Maoriness: reply to C. K. Stead’s letter in the London Review of Books

Maoriness

SIR: Why is Karl Stead so narked by The Bone People? His letter (Letters, 5 December 1985) reads strangely from this side of the world, where many, perhaps most, reviews of Keri Hulme’s novel have been unenthusiastic. The story of its publishing history has, of course, raised interest, and several reviewers have hinted that the book’s reputation rests on extra-literary factors. Private Eye offered the most reductive account of this kind. Stead’s letter is a subtler, sometimes contradictory version of this response. He seems to imply that some of the book’s success lies in its ‘fashionable’ association with feminism and ‘Maori-ism’. Feminism, he then concedes, is hardly an issue. The only obvious sense in which The Bone People is feminist is that it has a strong, active heroine. This, however, would also make Pride and Prejudice a feminist novel. In fact, The Bone People is conspicuously empty of women. Its ‘Maoriness’, however, is central. Stead describes one distinctively Maori section late in the novel as ‘spurious’, and more generally seems to imply there is something opportunist in its use of Maori elements. This is neither fair nor accurate. New Zealand is a mixed society, Maori and European. Keri Hulme has written a novel in which one of the central characters is mainly Maori but part-European, a second is mainly European but part-Maori, and the third, the child Simon, is a strange kind of European immigrant. This configuration is used to explore tensions in New Zealand’s mixed, and mixed-up culture. There can obviously be disagreement as to whether or not Joe’s rescue and redemption by the Kaumatua works. But the Maori-European theme is neither spurious nor opportunist. It is very serious, and toughly presented. There is no idealisation of the central Maori character. Joe Gillayley is responsible for repeated violence and the eventual maiming of the European child. One could imagine a hostile Maori reaction to this depiction.

Stead’s long account of the Pegasus award is puzzling. Most readers in this country will never have heard of this award let alone know that Keri Hulme has won it. I can only assume, given the timing of Stead’s letter, that it is offered as an analogy: for Pegasus, read Booker. Perhaps ‘affirmative action’ has been at work again – such hints have been made in this country. Literary prizes are aunt sallies. They are barely respectable, and the wrong work is always selected. Many regard the Booker Prize as a confirmation of mediocrity. Anthony Burgess remarked recently that John Fowles’s latest novel, A Maggot, was too good to be on the Booker shortlist, and Fowles had already asked his publisher not to enter it. Prizes do, however, bring contemporary writing to public notice. The success of The Bone People has contributed to the growing awareness of contemporary New Zealand writing in Britain. Janet Frame is belatedly being discovered. New Zealand poetry is regularly, if uninformedly, reviewed in the TLS. Karl Stead’s last novel was reviewed in the Guardian. This ‘affirmative action’ should be welcomed by all New Zealand writers.

I described Stead’s letter as contradictory because, having suggested there is something meretricious about the novel’s success, he then offers an interesting, often sympathetic reading, pointing, for example, to its careful patterning, something most reviews I’ve seen have missed. But then, in his final paragraph, he buries the novel. There is ‘something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric’, and this is because it ‘presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it’. Understanding is one thing and sympathy another. I learnt something about the intertwining of love and violence from this novel, but it certainly did not make me come to love violence. For all its violence, I find something hopeful, even pacific, ingrained in its imaginative fabric, and this seems to me a measure of its extraordinary power. There is a lot ‘wrong’ with The Bone People, as analysis of the kind Stead performs in the middle sections of his letter can show, but in the end this hardly seems to matter. I’m fascinated by the way that, for me, its flaws make no difference to its overall effect. I can think of very few novels of which this is true. Perhaps it is here, rather than with paranoia about its feminist and Maori credentials, that serious discussion of The Bone People should continue.

Rod Edmond
University of Kent, Canterbury

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