Rangatira,by Paula Morris (Penguin, Auckland, 2011) 296 pp., $30.00
The title of Rangatira, or Chief, has such grand connotations that I expected a magnificent tale, and in many ways this novel satisfied that expectation. Ngati Wai Rangatira Paratene Te Manu mulls his past over while he sits for the painting of his portrait by the artist, Lindauer. The painter’s planned trip to England has jogged the chief’s prodigious memory. Elderly Paratene appears calm, but twenty years before, with fourteen northern rangatira he travelled to England, and their trials were many. We learn Paratene prefers quiet reflection to excessive socialising, or to arguments at the Native Land Court where proceedings have dragged on.
Difficult events pile up against each other; strange juxtapositions occur. I empathised, wanted to somehow make things easier. The ridiculous get-up Paratene describes having to put on when a studio photographer prepares to take the Maori chief’s photograph serves to illustrate general misunderstandings between cultures. Then dubious agreements and arguments intrude in other ways: events go awry or are badly played out. The trials and tribulations experienced in England made me gasp: so many grubby and devious situations upset matters and offend against good manners and decency, let alone diplomacy and protocol, while these Maori are supposed to be honoured guests.
At one stage I was so pleased with the long overdue kind reception these beleaguered rangatira finally receive (I won’t outline it here, since it’s better for prospective readers to experience the surprise for themselves) that I burst into tears. Rare for writing to evoke such a spontaneous, emotional response. With some books, it’s possible for readers to get half-way through, and then start correctly deducing what’s about to happen and accurately guessing the plot, but Rangatira is always engaging and dynamic, providing a lively experience with fine exposition and a varied pace, including unexpected turns of event. Strongly defined Maori characters appear amid vivid imagery and develop intriguing yet believable relationships. Later, they find England and its customs peculiar in ways that I can understand. Adventurers, they sail uncomfortably for months to a place they barely know, which they then painstakingly tour.
An entrepreneur, Mister Jenkins, a New Zealand Wesleyan, organises a party of Maori dignitaries to travel to England ostensibly to see: ‘riches and wonders … and learn their language’, while also showing English folk embodiments of Maoritanga. Although the cover blurb makes him sound unpromising, in the event Jenkins convinces you that he could make a fair attempt at such an ambitious journey. He’s a cabinet-maker, upholsterer and native interpreter possessed of intelligence and business skills. Paratene mentions Jenkins’s white ‘collar’, and so presumes he is a clergyman, and as Jenkins knows the Maori language, the chief draws the conclusion that this Christian will treat them properly. But rangatira struggle to understand so much. Jenkins is subtly drawn with many human failings.
Eventually Paratene Te Manu figures out the entrepreneur’s character. His shrewd assessment is partly kind, but it also reveals Paratene’s somewhat cutting nature, a natural asperity following on from steady curiosity. He writes in his journal, always looking for meaning, and in this way Paula Morris ensures Paratene truly lives, through the triumph of her prose style.
Formal language helped me to believe in the story, even if I also initially found it somewhat stretched the bounds of credulity that a rangatira who travelled to England without their language as an adult, could later write so excellently. But people who learn a second language often do so in a classroom and tend to be formal (I decided) and Morris’ writing is always coherent, providing a singular definite voice for her ancestor. Expert storytelling suspended my disbelief. Morris did detailed research and her extraordinary imagination exercises itself with intelligence. As it turns out, there’s a plausible explanation of Paratene’s language skill; then more is revealed in notes, a fascinating addition. I liked the tension in any case — my readerly involvement that had me questioning the image-packed sentences, as if Paratene Te Manu really wrote them, even though I knew it was a novel.
Imagery appears apt, original; sometimes repulsive or puzzling: ‘He insisted I wear a peacock feather tucked behind one ear. He stuck it there himself and his fingers were as greasy as his hair.’ Thus, an imposing photographer, caught out in his ignorance. Then, Paratene’s description of early Auckland — ‘(I)t rained, the track along the stream turned into a bog, and to climb it was to walk in treacle. We used to laugh at them, those Pakeha, trying to turn press their town into the soggy hill ….’ — has Morris exactly catching the character’s eye for absurdities.
Her writing has an assured flow to its contingency, with action, people, vistas, everything, linked beautifully. In Marlborough House, in England: ‘Thinking himself unobserved, Hapimana stroked the white marble of one fireplace. Cows … perfect …. They looked as though they were carved from milk.’
A sense of a broad experience of the world emerges. Rangatira really did travel. They saw, smelled, and no doubt felt repulsed by the squalor of poorer parts of London, but later visited the Queen and her children in their opulent surroundings, too. Paratene also surely recalled the pleasures of his iwi’s island, Hauturu (Little Barrier), while he shivered in a dreary English winter. Superstitions and cultural beliefs appear enmeshed: ‘the wind deserted us, and we bobbed in the ocean, sails limp. The women in our party had wondered if Haumu’s fear of the storms was causing her misery, but these long days of stillness did nothing to help her.’ One woman on board loses her mind. Later, rangatira offer gifts to dignitaries according to ancient custom, but some dislike wearing cloaks or performing haka, for various reasons. Misunderstandings overlap: people presume and assume causing confusion and disagreement,while many embark on remarkable adventures and projects, with varied success.
Arguments amongst the travellers result from their own changing sense of the world, such as moving from traditional tangata whenua beliefs to Christianity. Temptations, symbolised by the ready availability of alcohol, lead a few astray. Others remain dignified. A rival performing group displays what new lows could affect Maori, too. Culture shock (even if the term was not known then) is illustrated with care; every individual responds differently. Important tangata whenua were persuaded to travel in such precarious conditions, supposedly on a grand trip, only to find themselves paraded like a freakish sideshow. Their alarming story also chimes with the sad truth that many people in England, too, were exploited.
All societies inevitably change, of course, and new processes can provide better living conditions. The predominant tone of this book is vitality: people search for sense and stability, new influences bewilder, impress and amaze them.
Morris has travelled into the past, sought to understand an ancestor’s viewpoint, and then unfolded a diverse narrative in that same original spirit of adventure. Maori and British culture appear together, contrasted. Ridgeway befriends the Maori party, explaining to them that their words during public engagements are not what Jenkins, the showman then translates for the audience. Meanwhile, ‘(t)he English do not cry in a public place …’ Paratene mentions, when Rangatira are moved to meet a Maori lad living in England, without his people, but ‘Maori like more of a carry-on …’. Personal preference, then, is also influenced by culture.
A taxidermied crocodile bothers Paratene: ‘if I were an English person, I would not keep such a creature in my museum. I would burn it, or have it cut into pieces.’ Paratene wonders if Hapimana’s troubles started that day, since the other rangatira shows no fear of the animal (which was like a taniwha). Instead, Hapimana behaves as if the reptile was a joke.
The book’s striking cover painting becomes more poignant when we learn from Paratene Te Manu what Lindauer omitted. Double pages for chapter headings are illustrated with English flower engravings and quotes from the Bible. Christian and English influences predominate, but Maoritanga asserts itself anyway. Religious rules are designed to keep people from different circumstances on an even keel, productive and settled, and the English were strategic in how they focused the attention of missionaries and religion. Tangata whenua were also canny, many adapted and used what they thought best from both cultures in trade, communication and everyday life, after colonisation. They found many uses for fresh knowledge. Important to remember, for instance, many Maori flourished with businesses they owned until ownership was made illegal by colonisers. Such facts are alluded to throughout this sometimes terrifying novel, which sustains the memoir quality, the sense of a tale weaving back and forth, with the detailing someone might recall if they really were being painted for posterity over days. And Paratene’s given to musing on life and people, anyway. His story succeeded in keeping me spellbound, desperate to know more. This latest historical novel by Paula Morris, whose complex and reserved central character is apparently based on an ancestor of the novelist, is highly recommended.
RAEWYN ALEXANDER writes novels, poetry, plays, stories and non-fiction. She lives in Auckland’s inner west, and tutors in creative writing at her local Community College.