It is against the story of late nineteenth-century holocaust and hardship that the main conceit of this novel is set. And just to make sure we understand that there is no mistake in the use of the word holocaust, Ihimaera quotes from a contemporary newspaper the feelings being expressed immediately preceding the attack on the Parihaka township: ‘The time has come, in our minds, when New Zealand must strike for freedom, and this means the death-blow to the Maori race!’ Also quoted is ex-premier Harry Atkinson who was reported as saying at a public meeting that he hoped: ‘if war did come, the natives would be exterminated.’ Following the aftermath of the racist rhetoric through, Ihimaera quotes from the 1996 Waitangi Tribunal Taranaki Report: ‘The graphic muru of most of Taranaki and the raupatu without ending describe the holocaust of Taranaki history and the denigration of the founding peoples in a continuum from 1840 to the present’.
The novel’s structure is based on a libretto Ihimaera wrote, Erenora, which was inspired by German composer Ludwig van Beethoven whose work Fidelio is an opera of aesthetic and political outlook. Fidelio’s narrative of personal sacrifice, heroism and eventual triumph, with its underlying struggle for liberty and justice mirroring contemporary political movements in Europe, perfectly corresponds with the Taranaki story. Some notable moments in the opera include: the ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’, an ode to freedom sung by a chorus of political prisoners; Florestan’s vision of Leonore (the Erenora of Parihaka, who sometimes speaks in German); and the finale, which celebrates Leonore’s bravery with alternating contributions by soloists and chorus. Ihimaera’s novel is divided into six ‘movements’ or ‘acts’: Prologue (Taranaki); Act 1 (Daughter of Parihaka); Act 2 (Village of God); Act 3 (Three Sisters); Act 4 (Horitana); Epilogue (Always the Mountain); and each of these acts in turn is divided into several chapters of varying length.
Neither the characters nor the story are simplistic: they meet bad Māori, such as the one who gets Meri drunk at Ōtaki with the aim of selling her as a sex slave; and this is counterpointed by scenes such as that involving the old Irish couple who befriend and save them from the excesses of drunken and lawless men in Hokitika. There is a Pākehā whose reputation and deeds are so reprehensible he is only known by the Māori name, Piharo, because, as Erenora, states, his ihi (life force) is so dark and sinister. Indeed, the utu (revenge tinged with jealously) exacted on Erenora’s husband, Horitana, by Piharo is of such a diabolic nature that it is shocking but also unique in the annals of our literature, as when when she eventually locates her husband, discovering Horitana in the mokomokai.
Also, fundamental to the background of Ihimaera’s tale is the ‘Pahuatanga’ — or rape — of Parihaka by Government-armed constabulary in November 1881. While the format of the historical novel affords a degree of creative license, there are certain formative elements of a given event which are not open to interpretation, as for instance, calling ‘Fort Rolleston’, the hillock, known to Māori as ‘Te Purepo’, where the cannon trained on Parihaka was sited, ‘Mount Rolleston’ — which is, of course, the name of a Canterbury sheep station. Even more unacceptable is the reference to the ‘meeting house’ of Tohu, a two-storied building named ‘Rangi Kapuia’, as ‘Toroanui’ which was, in fact, the great marae where the same cannon already mentioned on ‘Fort Rolleston’ was aimed at the more than 2500 people sitting in passive resistance.
The Parihaka Woman is an intriguing and significant, if somewhat flawed, work. It tackles an area in our history which has been in recent years bowdlerised and masked by the fact that it is now known primarily as a music and peace festival venue. The horrific events at Parihaka in the late 1870s and early 1880s are brought into focus by this novel, and therefore, it is to be hoped, better understood by a larger audience beyond those in academic and historical circles — a book stall at the Parihaka Peace Festival might be a start.
MICHAEL O’LEARY is a Paekakariki-based poet, novelist, publisher, performer and bookshop proprietor. He holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington.