet-Cute” and further poems about these two as lovers. Other mythical figures display either their gayness or their non-binary-ness.

I admit I find it hard to make sense of many of these poems, not because the language is obscure, but because poet’s focus is jumbled. What targets is poet hitting [apart from the obvious one of colonialism]? How sympathetically or unsympathetically is poet wanting us to see his mythical characters? Is satire intended or not? Does the mythological machinery work in any coherent way? So despondent did I become looking for something really meaningful here that I was surprised to find a poem, “Hinemoana”, which almost made sense. Perhaps I am simply not attuned to the circles in which Essa May Ranapiri moves.

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 25th HOUR” by C.Virgil Gheorghiu (Written in Romanian as Orla 25; first published in French as La Vingt-cinquieme heure in 1949; English version as The 25th Hour translated from the Romanian by Rita Eldon and published in 1950)



Here I am once again displaying my bibliophilic mentality. I am about to discuss a novel which, 70-odd years ago, was an international bestseller and which is still much-reprinted in France, but which now appears to be completely forgotten in the English-speaking world. It’s likely you’ve never heard of it. I refer to Romanian author Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu’s first novel The 25th Hour. Though originally written in Romanian as Orla 25, it was first published in France in 1949 as La Vingt-cinquieme heure, with a preface written by the esteemed philosopher and critic Gabriel Marcel. But it was immediately banned in Gheorghiu’s home country. Part of the reason was that Romania’s government was then Communist, and the authorities were angered by Gheorghiu’s unflattering view of the Soviet army’s behaviour when it entered the country. In Paris, Time magazine’s correspondent reported that, day after day, large crowds were lining up to buy the novel. The blurb of my English-language edition, published in 1950, declares that 350,000 copies had been sold in the French version alone.

            So here are my questions. What was it that made the novel so popular at the time? What nerve did it hit? And why is it now on the way to being forgotten?


            As a narrative The 25th Hour is a comparatively simple, episodic tale, covering over 13 years. We are given no specific dates, but the years are clearly from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, that is, from before the Second World War to about three years after.

Johann Moritz (also known by his Romanian name Ion) is a simple field hand in the village Fantana. He wants to emigrate to America, but Romania is at odds with its neighbour Hungary, and is conscripting troops to build defences on the border. A local police officer, who lusts after Johann’s wife Susanna, manages to get Johann conscripted and sent away as an “undesirable” along with Jews who are being conscripted. Johann is mistaken for a Jew. They toil as slave labour digging a canal, until Johann, who can speak Hungarian, joins a party of Jews who are escaping across the border. In Budapest, Johann is at first looked after by a wealthy Hungarian family, but then he is arrested and tortured on suspicion of being a Romanian spy. By now the Second World War is on, and Nazi Germany’s ally Hungary is asked to contribute workers for German industry. The Hungarian (quasi-Fascist) government gets the bright idea of sending refugees and resident foreigners rather than Hungarian citizens. So Johann is packed off to a German factory where he performs back-breaking manual labour for many months. He is often beaten up. Then a Nazi “racial expert” turns up and decides that Johann is really an Aryan, so Johann is fitted out with an SS uniform, and spends his time guarding the factory where conscripted labour toils behind barbed wire. He is even allowed to marry a German wife. He makes friends with a French prisoner and a small group, and helps them escape. Nazi Germany is slowly collapsing and the end of the war is nigh. Johann and his French friends make their way to American lines and are treated well, up to a point, when they are referred to internment camps. But Johann is Romanian, and Romania spent most of the war on the Axis side – so Johann is treated like an enemy. He thinks his effort in freeing fellow prisoners will gain him credit, but officially, having been part of the SS damns him. So begins the round of his being interrogated and interrogated and shuffled from camp to camp. In the end he has been sent to dozens of camps, all far from home.

Finally he is allowed to return to his Romanian village. He sees his wife Susanna for the first time in 13 years. She, like many other women in the area, has been raped and raped both by retreating Germans and by the invading Red Army. Russians and local Communists have shot all the bourgeois, including the local Orthodox priest. Susanna has three children, one by Johann and the other two by rape. The novel ends with a photographer trying to get a photo of the reunited family, telling them to smile, smile.

That is all they can do in the circumstances.

To understand this story, you have to understand that Johann is big-hearted, naïve and essentially a simpleton. Even in torture, punishment, privations, hunger and endless interrogations, he is always frank, unable to tell a lie, thinks the best of people and hopes all will turn out well. At no point does he fully understand the forces that are working against him – the power of the state, bureaucracy, prejudice, the opportunism of other people and the way war barbarises people. He simply does not have the mental capability to realise what is happening in the world. Ideologies mean nothing to him. He is a born victim. One thinks of Wozzeck helplessly caught up in the military machine. Johann Moritz is the innocent, humble everyman who suffers. To underline his simplicity of mind, Gheorghiu writes most often in simple, short declarative sentences, which remind me irresistibly of Liam O’Flaherty’s peasant stories such as his novel Famine, or for that matter the Cossack peasant saga that is Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flow the Don


But Gheorghiu knows that a man of such simple mind cannot sustain a whole novel, so beside Johann Moritz he creates another character – an articulate intellectual who can spell out the author’s main thesis. This is Traian Koruga, whose story runs parallel with Johann’s. Traian is the son of the village’s Eastern Orthodox priest. He attends university and becomes a journalist and author, very alert to the way things are going in the political world. He marries a wealthy Jewish woman, Nora - or rather she marries him, to disguise her ethnicity at a time when Jews are being rounded up for extermination. Traian and Nora go through events as horrific as those Johann suffers. All the while, Traian gives commentary in conversations with fellow prisoners, in answering American officers in internment camps, in petitions he writes, in polemics signed “The Witness” and in a book he is fitfully writing called The 25th Hour. For in his view the 25th hour will be when humanity ceases to be truly human. Apparently (and dare I say a little incredibly) Traian is able to quote, in conversation and at length, many, many illustrious sources. In reading this novel I judiciously kept track of all the authors he thus quotes - T.S.Eliot (twice), C.S. Northrop, Thomas Aquinas, W.H.Auden (twice), Lewis Mumford, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Savage Landor, Jawaharlal Nehru, John Henry Newman and Rainer Maria Rilke. You will notice that quite a few of these people (Eliot, Aquinas, Auden, Newman and Rilke at least) had either a religious tendency or full-blown religious belief. And in essence Traian’s thesis (and the author’s) is a religious one.

Traian believes that modern, mechanised society dehumanises people, fails to see the value of individual people, sees only the mass, and in the process categorises people in order to control them. As he says in the novel’s prologue [Prologue, Tranche 15]:

Contemporary society, which numbers one man to every two or three dozen mechanical slaves, must be organised in such a way as to function according to technological laws. Society is now created for technological, rather than human requirements. And that’s where the tragedy begins.” He adds “The twenty-fifth hour [is] the hour when mankind is beyond salvation – when it is too late even for the coming of the Messiah. It is not the last hour. It is one hour past the last hour.” When he speaks of “Moloch Technocracy” he conjures up an image of people enslaved by machines as in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Traian is aware that human beings can, once they conform to a humane-less regime, do anything without remorse. He says “The Germans used to burn the corpses of prisoners from the concentration camps and then, as soon as they had shut the doors of the cremating ovens behind them, they used to go off daily and have lunch without the slightest feeling of repulsion. There are men here who own mattresses stuffed with the hair of women killed in concentration camps, and on these same mattresses they have made love to their mistresses, and begotten children with their wives – on these mattresses stuffed with the hair of burnt and murdered women. They were not squeamish. They did not feel sick. They were perfectly happy.”[Part 4, Tranche 145]. When he is very near suicide, and after having witnessed the death of his father the priest, he tells an American orderly “Western Civilization has but one gift left to offer: handcuffs. ” [Part 4, Tranche 157]

Gheorghiu makes two things painfully clear. First he (through his mouthpiece Traian) believes that “Western Civilization” includes everything from the USA to [Soviet] Russia. The Americans in this novel on the whole treat prisoners well, feeding them and looking after them in the refugee camps – but they categorise people as fervently as the Nazis and Communists do, relentlessly interrogating, not really listening to what individuals have to say, all the while fitting people into discrete groups where they can be shuffled around more easily. The dehumanising process is as present in American democracy as it is in Soviet totalitarianism.

Second, at the time he was writing, and in what we would now call the beginning of the Cold War, Gheorghiu believes that a real war is about to break out between the USA and the USSR. He speaks of “Western Brigades” forming. But this he sees simply as two forces preparing to tear apart what is essentially the same dehumanising culture.

So, to circle back to my own questions. What was it that made the novel so popular at the time? What nerve did it hit? More than anything, it gave a picture of Central and Eastern Europe swarming with DPs (displaced persons) – people unable to go home or not wanting to go home or having lost their whole family and home in the war. People who lived in makeshift camps in their hundreds of thousands. In 1948 when Gheorghiu was writing, these were current realities which would have been known even to those in Western Europe. And it was very topical in its understanding of the threat posed by the Soviet Union and the fear of another war. The Cold War could easily turn hot. Possibly, too, the general thesis of mechanisation and bureaucracy leading to dehumanisation was one that would have been felt by people who had been bombed, suffered wartime regulations and were still having their food rationed.

And why is it now on the way to being forgotten? Largely the way history has gone, the way Europe has developed and changed. But also, I would guess, the very simplistic way the central narrative of Johann is told, and the heavy didacticism of Traian’s stilted commentary. Well-meaning they were once, perhaps, but now they do not read well.



A word on the author: Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu (1916-1992) was, like Traian, the son of a Romanian Orthodox priest living in a village. Like Traian, he was a brilliant scholar and learnt many languages. For two years during the war he worked in the Romanian civil service. But Romania fought for three years on the Axis side. When Soviet Russia took over and then set up a Communist regime, Gheorghiu was in a DP camp in Western Europe. Luckily for him, he was able to spend the rest of his life in Paris. He wrote a total of 26 books, increasingly religious, and was finally ordained an Orthodox priest (in Paris) in 1963. His most famous book remained The 25th Hour, and he used the title as part of the title of later works, such as De la vingt-cinquieme heure a l’heure eternelle (From the 25th hour to the eternal hour) in 1965. His last book, published in 1986 was called Mémoires: Le témoin de la vingt-cinquième heure (Memoirs: Witness of the 25th Hour) in which he gave a factual account of the number of camps he had been interned in after the war. The 25th Hour itself was not allowed to be published in Romania until 1991, when the Communist regime had been toppled.


Ridiculous Footnote: In 1967, a truly dreadful film was made out of The 25th Hour. I know this because I saw it as a teenager when it was new. It was one of those bland, international productions produced by Carlo Ponti, scripted by Wolf Mankowitz (who should have known better) and directed by the French director Henri Verneuil.  So who did the producer pick to play Johann Moritz? Why of course Hollywood’s standard man-of-the-earth Anthony Quinn, who was always cast as sensual-ethnic-type, be it Zorba the Greek or pirate or Spanish revolutionary or Mexican bandit. Johann Moritz’s wife Susanna was played by Italian glamour-puss Verna Lisi, looking nothing like a Romanian peasant; and philosophical Traian Koruga was Italian Serge Reggiani, who at least got a few words in, but not too many. The film was advertised as a wonderful love story of a man trying to get back to his glamorous wife. It flopped something awful.


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.    

                                 THE REDUNDANCY OF GUY FAWKES

Recently, one of this country’s best novelists, Paula Morris, wrote a very good opinion piece about Matariki and the continuing celebration here of Guy Fawkes night. As she correctly pointed out, Guy Fawkes night in New Zealand is not only founded on an otherwise minor piece of British history, but is also celebrated in the wrong season. In New Zealand , the 5th of November is early in summer when the days are long, meaning that fireworks have to be postponed until late in the night if they are to have any real effect. In Britain, of course, the 5th of November is in winter when days are short and fireworks can burn brightly in the sky as early as 4pm.  By contrast, Matariki is in the Southern Hemisphere mid-winter, when the Matariki stars (the Pleiades or “Seven Sisters” if you prefer) are rising and the event, marking the beginning of a new year, is played out in darkness. Here is a festival in which light overcomes darkness, as is the case in many ancient festivals around the world.

Matariki, then, is appropriate for our climate and our seasons. Guy Fawkes isn’t.

But there’s another problem with Guy Fawkes night. It is really commemorating religious bigotry. The Guy Fawkes festival supposedly celebrates the thwarting of a Catholic plot, in the early 17th century, to blow up the English parliament. But this is only a half-truth. The reality is that the secret service of King James 1 knew about the plot long before it was put into action, and allowed it to develop until the point when it would be most dramatic to arrest the participants – Guy Fawkes, Catesby etc. The plotters were on the fringe of English Catholic society. Their plan had been rejected and condemned by more level-headed Catholic leaders before a small group decided to go ahead with it. But to be able to arrest men on the point of a terrorist act gave the King’s parliament the excuse to bring down harsher penalties on Catholics who refused to join the newly-devised state church, the Church of England.

In many ways, the Gunpowder Plot was the 17th century equivalent of the Reichstag Fire. There is no question that there really was a Gunpowder Plot, but it was allowed to reach its dramatic “discovery” because king and parliament already wished to impose greater penalties upon Catholics. This “discovery” made a very dramatic excuse for what king and parliament intended to do anyway. As for the Reichstag Fire, it was long assumed that the Nazis themselves fired the building in order to blame Communists and Socialists and imprison them. But most historians now understand that the firing of the Reichstag really was the work of van der Lubbe, a (rather feeble-minded) Dutch Communist. The point is, however, that this suited the Nazis fine. They now had an apparently respectable excuse to do what they intended to do anyway. It was the same strategy three centuries later.

That Guy Fawkes night was celebrated so long in Britain was that it asserted Protestant Supremacy and kept before (gullible) populations the idea that English Catholics were treasonous and possibly terrorists. In effect, it was a perpetuation of religious bigotry, including the ritual burning of the Guy.

But was this what the festival became over the centuries? Basically, despite the trappings including bonfire and the burning of the Guy, by the 20th century Guy Fawkes night had become little more than an excuse, in the middle of winter, to have bonfires and fireworks – really a perpetuation of ancient pre-Christian pagan Northern European winter fire festivals.

And in New Zealand? The story of “gunpowder, treason and plot” had become little more than a distant folk tale. Most New Zealanders saw it as nothing but an excuse for fireworks and horseplay, even if it was celebrated in the wrong season. Apart from a few staunch English immigrants, there were no sectarian overtones. As a kid, I knew the story of the Gunpowder Plot, but I remember asking my mother why we were observing it in New Zealand. She replied that we observed Guy Fawkes night because we didn’t really have a defining moment in New Zealand history to celebrate. The Americans had the 4th of July. The French had Bastille Day. Other countries had independence days to celebrate and all had an excuse for fireworks displays. But we had no excuse for that sort celebration and so we had kept with the remembrance of an otherwise irrelevant English tradition.

The conclusion I have come to is that, if we are foolish enough to set off fireworks in summer, why not do it on the 6th of February, Waitangi Day. It would be just as out of season, but at least would not drag a history of religious bigotry with it.

FOOTNOTE: Having said all this, there is one fly in the ointment. While introducing the Matariki observation, one pundit said on television that at least Matariki wasn’t an “imported” festival, like Christmas and Easter. But this is to ignore the fact that for many thousands of New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, Christmas and Easter are still an important part of their religious observance. These religious observations have little to do with the climate or season. And they were not designed to make pundits shoot cheap shots.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Something New

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


“POCKET MONEY & other stories” by Vivienne Lingard (“Artistry Publishing”, $NZ37.99); “DETACHMENT THEORY” by Richard Woolley (“Author House”, $NZ35)

Recently, I was having a conversation with a publisher and I said that self-published books tend to be vanity books, especially when publication is so expensive. You have to be wealthy to pay for publication yourself. Self-published books, I said, are usually inferior to those that have been accepted and published by mainstream publishers who have taken a manuscript, put it through an editing process, and paid all the expenses of publication.

Not so, said the publisher. The fact is that in New Zealand now, mainstream publishers are running shorter lists than they used to, especially for fiction, and being self-published is the only option for many writers of real merit. The distinction between mainstream publishing and self-publishing is now very blurred – not least by the fact that many commercial printers now style themselves as “publishing” companies.

Actually I’d already understood this from my regular reviewing of New Zealand poetry. Of course established publishers are publishing, at their expense, much of the poetry that is worth reading. But I’ve noticed recently that many small independent presses are also producing notable work, some of it clearly being self-published. I was also aware that one of the finalists at this year’s Ockham Awards was a self-published book.

Vivienne Lingard’s Pocket Money & other stories has no publisher’s logo on the title page, but on the verso small print tells us it was produced by “Artistry Publishing”. I am therefore assuming it is self-published and produced by a commercial printer. But here’s my main point. In terms of printing and production it’s an excellent piece of work; and in terms of its contents, the stories are often engaging, certainly entertaining and sometimes insightful, many having interesting plots. This is a very capacious collection of short stories – 21 to be precise, over 300 pages. To give you the statistics, 12 of the stories are told in the third-person and 9 are told in the first person. Modes of narration mean a lot and I note that most of the first-person stories are told by women but there are a few told by blokes. Vivienne Lingard tells us in a closing note that she has experienced “living in many countries and within different cultures”. Therefore, while most of these stories are set in New Zealand, there are also stories set in London, Delhi, New York, Japan, Italy, and Prague. Dare I say that most of them seem a tourist’s-eye-view rather than deep experience of the local culture?

When it comes to short stories we are, even now, aware of the great short-story schism that was established well over a century ago.

In this corner, there are those sting-in-the-tail stories, entertaining things which wowed readers by ending with a surprise twist. Guy de Maupassant has sometimes been associated with this school because one or two of his best-known stories ended with a twist – but this libels the man. The great majority of his stories do not end with a twist. The real sting-in-the-tail culprit was William Sydney Porter, who adopted the pen-name O.Henry. His surprise endings became the standard model for stories published in popular magazines.

In the opposite corner are the masters of stories that were “all middle” – not so much ingenious plots as studies of character; stories concerned with psychological states; stories which searched the human condition. Consider James Joyce’s short-story collection Dubliners. Consider nearly everything by Katherine Mansfield. But above all consider Anton Chekhov who virtually founded the character study school of short stories. It goes without saying that these were truly stories for adults, compared with which sting-in-the-tale stories were merely trick anecdotes.

Now why am I giving this lecture while considering Vivienne Lingard’s Pocket Money & other stories? Because, far too often, Lingard’s stories begin as credible, adult stories, frequently based on familial tensions, but then fade away as an improbable happy ending or surprise ending takes over. It is as if the author is sabotaging her own work. To give some examples. The story “Izzy” presents us with an upper-middle-class situation in London. Husband is a busy architect; wife wants to write graphic novels. It shapes up quite credibly as an account of a marriage under stress… and then… and then…and then… happy and glib surprise ending. [Please note I’m not a cad and will not give away what the surprises are]. Or consider the story “The Real Delhi”. Professional wife is attending a conference in Delhi. Husband has tagged along and decides to wander about the city. But he gets lost and panics. Lingard’s writing is excellent up to this point. The husband’s fear, bewilderment and sense of alienness in a foreign city are dramatized convincingly… and then… and then…and then… another quick and glib ending. Thus too in “Collections”, which begins as a believable character-study of a man with cerebral palsy; and “Cut Grass” – cut out the ending and it’s a careful portrait of a young girl for the first time responding tentatively to the opposite sex. But alas, both stories give us a neat happy ending. Sorry, but this is in the popular magazine category. I could cite other stories that collapse in the same way after a fair opening – “The Lost Scent”, “A Small Tattoo”, “Chiaroscuro” and “Ways of Riding a Storm” (the last solving a complex family problem with sudden forgiveness and understanding).

I assure you I’m not being a grouch in all this. I am not opposed to happy endings per se. In real life, things can work out for the best – but in stories, the happy ending has to be earned, not suddenly sprung upon us. Some of Lingard’s best stories do justify their upbeat conclusions, or at least have a degree of ambiguity in the way they end. Thus “Truth, Lies and Everything in Between”, “The Honeymoon” and “First Aid”.  And there are some stories that stay steadily with an adult perception. “Walls Can Speak” is one of Lingard’s best, and longer than most of her stories. Though told in the first person it is a complex tale involving many members of a family, but centring on two elderly women, sisters, living together and coping with the life-blighting experience that has shaped one of them. Topping this is the author’s very best story “Progress” where two women weather a harsh winter in neighbouring houses. One of them is hoping for companionship with her neighbour, but is gradually rebuffed. As it happens, there is a surprise at the end, but it does not topple the story over or dominate it. It is the hopeful woman’s mind that is convincingly laid bare.

I closed this book having enjoyed many of the stories but also frustrated by many. The writing talent is certainly there, but the author has to work on development of story – or perhaps dare to give us “only middle”.

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Richard Woolley’s novel Detachment Theory was published by AuthorHouse, an American outfit which advertises itself with the slogan “Publish your own book”. In other words, this is another self-published book.

Detachment Theory is a sort of detective story. Joy Manville is a steadfast Kiwi journalist who has some Maori blood – which allows the author to squeeze in some otherwise irrelevant local colour. Joy’s husband Stephen is an academic, an ex-pat Englishman now Professor of Film Studies at Auckland University. On line, Joy starts getting upsetting anonymous messages telling her that her husband is possibly a paedophile or a serial killer. Then hubby goes missing. Joy starts looking into hubby’s personal files and discovers some upsetting things about Stephen’s earlier life in a posh boarding school in England. Well, don’t we all know that posh English boarding schools are always hives of thuggery, buggery, sodomy and sadism? At any rate, that’s the stereotype Richard Woolley goes with. Maybe, thinks Joy, Stephen could have been involved in this.

As always, I do not disclose the twists and intended surprises of new detective stories,  but I can note that Joy’s investigation takes her to England where she can interrogate people who knew Stephen when he was a schoolboy. En route, there is a ferocious storm at sea, which kills a couple of important characters, and there is much play about an aristocratic house which seems to have come out of the movie Rebecca (creaks in the night; what dark memories dwell here? etc.). For the record, Richard Woolley used to be a documentary film-maker in Britain, and I wonder if he saw storm and old-dark-house as possible cinematic images for a possible film.

I’m not saying Woolley’s plot isn’t serviceable – after all, wife trying to find out the truth of her suspect husband has been used in quite a few good thrillers. But I am saying that Detachment Theory is often presented laboriously. When Joy makes a visit from Auckland to Northland, Woolley has to give us a travelogue of nearly every place she passes, as if he didn’t want to throw away his research notes. At least three times in this 393-page text, there are conversations in which an interviewee gives us minute information about what nasty thing happened in the past, most improbably and at twice the length they should have been. Things are eventually sorted out satisfactorily – what happened to Stephen in his youth and who was sending Joy the upsetting messages – but again, the unwinding of the plot takes an awfully long time. One can’t help feeling that a good editor for a mainstream [not-self-publishing] publisher would have trimmed off a lot of the redundant fat.

Then there are the stereotypes. I understand that Richard Woolley is English by birth, New Zealander by adoption, so he should know both countries. But his Kiwi character, Joy, is a jolly caricature – a straight-forward, no-nonsense character who speaks her mind colloquially as, apparently, all Kiwis do. By contrast, all the people she meets in England are toffee-nosed, upper-class prats, snobbish and condescending. Does the English Upper Crust delight in mimicking and ridiculing Kiwi and Aussie accents? Maybe, but not all that often surely. Throw in an oleaginous parson who might have a taste for young boys and you really are in cliché land.

Richard Woolley has a lot of good ideas, but I think a guiding hand, by which I mean a good publisher’s editor, could have shaped it into a more truly adult 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.      

“CESAR BIROTTEAU” by Honore de Balzac (written in the early 1830s; published 1837) (original French title Histoire de la Grandeur et de la Decadence de Cesar Birotteau, sometimes translated into English as The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau)


It you have followed this blog for a number of years, you will be aware that I am very much a fan of the novels of Honore de Balzac. In the last eleven years I have commented on Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin (written 1830-31) ; Eugenie Grandet (written 1833); Le Pere Goriot (written 1835); La Rabouilleuse (written 1842) ; La Cousine Bette (written 1846); and Le Cousin Pons (written 1847). I also did a piece on Balzac’s Selected Short Stories . Eugenie Grandet is the novel French schoolchildren were once given as a set text, perhaps because its simple story includes no whiff of unapproved sexual activities. Le Pere Goriot is often cited as Balzac’s masterpiece for its concision and pitiless sense of tragedy. La Cousine Bette is a wonderfully bitchy account of heartless manoeuvring in arriviste society. La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep) has, I think, Balzac’s most ingenious plot. And I like Le Cousin Pons as his most compassionate novel.

But even as a dedicated Balzacian, I am aware that the man’s work has many faults. Some of his shorter novels serve no purpose other than connecting different parts of his grandiose design for a Human Comedy, telling us how this person in the series is related to that person. They are like accounts in a ledger. He can easily go melodramatic (giving the likes of snobbish critic Martin Turnell the opportunity to call him “vulgar”) and he can lose the plot when he inserts long passages of explanations about society or the specifics of a city’s design, taking him far from the narrative he is building. These are pointless digressions where he shows off what he hopes we will see as his profound knowledge.


What I’m making clear is that, despite being a very great novelist, Balzac sometimes wrote very badly. And on this posting I am giving you the evidence in the form of what I regard as the dullest novel he ever wrote – a painful thing to read. If you want to deter anyone from reading Balzac’s works, direct that person to Cesar Birotteau. It is as flat as a pancake and most of it reads like a chronicle of financial dealings. Set in France’s Restoration period, the story takes place between the years 1817 and 1820. It is organized in three parts

Part One: Cesar Birotteau, of peasant stock, has been raised by a wealthy merchant family in Paris. They are retailers of perfume, with strongly royalist views but with little understanding of human nature. Cesar Birotteau has risen to being deputy mayor of a Paris arrondissement, and he is about to be awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour. He decides to throw an extravagant ball, and also to move into the big league of merchants and financiers by borrowing money to make large investments in land purchase and by making himself a “sleeping partner” in a firm – to be headed by his faithful clerk Anselme Popinot - manufacturing a hair preparative to rival Macassar oil (which was, at the time, the most esteemed hair-lotion for men). This first part of the novel simply chronicles his business deals with bankers, with an architect to redo his house, with his neighbour the chemist Vauqelin to advise him on his business ventures etc. Little does he know that his former clerk Ferdinand du Tillet is plotting his financial ruin. Of course this first section of the novel ends with Birotteau’s lavish ball – his moments of “Grandeur”.

Part Two shows his ruin, his “Decadence”. Almost immediately after his extravagant ball, the chickens come home to roost. The notary Roguin absconds with the borrowed money that supported Cesar’s major investments. Cesar is unable to pay the bills for either the ball or his business ventures. Facing bankruptcy, he attempts to shield his wife Constance and his daughter Cesarine from the truth, while trudging from banker to banker attempting to float a loan. But he has no credit. He is bankrupted. Wife and daughter have to go out and work while the treacherous clerk du Tillet has the malicious triumph of humiliating his former master with mock benevolence.

Part Three: And yet with good advice from his father-in-law Claude-Joseph Pilleraut, the help of Popinot and his own fortitude, Cesar works hard to pay off his debts and succeeds eventually in having them liquidated. Morally, du Tillet is defeated when Cesar is eventually reinstated as a merchant by the court, and he receives an ovation at the Bourse. He returns home in triumph but (on the very last page) he bursts a blood vessel and dies for joy when he finds a reception set up for him with the same splendour as on the night of the ball. An ironical ending, of course, but still essentially the story of a rich man who loses his fortune but regains it by hard work and the help of good friends.

In a way, reading this novel confirms my belief that Balzac was a genius, but sometimes an idiot genius. For some readers, Cesar Birotteau bears out the idea that Balzac was obsessed with money. There are some vivid stand-alone scenes – the ball itself (with Balzac noting the fine gradations of social distinction among the guests); or Cesar’s pathetic confrontations with some of his creditors. There are also moments of psychological insight – the treacherous clerk du Tillet hates Cesar because, years previously, Cesar forgave him for stealing from the till. No good deed goes unpunished. Save for the final death scene, the plot is not unduly melodramatic.

Yet as a whole the novel is crushingly dull. Fully the first half of the novel is little more than a chronicle of successive business deals, complete with accounting of every last crown, franc and sou. Balzac seems to assume that his readers will be as enthralled with this scrupulous accounting as much as he himself obviously is. In this case, his attempts at philosophising (on society, on success, on morals) are shallow. His real gift as a novelist lies in realising individuals. Ultimately, what stays most in the mind is the caricature that Cesar Birotteau is, with his repeated boast of having been wounded in a skirmish defending royalty, his innocent self-importance, pomposity and basic ignorance of how the world of finance works, until wiser people guide him out of his ruin. There is at least the possibility that Balzac himself had some misgivings about this novel. He said he first drafted it six or seven years before he handed it over to publishers because he was uncertain whether there was a readership for a story about a minor middle-class perfumier and purveyor of hair-oil. He might also have had misgivings about the fact that his main character was based loosely on a real perfumier, Jean Vincent Bully.

Naturally we can look at it as an historical and sociological document. Apart from the generous people who help Cesar out of his troubles, France’s Restoration period is seen as the era of ruthless wheeler-dealers, charlatans, bogus financiers and self-interested social climbers. Of course some of these are people who recur in other of Balzac’s work – the publicist Felix Gaudissart, the banker de Nucigen and others. But verbal portrait after verbal portrait of such people adds up to a very tedious novel and, “happy ending” notwithstanding, the only message one can take from this novel is that honest dimwits like Cesar Birotteau will always be squelched by sharpers.

Truly, a novel not to read first if you want to become acquainted with Balzac’s work.



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 TANGATA WHENUA


I was born in New Zealand. My parents were born in New Zealand. My four grandparents were born in New Zealand. Six of my eight great-grandparents were born in New Zealand and I have one or two great-great grandparents who were born in New Zealand. I am at least a fourth generation New Zealander. If I trace my genealogy back, I could say my ancestors were 50% Scots, 25% Irish and 25% English. (My wife’s ancestry is 100% Irish). I may sometimes have a certain vague affection for the countries my forebears came from, but I do not consider myself to be Scots, Irish, English or British in general. I am a New Zealander. The only passport I hold is for New Zealand. I have lived nearly all my life in New Zealand, apart from two or three years of overseas travel. I am a citizen of nowhere but New Zealand. Therefore I regard myself as one of the tangata whenua – the people of the land. What other land do I belong to?

But despite what I’ve said, some will say that, not being Maori, I must really be only one of the tangata tiriti, that is, persons who are here only because of the Treaty of Waitangi. And here my argument begins. Obviously I wasn’t here when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and I had no hand in framing it or endorsing it. I am not a New Zealander because of a document which, as I now interpret it, was in part fraudulent, its main purpose being to establish British sovereignty. I say this even with the knowledge that the treaty was more idealistic than methods by which Europeans took over other countries. I am a New Zealander by right of being born here. I object to being classed as one who somehow has a lesser right to be here. And the use of the term tangata whenua tends to imply that those who are not Maori are not really people of the land and are therefore merely “guests” of those whose ancestors arrived here earlier. New Zealand is now a multi-cultural nation, including Pasifika, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and many other ethnicities. It is not merely bi-cultural, with a neat division of Maori and European, and that means that the newer Asian and Pacific arrivals are also belittled by the use of the term tangata whenua.

Let’s consider some of the problems that this term raises. Because there were no formal censuses or written records to tell us how large the Maori population was in pre-European times, historians can only speculate. The best estimate is between 100,000 and 200,000. The population of New Zealand now is approximately 5 million – that is, 25 times larger than the higher estimate. Of those 5 million, at most 18% now identify as Maori, and even this percentage raises problems. The African-American novelist James Baldwin pointed out in one of his essays that the only reason he was called “Baldwin” was that one of his ancestors had been owned by a slave-master called Baldwin. But there was no such slavery in New Zealand. Therefore any Maori with a European surname has at least some European forebears, be it Whina Cooper, Tipene O’Regan, Winston Peters or Willy Jackson. And many Maori with Maori surnames also have some European ancestors. Does this make them a lesser or diluted form of tangata whenua? At the very least, shouldn’t this fact give pause to those who condemn outright colonialism and non-Maori settlement when some of their own ancestors were part of the process?

There’s a strong possibility that by this stage I have raised your hackles. There might even by a few who now wish to throw such terms as “racist” at me.

So I’ll set out my position very carefully. As an historian, I am very well read in the histories and commentaries of Ranginui Walker,  Judith Binney, James Belich, Vincent O’Malley and many others. I am aware that much colonisation was carried out by fraud and force, that lands were confiscated (i.e. stolen), that outright warfare and invasion were made in the Waikato and elsewhere, that Maori were systematically deprived of their rights and resources, and that attempts were made to suppress the Maori language. I am fully on board with plans to teach this history more truthfully in our schools. I also support the wider teaching of the Maori language in schools and the wider use of the Maori language in public speech – a culture loses a lot when it loses its language. As for the new Matariki holiday – great! It’s good to have a Maori celebration written into the calendar. I know that in New Zealand, Maori [and people of the Pacific] are most likely to be the impoverished part of society and I know that Maori tend to be incarcerated more often than other ethnicities. Many sociologists have suggested that, if convicted of a crime, Maori tend to get harsher sentences than Pakeha. The re-assertion of Maoritanga, the “Maori Renaissance” and beyond, didn’t come from nowhere – it came from a raft of legitimate grievances.

So they have to be addressed by all of as. As equal citizens. Which means we all should be seen as tangata whenua, partners working to a common good.