Book Reviews: Jan 07 issue

In association with The Nile
Great Kiwi Novels, and other stories
Michael Morrissey tracks Lloyd Jones’ latest and some historic kiwiana

MISTER PIP by Lloyd Jones, Penguin, $35
Lloyd Jones is probably our most sophisticated stylist and also delightfully unpredictable in the kind of novels he writes. What is the gifted fellow going to do next? Like so many successful recent New Zealand novels, this one is set “abroad’ i.e. outside New Zealand waters. Probably this trend will continue, and the versatile Jones persist in pleasantly surprising us in subject matter, technique and setting.
Triumphantly written up in a recent Listener as Our First Million Dollar Novelist, I could not help subconsciously – though I knew the feeling was sure to be mistaken – expect some large complex blockbuster type of novel (say the New Zealand equivalent of Sacred Games by Vikram Chandler (see below)). Instead we are given a modest work of 220 pages in largish print. Up until recently, a lot of New Zealand fiction had a kind of moral pokiness, a gauche wooden style with lapses into political correctness – this is definitely not the case with Jones’s minor masterpiece.
The novel’s main character is Matilda, a young Bougainville girl who has the kind of teacher we would (or should) like to have – a gentle, cultured, morally upright man who invites them into his imaginative world by reading from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In what has become almost the new politically correct world of contemporary criticism (Edward Said for example), this act might be seen as an act of colonisation – here it becomes a sharing of an exotic distant world that excites the minds of the children, leaving Matilda awake at night wondering what marshes or leg irons might be like. Mr Watts, aka Mr Pip (main character of Great Expectations) charms us with his quiet low-key manner and equally Lloyd Jones charms us. Do teachers still read to their pupils I wonder or has electronic media taken over completely?
Mr Watts, the teacher, succeeds too well. Pip becomes of greater interest to Matilda than stories about her dead relatives and her mother is understandably indignant. An ideological battle of wills develops with Matilda’s mother addressing her class mates about crabs and the weather, God and the devil. What Jones does with great skill during these scenes – reminiscent of Graham Greene – is interweaving the personal, the ideological and the political. It is the latter that slowly closes on the adult protagonists like a vicious vice.
With a further Greene-like twist of the ironic knife, Jones has the oppressive Redskins (government soldiers) threaten mayhem if the imaginary though now treated-as-real Mr Pip’s whereabouts is not revealed. Proof of Mr Pip’s fictionality relies on presenting a copy of Great Expectations but unfortunately Matilda’s mother has stolen it. And Matilda feels duty bound to remain silent. No problems accepting this response but I had credibility problems with Matilda’s mother keeping quiet about stealing the book when concealment meant the whole village was burnt down – though that may be my European perspective. The subsequent murder of Mr Watts is brutal and brief and all the more shocking because of its suddenness and brevity.
This is a deceptively straightforward novel in which irony piles on irony. The meditations on the colour white, for instance, or the view of the “real” Mrs Watts that her husband was a weak man when we have seen his stubborn strength. At the conclusion, I felt a little breathless with the dazzle of Jones’s talent. The international success of his novel is well deserved.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR NEW ZEALANDERS by Richard Wolfe, Random House, $34.99
Let’s say you were a woman in 1915 looking for a career in teaching. What would be the requirements? Actually they were quite strict. Marrying was forbidden and the teacher curfewed between the hours of 8pm and 6 am. She was not allowed to travel outside city limits without permission, not smoke nor dress in bright colours, nor dye her hair. And most importantly, she was not to loiter downtown in ice-cream stores, presumably seething dens of vice. If, by 1946, our modern Ms had been lucky enough to become a mother to twins and was endeavouring to breast feed, Modern Mothercraft: A Guide to Parents, provides a detailed schedule.
Instructions are what we all need and instructions in abundance are what this natty little pocket book provides. There may be some who will read this delightful book with a straight face but I think most of us will smile and may even laugh. Of course this humour is the by product of a shift in historical perspective. For all we know, the instructions of today – only a few are listed – may prove a matter of hilarity to future generations. Instructions can be found here on Hanging Pictures, Carless Days, Using an Electric Oven, The Prevention of Slugs, Clothing Required by Steerage Passengers, Starting the Engine, Playing the National Anthem and Filling a Hot Water Bag (Do not use boiling water!). In other words, for all of life’s exigencies, small or large, some thoughtful soul or government committee has written a detailed set of instructions on how to do and how to cope. I was cheerfully reminded of the extraordinarily resourceful Junior Woodchuck’s Guidebook – frequently consulted by Donald Duck’s nephews in emergencies.
Under the “The Art of Rugby Football” dated 1902 there is a chapter entitled How to Bump, first practised by Mr. J.G Taiaroa, the famous Otago back. The text continues, “It would therefore seem, a Maori invention and knack.” Bumping? “Bumping is done by the timely transmission of the weight and momentum of the runner to a would-be tackler, and is generally only effectively done when the runner is going at top speed, when the momentum does the trick. It is done by throwing one’s weight plus impetus into the tackler’s shoulder, and brushing him by with the arm”. Whether the Bump is still legal fare in today’s rugby is unknown to a non-footballer such as myself but I am sure Stadium-voters will know. Perhaps a future edition will include a chapter on “How to Choose a Football Stadium”? At the time of writing it seems the nation and the council desperately need Instructions.
Among many gems, my favorite (almost) is instructions on Using the Long Baton issued in 1976. Astonishingly, there are eighteen different uses of this handy instrument of law enforcement. These include the Front punch, Back punch, Flat Chop, Forward spin, Pool Cue Jab from long extended position, Wrist drag, Running Armlock, and the Yawara strike. It is reassuring to discover that the art of the bludgeon has been so scientifically detailed.
Instructions for New Zealanders is an ideal book for a gift or a bit of summer levity and I look forward to a revisit in 50 years time.
TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM by Paul Auster, Faber & Faber, $39.99
Either you’re a Paul Auster fan or you’re not. I am – most of the time. Writers tend to be melancholic beasties and most of Auster’s central protagonists (often furtive writers) are melancholic or in the modern terms depressed, alienated, passive. Not for long.
Something puzzling awakens them from their depressed state.
This short novel starts off cheerily: “The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor.” Somehow – since this is a Paul Auster novel – you guess he isn’t about to be brought a dish of strawberries and cream by a beautiful young woman dressed as a French maid. From the drearily sterile circumstance of his surroundings one might guess that Mr Blank (yes, that’s his name) is a political prisoner of sorts but then it seemed the mental patient fitted the bill more accurately – there are references to treatment, nurses, pills that make his hands shake. That doesn’t seem to quite fit either. A reality TV show gone wrong (there are cameras present)? A Dystopian political allegory? Perhaps. A Kafka-esque fable of alienation comes closer yet even that doesn’t seem quite appropriate. Since the room is locked and Mr Blank so miserable, comparisons with Beckett could also be drawn. In the end, it seems Mr Blank is trapped in the pages by that sadist, the writer, nominally N.R Fanshawe yet who ultimately must be, Paul Auster.
Even by stern Austerian standards, this novel takes a deeper plunge into gloom than most and the reader may feel like abandoning Mr Blank to his monotonously awful fate but there is something compulsive about the book, the Austerian capacity to surprise, that sustains interest.
The apparent window pane clarity of the beginning slowly gives way to a tricky corridor of fictional mirrors. Auster uses the multi-level device of the spliced in narrative that appears to have little connection with the main story but eventually interweaves with it.
The enfolded narrative describes a land that is much like a nineteenth century American frontier circa 1830 with murderous Europeans and butchered Indians. It is, in fact, an unfinished novel that Mr Blank feels compelled to finish in his own way.
All of Mr Blank’s visitors are characters from earlier Auster novels which is either the writer being lazy or richly extending his fictional universe. Or playing a metafictional game. If the sole purpose of the book is to tell us that writers are trapped in rooms writing that is scarcely an original thought. In the end, this was my least favourite Auster novel and I hope next time Mr Blank is Mr Somebody and gets out of that locked room.
RESTLESS by William Boyd, Bloomsbury, $35
William Boyd, one of the leading novelists of today, has just published his ninth novel. It’s cracking espionage thriller, thoroughly authentic in period detail and atmosphere, recounted by two narratives – the first by Ruth Gilmartin is about how she discovers her mother Sally Gilmartin is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigre and spy, and the second, Eva’s narration of her life as a secret agent. Ruth lives in Oxford and teaches English as a second language, while trying to write a history thesis, the time being1976.
For obvious reasons, the war document is the more gripping, yet the book as a whole is enthralling with Ruth having to put up with shady characters who boast of making porno films and being mixed up with the Baader-Meinhof Gang – though who knows if it is all true? As with all such double narratives, we wait for them to intersect which satisfyingly they do.
Eva is recruited at the funeral of her brother Kolia by the novel’s suave bete noire, the polished and urbane Lucas Romer with an “upper class, patrician” accent – “swarthy, with dense eyebrows, uncurved, like two black horizontal dashes beneath his high forehead”. Her brother’s death is given as a reason for her to join up for Kolia who also used to work for Mr Romer.
As war clouds gather over Europe, Eva is given her exhaustive training. In terms of detail, this struck me as more authentic and meticulous than anything previously encountered – though obviously I haven’t read every spy novel in existence. She is taught how to remember number by association with colours, how to recall at least 80 of 100 objects on a table; she is taught Morse code, use of a compass, code breaking, forging, how to tail someone and detect if she is being followed. Her training is topped off with a spot of orienteering – being left out at night at a remote location and finding her way back. Interestingly enough, Mr Romer dismisses unarmed combat as being a waste of time and comments, “you have nails, you have teeth – your animal instincts will serve you better than any training”. So much for the James Bond style of espionage – though don’t forget the Russians did try to kill someone with a poison-tipped umbrella (or latterly a tiny nuclear bomb in the arteries) which makes it mildly plausible when Eva dispatches a Mexican heavy by stabbing him through the eye with a pencil.
Eva winds up working at British Security Coordination in the Rockefeller Center in New York where they release phony propaganda stories to the media, and curiously enough they can never be sure if they are believed by the enemy or not. The aim is to spur the United States into joining the war. The presence of this large British spy agency in New York is well founded in fact. As we now know, the bombing of Pearl Harbour was far more effective than its efforts.
The double plot is complex with lots of richly realised secondary characters drawn in along the way. Excitement begins to mount when Ruth meets Romer and reaches full-blown thriller adrenalin when she and her Eva meet the ruthless Romer for the last time. Like Graham Greene, Boyd has managed and quite superbly, to inject full characterisation and psychological depth into an espionage thriller. Not even John Le Carre has done it better.
SACRED GAMES by Vikram Chandler, Faber & Faber, $39.99
This whopper of a novel – 900 pages – is only Chandler’s second but with it he leaps to the forefront of Indian and world literature.
This is fiction writing and characterisation on an impressive nineteenth century scale so it’s tempting to dub him the Indian Dostoyevsky. I make this comparison not only because the clash between gangster warlord Ganesh Gaitonde and Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police inspector, is somehow like an extension of murderer Raskolnikov versus Detective Porfiry in Crime and Punishment but also because of the depth of psychology explored plus the use of full-on dialogue and the book’s large scope and size.
Though the novel begins with a dog tossed out of a fifth story window – and this may be in part to illustrate that policemen have to attend to crimes other than murders – the novel really gets a grip on its two main protagonists in the second chapter. Ganesh is holed up in his nuclear bomb-proof concrete box with Sartaj Singh trying to flush him out. It’s a standoff resolved when Singh orders in a bulldozer with a driver who knows how to tackle the task. By the time the siege is successfully accomplished and the arrest of the decade about to be made, we – like Singh – are disappointed to find the Hindu warlord of Mumbai has committed suicide. Thus does the grand drama begin.
While at first it seems like anticlimactic beginning, it becomes clear it’s part of Chandler’s fictional strategy. As in a modern thriller we have the James Bond-like beginning and the remainder is a furious and colourful flashback on a massive scale. From this point onward, the novel moves from Ganesh’s story to Sartaj and back. At first, Sartaj is the chief character but then Ganesh, as the more colourful guy, tends to overwhelm.
There are additional interludes called Inserts, which alas, I tended to skim over in my eagerness to keep track with the main story. These additions plus the size of the novel tend to give more detail than might be needed but the novel picks up the pace from time to time just enough to keep one reading onward.
The Dramatis Personae lists some 35 main characters but there are hosts more weaving in and out. The vicious world of Mumbai’s underworld is the overriding subject matter. Mumbai, formerly Bombay is if course, famous not only for its criminal underworld but also Bollywood. And no surprise to find that they are interwoven with wonderful dramatic effect. Chandler, it is abundantly clear, loves Mumbai for its colourfulness as Dickens loved London or Doctorow loves New York. In many ways, Mumbai is the third great character in the novel. Even the glorious sunsets get a mention though symbolically the cause of their splendour is thought to be pollution.
As in so many great works of literature, the moral undertow of the narrative is the battle of good and evil, here explored in great depth. Whereas Sartaj is basically a good man, he is a policeman in a corrupt city. As the text almost mournfully informs us, the money he is paid would not even pay for the paper on which he writes his reports, so what choice does he have but to accept bribes and payoffs? When he was married, his rich wife had enabled him the “luxury” of not having to take them but at the time of the novel he has little choice. Indian police methods, the text makes clear, are not overly gentle.
Ganesh Gaitonde, by contrast, is a ruthless gangster though naturally he has a human side which the book skilfully invites to follow with fascination and sympathy. But in the end he is a bad guy and the murder of one of his few genuine friends – a woman whom he admires for standing up to him – because of a blow to his sexual pride shows him in his true dark colours. An extra strand in the elaborate plot is Ganesh’s servile relationship to a slick-talking guru who turns out to be a sinister terrorist intent on making nuclear mayhem.
This is a bravura performance that shows off a huge talent. Two reservations – it seems a shame that Ganesh’s shadowy rival Suleiman Isa is off stage at all times and the show down between Ganesh and his guru also indirectly reported. However, the book remains a masterpiece of colour and high drama and the text teems with vibrant portraits of Mumbai’s exotic city life. This would make a fabulous movie though hopefully the director will not cast from Bollywood.