Monday, September 18, 2023

Something New

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

A CANOE BEFORE THE WIND” by Vitale Lafaele (Harper-Collins, $NZ39.99): “SECRETS OF THE LAND” by Kate Mahony  (Cloud Ink Press, $NZ29:99); “INDEPENDENCE SQUARE” by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster, $NZ 38)


            I’m going to admit freely that I am usually not a fan of “inspirational” books, written to encourage people to keep on striving to fulfil their hopes. Often such books are simplistic and become preachy and condescending. But I’m going to make an exception for Soifua Vitale Joseph Fatutoa Lafaele’s autobiography Canoe Before the Wind. Certainly it’s inspirational but it is also a very interesting story in its own right and charts a man’s whole life experience.

Born in 1960, Vitale Lafaele came with his family from Samoa to New Zealand when he was two. They settled in Grey Lynn. This was at a time when Samoans were welcomed to work in New Zealand’s expanding industries. They were a hard-working family, mother and father both employed in a number of jobs. Vitale Lafaele, being the oldest child, had to do most of the home chores as well as looking after the younger siblings when they came. He himself earned money for the family by delivering newspapers and finding other work. The family spoke Samoan at home, so young Lafaele took some time learning English and he was occasionally teased or bullied about this at school. He played rugby union but preferred rugby league, did a milk run and worked in a grocery, passing on his earnings to his parents.

This was an era of both economic instability and much racism. In 1975, when Lafaele was just 15, there were the notorious Dawn Raids when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon decided to clamp down on “overstayers”, meaning people who had outlived their work-visas. Polynesians were targeted. Though Lafaele’s family were legally in New Zealand, there was a communal fear as the Dawn Raids happened. Says Lafaele  I was scared of being sent back to Samoa because I had no memories of the place – my entire life was here is Auckland. If our family had got sent back, I would have found myself sitting in some plantation thinking, ‘What is this place?’… New Zealanders were the ones who had overstayed in our country for almost 50 years, but even though we’d been invited here when our people were needed to work in the factories, we were now the overstayers. It just didn’t make sense.” (pp.34-35)

Lafaele became a prefect at his school, but he did not do well academically. In fact he failed the old School Certificate examination twice. He says truthfully “I think many Polynesian youth, myself included, suffered and continue to struggle to this day, due – in part – to the combination of Samoan culture and the underlying effects of poverty. Chores and caring for the younger siblings took priority over homework and after-school tuition. The sense of academic failure and the burdens of home life often manifested in rebellious attitudes towards schooling.” (p.44) He left school without any qualifications. He got a good job in a warehouse, but was sometimes intimidated there by patched Maori guys [once or twice he has to mention that there were often tensions between Maori and Pasifika people]. Nevertheless he becomes a practiced storeman and is soon found to be good at looking after accounts. He meets and cohabits with a nice Palagi woman, Annette, and after some years they marry. His father dies when he is only 47.

Lafaele is alert to the environment about him. He notes: “Around then [the 1980s], Auckland was starting to go through a real transition period. There were still Pacific families living in the inner city but the gentrification had already started and they began to be pushed out of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn towards South Auckland. I didn’t really notice it at the time because I was so busy with my life. It wasn’t until some of the houses around my parents’ place started to be sold to Palagi families that I saw the change was happening.” (pp.64-65)

He knows he can do better than staying a storeman and wonders if he can join the police – but, having no qualifications, he is rejected four times. So he decides he’ll have a go at joining the S.A.S., the Special Air Service, New Zealand’s elite army combat group. Again after some rejection, he is accepted for training; but the training is very gruelling, testing the body and requiring focus and endurance. He turns out to be a very capable soldier, is inducted into the S.A.S. and gets on well with his military mates. But there is a problem. The S.A.S. is supposed to engage in either combat or peace-keeping missions. But in his whole time in the S.I.S., there is no war to fight, no combat to engage in. Life on New Zealand military bases becomes very boring, he finds he is drinking too much, and he decides to quit. After five years in the S.A.S. he is accepted into police college and trains diligently. He does very well, passes muster, and graduates as an officer.

And it is in the police force that he makes his career, first working for two years in the burglary squad in Auckland’s inner suburb Newmarket. He applies to join the C.I.B. the Crime Investigation Branch, goes to Wellington to train, and becomes a police sergeant. In his first years in this role, he works in the “wild west” of Auckland, the Henderson area which was at that time still largely rural [now it’s wall-to-wall suburb]. He notes: “A lot of the serious crime in the city happened in West Auckland and South Auckland. On the North Shore, there wasn’t much and in Auckland City there was the run-of-the-mill disorderly conduct and fights in bars. In West Auckland, on top of the alcohol-fuelled violence and domestic assaults, we also had a lot of pot and a lot of homebake, which was when people used codeine to produce morphine when they couldn’t get heroin. The set-up was a lot like the clan labs for meth now, where people were cooking up black-market pharmaceuticals at home.” (p.136) There are some confrontations with gangs and he admits (p.137) that, pre-Taser and pepper spray, police had to learn how to fight gangs with batons as weapons. As a police officer he has to deal with many different types of crime, examining murder scenes and autopsies. He is part of the “Operation Park”, finding and arresting New Zealand’s most notorious serial rapist.

Despite having never taken an academic course, he enrols for a Business Study degree. The pressures of his professional work mean that it takes him some years to complete the degree, but complete it he does. He becomes a senior police sergeant and for a while is in charge of witness protection. He also champions the “Closing the Gaps” programme aimed at raising Maori and Pasifika educational level and also bringing more Pasifika and Maori into the police force. Now a senior officer in charge of a large force, he is for a while commander of the Auckland Armed Offenders Squad. At different times he is part of three well-publicised operations. In one, he has to use explosives to break open a barrier and rescue three hostages threatened by an armed criminal. He was part of the force monitoring the notorious affair in Urewera where it was assumed [wrongly] that there was a terrorist group about to unleash havoc. And he was in charge of the group who rescued a little girl kidnapped by a criminal who thought he could extort a big ransom out of a wealthy family. Now a senior member of the police force, Lafaele is for some time the private secretary of the Commissioner of Police. For a while he supervises Beach Haven, the most crime-ridden area of Auckland’s North Shore, and then he is in charge of Counties Manukau South where he promotes a more community-based form of policing.

In all this he does not forget his Samoan origins. He says: “In 2002, I went back to Samoa and had the chiefly Soifua title bestowed on me by my mum’s village, Falealupo. Soifua is a tulafale, or orator title.” (p.194) He does have some criticisms of Samoa. There is some police corruption, such as police asking people for a bribe rather than giving them a ticket for a driving infringement. (p.195). He is also critical of the custom many Samoans follow of sending money back from New Zealand to Samoa, which puts great stress on donors who are often struggling to support their own families. (pp.195-196)

But at the age of 53, he has a series of strokes. Reluctantly, he has to retire from the police force, implying that he was not adequately compensated. Taking care of his health, and often making use of the gym, he keeps in trim as much as he can. He becomes a member of the Institute of Directors, putting his knowledge of Business Studies to good use. He now goes on the lecture circuit, has done a TED talk, and is of course proud of his children and grandchildren.

Now what do we take away from this? First, there is the fact of a man who flunked out of secondary school without any qualifications but who still had the ambition and drive to become a respected senior member of an important profession. From storeman to S.A.S. man to police officer to sergeant to senior sergeant to police commander of areas, he worked his way up step by step by sheer hard work. Second, that he came from a family with a strong work ethic and a strong sense of the importance of education. There is no doubt that many Samoans who settled in New Zealand were impoverished and faced barriers of prejudice, but they knew the power of work. And there was also the fact that the family looked after themselves – a strong sense of the family itself as community. No I’m not presenting Canoe Before the Wind as a great work of literature. It isn’t. But it does tell a good story – even an inspiring one.

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Raised in Australia, the journalist Imogen Maguire has broken up with her boyfriend and is getting tired of her bullying editor. So when a stranger approaches her in the streets of Melbourne, and tells her she absolutely must go to New Zealand to see her grandfather, she decides to do just that, even if she thought her grandfather was long dead. Thus opens Kate Mahony’s Secrets of the Land, and from the very beginning we are aware that something weird is happening. The stranger who meets her seems to disappear before her eyes.

So what does Imogen find in Taranaki where he grumpy grandfather Jack lives? She finds Jack inhabits an awfully run-down little house surrounded by the sedgy fields in which he raises his cattle and his prize bull. She finds that the locals are basically decent people once you get to know them, especially the local cop and an elderly Maori man, Tamati Rangihau. But she also finds that some horrible unknown people seem to be trying to run old Jack off his land by terrorising him. His hedges are set on fire. In the middle of the night his cattle are let loose and sent running down the road. Could this be the work of the awful Barker clan, the family who own huge rural holdings, dominate the local council and boast about being of pioneer pedigree since their ancestors “acquired” the land after the 1860s Taranaki war? There’s an important point to note here. The intimidating Barkers are presumably of English descent. But Imogen and her grandfather are of Irish descent… and, according to common lore, many Irish are gifted with second sight. In other words, they read omens and sometimes see - and even converse with – ghosts. Yes, this novel has ghosts and apparitions taken seriously, especially as Maori and Irish characters seem to take the other world seriously, and Maori make a nearby swamp absolutely tapu. Something evil must have happened there. Sceptical at first, Imogen is gradually persuaded to believe in the revenants and in the visions and dreams she intermittently experiences.

Kate Mahony (of Irish descent, for sure) structures her novel in three alternating time scales. In the (almost present) chapters, Imogen tells her story in the first person. In the 1860s chapters, the Irish soldier Michael also talks in the first person as he narrates what happened when he and his mate Denis fought in the British forces against Taranaki iwi. The British soldiers were involved in some atrocities – the type of thing ghosts never forget. And in the 1950s and 1970s chapters, Imogen’s Irish mother Aoife experiences how it was when racism was more rampant in New Zealand. Kate Mahony has cleverly made her Imogen an Australian, allowing her to find out gradually basic historical events (such as the destruction of Parihaka) which most New Zealanders would not have to have explained to them. There are some references to Irish soldiers in the 1860s wars having misgivings about what they were doing – weren’t they helping the British to steal Maori land in the same way that the English stole Irish land over the centuries? Voicing these misgivings are based on historical fact.

There are some moments when matter-of-fact Kiwi characters seems oddly paired with ghostly apparitions etc. but Secrets of the Land  holds together as a good yarn for a readership with a romantic view of things.

[Personal note: My wife is by descent 100% Irish – but I assure you she’s never seen a ghost and isn’t troubled by oracular dreams.]

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            A personal confession: Way back in the early 1980s I read and greatly enjoyed the American author Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. It had the novelty of being a detective story set in what was then still the Soviet Union. The hero-detective was an police officer in Moscow called Arkady Renko who investigated crimes honestly and diligently, despite all the official corruption that surrounded him. By the way, Arkady Renko is a Ukrainian name, but at that time Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. Gorky Park was erudite, written with literary finesse, depicted much credible detail of Russian life, and became a massive bestseller. It was made into quite a good movie in 1983.

            And that, I thought, was that. What I didn’t know – because I didn’t keep up with his output - was that Martin Cruz Smith is a prolific writer. He churns them out. He has written 17 other detective and thriller novels, some under pseudonyms, that do not concern Arkady Renko… and he has now written fully ten novels that do star Arkady Renko. His latest is Independence Square.

Set in what is now Putin’s Russia, but a year or so before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Independence Square has Arkady Renko asked by a gangster-oligarch to find his daughter Karina, who has mysteriously gone missing. Karina was a member of Forum, a protest movement seeking real democracy. They are much harassed, threatened and sometimes killed by “patriotic” bikie gangs and the Federal Security Service – Putin’s equivalent of the KGB. So off goes Arkady in his investigations which take him to Kyiv in Ukraine, now independent; and Sevastapol in Crimea, snatched back into Russia by Putin. Along the way there is Arkady’s worry about encroaching Parkinson’s Disease, which is slowing him up a little and showing his age. There are also double-crosses by people who at first seem to be friends; evidence of the Tatar people – the original occupants of Crimea – being persecuted and driven out by Russian invaders; casual assassinations and one really big assassination towards the end; and a great big heroic escape to top it all off. Obviously I’m not spoiling things by giving you more details. Surprise and revelation of friends-turning-out-to-be-enemies are the sauce of thrillers like this and should not be disclosed by snotty reviewers.

Verdict? I don’t find here the literary finesse that I found all those years ago in Gorky Park. Maybe Martin Cruz Smith’s writing coarsened as his Arkady Renko became a formula over 40-plus years. I note that much of the action is carried in conversations, which could almost be taken for a movie script. That said though, it works well as your basic detective-thriller and it should attract a large audience.

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