Book Reviews: April 07 issue

In association with The Nile
Michael Morrissey’s picks for an Indian summer

INES OF MY SOUL by Isabel Allende, Fourth Estate, $36.99
Ines of my Soul is Allende’s tenth novel – and an excellent one it is too. Initially a fully paid up member of the Magic Realism school, she, like Louis de Bernieres, has to a large degree moved onto being a historical novelist sans the Irish tall story-style embellishments which characterise this highly influential manner of writing fiction extensively deployed by Latin American writers for several decades.

Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, widely regarded as the world’s greatest living writer, is most famously associated with Magic Realism. While Allende is not quite in Marquez’s class, she is a very good writer indeed and this novel shows off her talents to great advantage. Magic Realism, richly imbued with what might be dubbed the Latin American voice, is characterised by narrative being overwhelmingly dominant over dialogue which becomes correspondingly sparse; a heavy Latinate style; highly colourful character contrasts and of course touches of wild exaggeration.
In Ines of my Soul the exaggerations are minimal, and Magic Realism greatly diminished. Instead we have a rich surfeit of blood and thunder sixteenth century conquistadors armed with sharp swords and large doses of warrior spirit as they set about the brutal conquest of Chile. Blood lust, gold lust (as well as the usual fleshy variety) permeate this complex tale narrated by Ines Suarez, a passionate woman who loses a husband and gains a lover – the war hero Pedro de Valdivar, a lieutenant so to speak, of Francisco Pizarro, the most famous conquistador of them all.
Ines, like the men who stride through these pages, is no lily-white lady herself. She is a swordswoman who beheads her enemies, and doesn’t seem overly bothered by the ruthless conquest of the local Indians and the unflinchingly stoic Mapuche – who do not break even under torture. I did not, as some hostile reviewers imagine, that Allende herself condones this behaviour but assume like all good fiction writers she is letting her story and character speak for themselves with the voices of their time – accordingly, it is for us in more hopefully enlightened times to make a more strict moral judgment.
The book is energetic and colourful throughout though at times I found myself wondering is every man so swashbuckling (ie tall, handsome, cruel, a great lover, an even greater swordsman, and always greedy for gold) – aren’t there cobblers and or cooks labouring away humbly? But this is after all the dashing world of the conquistadors and the violent world of sixteenth century Chile.
CROCODILE by Lynne Kelly, Allen &Unwin, $39.99
Whether through fear, sound survival instinct or meagre travel, I have led a crocodile-free existence. Reading this book – unlike a book on orangutans or dolphins – doesn’t make me pine for any personal encounters. The scaly monster, which may well be the fact-founded basis for dragon legends, more than lives up its reputation as a fearsome man-muncher.
Some crocodile facts – there are fourteen species of crocodile, eight of alligator and caiman and one only of gharial. One of the India crocs is cutely named a mugger. The most recently discovered crocodile is the Philippine crocodile – in 1935. The most to be feared are the Australian fresh water crocodile affectionately nick-named “freshies” and the Nile crocodile both of which have claimed many lives. The latter kills hundreds of people a year though Kelly points out there are 800 million people in Africa – and the hippo kills more. In general, people do not survive a crocodile attack but Val Plumwood survived three of the dreaded death rolls by an Australian freshwater crocodile in 1985. Some accounts of their ferocity have proved to be exaggerations – the tale that nearly a 1000 Japanese soldiers were eaten in Burma during the Second World War in a single night is a wild exaggeration spawned of wartime wishful thinking.
The crocodile is a remarkable animal. It can advance on prey without causing a ripple, and their blood’s unique chemistry enables it to utilise more oxygen from a breath of air than any other animal; it is the only animal that has actively controlled muscular valves in its heart. Its incredible immune system means that even serious gashes heal in a few days due to an antibiotic in their blood called “crocodillin” – currently the object of research to see if we humans can befit from it – hopefully it will not turn our skins scaly. (And just to confuse, crocodiles are often referred to as crocodilians.) Their toughness is legendary. Captain Lort Stokes of the Beagle wrote, “It was not before he had received six balls in the head that he consented to be killed”.
Though the alligator is a much more peaceful beast than the crocodile, attacks have increased because people feed them – they then begin to associate food with human beings and act accordingly. Though reputedly you can keep a crocodile’s jaws shut with a strong rubber band (something I’m not about to test any time soon), it takes an almighty amount of force to open them once they are closed shut.
This is a lovely and well-informed book with inside covers appropriately rendered in a crocodile skin motif plus some startling art illustrations ranging from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary Aborigine showing the crocodile and humans have been acquainted for thousands of years. An excellent gift for reptile lovers – and one that won’t bite.
IN THE NAME OF HONOUR by Mukhtar Mai,Virago, $34.99
Mukhtar Mai’s tale is a harrowing but ultimately heroic one. In the savage world of Pakistan tribal custom in which she was raised, western notions of justice do not figure. In this brutal world, one member of a family can be punished for the crimes of another. Standards of proof are low or difficult to impossible. A woman who is raped, for instance, needs the testimony of four honest Muslim men and, as Mai ironically points out, sometimes – as in her case – the only four such witnesses are the very ones who perpetrated the deed! And what criminal is going to testify against himself?
Mai’s living nightmare began when her younger brother aged but twelve was accused of flirting, then of raping Salma, “a rather wild young woman in her twenties”. His punishment was to be kidnapped, beaten and sodomised – for merely talking! If that were not enough, Mai was abducted and then systematically raped by four men. In her society, it was expected that through feelings of shame, she would commit suicide. Instead, her anger compelled her to live and seek justice. Sometimes “shamed” women are mutilated – their noses cut off – at least Mai was spared this barbarity.
In her rage, Mai contemplated hiring hitmen to kill her attackers or buying a gun herself but in her society women have no money. Instead she chose to seek justice through the legal system. Fortunately, the judge who heard her story was fair, impartial and patient. She describes him as “a distinguished man, very polite, and the first official to call for an extra chair so that I may sit down”. Whenever she became agitated he told her to calm down, take her time, have a sip of water. Thus gradually was her story revealed.
Over and over again, Mai makes the point that the fact she was illiterate made her vulnerable to manipulation. A standard technique was for the police to write the “confession” or statement the way it suited them and for the non-literate woman to affix her thumb print. Obviously the woman in question is not accurately aware of the content of what she is ‘signing’.
Luckily, Mai’s case was taken up by the media and Amnesty International also became aware of it. The course of justice was not smooth. Initially,14 men were arrested, six condemned to death, eight set free. Then five were acquitted. Finally, after the intervention of the Prime Minister, the men were re-arrested together with the originally freed eight. Thus at the conclusion of the book justice appears to have won out – no easy task in her country. Mai ends her book with this plea: “…. the real question my country must ask itself is, if the honour of men lies in women, why do men want to rape or kill that honour?”
LIMERICKS: THE OAKLEY COLLECTION by John Bentley, Polygraphia, $25
John Bentley is already a noted short story writer of witty complex stories deploying a neo-Joycean playfulness with language accompanied by learned footnotes giving his oeuvre a late modernist ambiance. In addition, he is a noted limerickist and this collection has numerous amusing example of the genre.
The limerick is a five-line poem with two recurring rhymes in an aabba formation. Though it has been most famously associated with Edward Lear – who write 212 of them and is known as the poet laureate of the genre – it dates back to ancient Greek times. There are also several examples in the plays of Shakespeare. Other distinguished writers such as Tennyson, Swinburne, Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson have seasoned the mix.
The modern limerick, like the short story invented by Poe, often has a twist or punch in the last line – and bawdy or ribald examples are legion. Many of us have probably heard, over a few pints, bawdy variations of the man from Nantucket. The form allows for play with language, deliberate misspellings, split line typography to achieve unlikely rhymes and so forth.
Bentley’s limericks range far and wide from the local to overseas, with learned references from history, literature and psychology:
“The Magic Flute takes more time that it warrants,”
Said Bruno (the muso and thespian) Lawrence,
Whose company, Blerta
Never performed “Zauberflote”
I believe Freud would explain his abhorrence.
And in more satirical vein:
Said J Hunt, “There’s a current malpractice
To address me, on e-mail or faxes,
In a manner quite sinister,
As a Cabernet minister!
Be assured, when I order a cab, it’s a taxi!”
In naughtier bawdier vein – and more salty examples can be therein located – is this item:
There was an old fellow from Clapham
Had bollocks so low he could trap ’em
By crossing his knees
Though a cough, frat or sneeze,
Or patellar reflex would un-wrap ’em.
In addition, there are a goodly number of paintings and line drawings which add an attractive visual flavour to the combination – Bravo John Bentley!
NEW ZEALAND AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN edited by Stephen Levine, Victoria University Press, $35
This intriguing book is a collection of 14 essays by leading academic historians speculating on alternative pathways for New Zealand history. Normally the zone of fiction writers – consider for example the large number of works on the topic of Germany winning the war – here the new ‘discipline” of counterfactual history is debated and defended. While some historians (though none are named) are not happy with this type of speculation, the historians contributing here have gleefully taken part and cooked up multiple versions of our possible pasts. Time travel by historians instead of fictioneers is a pleasing novelty though at times the ideas might have enjoyed a more dramatic exploration by the latter instead of the former. Still, this is a brave and in the main, successful attempt by customarily fusty academics to plumb alternative futures, or should I say alternative pasts.
As a World World Two freak, I found the alternative of Japan invading New Zealand by leading war historian Ian McGibbon the most adrenalin-raising and the notion of Nelson becoming the capital of New Zealand by editor Stephen Levine the least interesting (sorry Stephen). McGibbon’s exploration has Japan invading Wellington and occupying the central part of the country. As many as 6 atomic bombs instead of the historic two are needed to bring about eventual defeat in 1946.
Giselle Byrnes asks “What if the Treaty of Waitangi had not been signed on 6 February 1840?” and concludes that the most likely outcome is that “the British would have annexed only those areas that British settlers had occupied leaving Maori with their autonomy intact”. A similar speculation – looking at the notion of Maori not being made British subjects in 1840 – leads to the startling conclusion that the wars of the 1860s could have been avoided.
Erik Olssen looks at the possibility that strikers in the 1913 Waihi strike – New Zealand’s largest – succeeded and concludes that New Zealand would have moved more sharply to the Left and the Labour Party would never have been founded in 1916 – tough luck Helen!
Donald Anderson has several startling variations to offer – Churchill killed in the Boer War so no invasion of the Dardanelles, no entry of Turkey into the First World War so no glorious defeat at Gallipoli. And a chapter in a similar vein by Denis McLean has Prime Minister Savage reversing his famous words thus: “Where she goes, we cannot blindly go; where she stands, we do not find cause to stand”. Heresy!
John Wilson suggests that Muldoon Think Big projects may have failed in the late 1970s due to an unexpected drop in oil prices but the current oil crisis may force us to re-examine this philosophy. Other topics covered include speculation over the All Blacks not winning the final test in 1981, Ruth Richardson not delivering the mother of all budgets and Winston Peters not going with Labour in 1996.
To my mind the obvious omission from this collection is What if the Spaniards Had Discovered New Zealand Before the Dutch and the British? The notion has been investigated by several authors including Robert Langdon, Roger Herve, Ross Wiseman and K.L. Howe and many others including my own fictional account in Paradise to Come.
It will be fascinating to see what other professional historians of the non-counterfactual variety make of this collection of essays by their more fearless – or should that be reckless? – colleagues.