Michael Morrissey: Books

THE LOST PILOT: A Memoir by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Penguin, $40.00

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman – impressive moniker, isn’t it? – is hardly a household name. But then, in the main, he has been a poet. And even though he has seven books to his credit, poets seldom cut much ice with the general public except of course that wonderful troubadour Sam Hunt whose shaggy haircut only adds charm to his gravelly voice. I have thus far only read one of Holman’s books of poetry – Autumn Waiata – but it prompts me to seek out further volumes.

Incidentally, the publisher of Waiata is Cold Hub Press run by Roger Hicken. In three short years, it has virtually become the leading New Zealand poetry publisher leaving behind the moribund play-it-safe Auckland University Press and the Manhire-Barrowman Victoria University clique who do publish many fine works yet their authors often lack grandeur and are somewhat infatuated with their oh-so-clever miniature literary canvases that challenge the mind but leave the heart cold. (I better come clean with my bias – I am one of the poets published by Cold Hub.)

This memoir is one of the very best to be published in this country. It makes nearly all other memoirs published here seem (perhaps) a trifle shallow and rendered with less poignancy. Then there is Holman’s magnificent heartfelt style, which is at turns supple, sensitive, intelligent and moving. And the book is gloriously designed. In fact, I’m going to happily go out on a limb and say it may well be the very best-designed New Zealand book ever. The cover shows a greener than normal sky shading into a smoky red ocean broken by a plume of smoke where a crashed kamikaze pilot has just missed the warship on which Paparoa’s father was crewing. The red ocean is surely symbolic of the blood of the lost sailors’ lives.

Holman’s book begins in the most heart-wrenching way. Holman’s dying father – just 50, yet cancer already has him in its cruel relentless grip – declares with a sob, “My life’s been such a bloody waste!” “No Dad,” his son consoles, “no it hasn’t.” Who cannot be moved by such a simple confessional moment? Instead of father consoling son, it is son who consoles father. Then Holman reveals his father’s many faults – he was discharged from the Navy for dishonesty; he had a drinking and gambling problem and yet … Holman makes us feel that all is forgiven. In that old yet true cliche, loves conquers all.

But if your heart strings haven’t been plucked enough already wait until Paparoa starts on the life of the kamikaze pilot who nearly took his father’s life. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, after this book is read, there won’t be a dry eye in the house. What could be more moving than the photograph on p 251 (near the book’s end), when Holman warmly shakes hands with Yoshiaki Nishida, younger brother of Hisashi Nishida, who died in the failed attack on the ship Illustrious in April 1945? The small sombre black and white photographs are in keeping with the tone of the narrative. Some of the young Japanese pilots were not the mindlessly dedicated fanatics that they appeared to be. Others thought the Emperor should have ended the war sooner.

War makes bitter enemies, but on occasion it makes unexpected friends. I cannot recommend this book too highly. I will be surprised if it doesn’t find an award in the fullness of time.

 

INFERNO by Dan Brown, Bantam Press, $49.99

In 2003, I witnessed a phenomenon never observed either before or since. On buses, in parks, on trains, on aeroplanes, on beaches, at bus stops, (and possibly in toilets) people were all reading the same book: The Da Vinci Code. In New Zealand, this wretchedly written novel with its purloined and inaccurate notion that Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ had children, sold 250,000 copies. This is roughly equivalent to sales of 20 million in the United States. The subsequent two thrillers, The Lost Symbol and the current Inferno along with the earlier The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons have all starred Harvard symbologist Professor Robert Langdon. Compared to the infinitely more vivid James Bond, the Harvard “detective” seems curiously two dimensional. Nonetheless, Brown must be given credit for inventing a new popular genre – one that involves a secret code or potent object which, if let loose on the world, will bring about the destruction of civilisation. Thus the hidden code/ object/secret becomes the equivalent of a nuclear war, black plague, AIDS etc. Personally, I think the world is made of tougher stuff than Brown’s plots give it credit for. But that’s what thrillers do, imperil our sense of safety, only to provide salvation when all seems lost.

This time it’s the burgeoning world population that is the menace – a proposition that’s hard to deny. Malthus raised the spectre of excessive population back in the late eighteenth century before the world population had even reached its first billion. Now it’s a hulking seven billion and calculated to reach nine billion by 2050 with China and India contributing a third of the total. How can we cope? Either pessimistically by having a series of nuclear wars (one might be enough) or a plague spawned of some new virus to help thin the numbers. An optimistic view might be that science will find new forms of energy or ways to grow food crops more efficiently than seems currently imaginable. Shrinking the population to the size of ants would be a good start.

Bertrand Zobrist is the bad guy – or is he the good guy? – who is deeply troubled by the planets’ teeming billions and intends to do something about it. Just what exactly would be major plot spoiler but let me hint that it doesn’t involve violence or catastrophe.

As is usual in a Brownian thriller, the hero and heroine are constantly moving from city to city and country to country in a way that never seems to quite make sense but keeps the action dynamic. Florence, Venice, and Istanbul all swirl by, each one given a full if somewhat gauche tourist treatment. Let’s take Florence. Now I have visited Florence and the famed Uffizi gallery but until now (thank you, Dan) I didn’t know it was part of a much longer corridor in which the intrepid Langdon finds a place to hide. Time for Tom Hanks to reprise his role in Angels & Demons?

One could almost call this book a novel of ideas but Brown does not have the felicity of style  or depth of intellect of (say) Aldous Huxley or even John Fowles. Like Irving Wallace (shudder), Brown’s speciality is the one line paragraph rendered in italics  – a device that is apparently guaranteed to make the reader’s pulse rise. An editor might well have blue-pencilled out the theatrical first chapter which reads like a series of comic book captions, sans the cartoons. As for the secret pocket in Langdon’s suit – as Eddie Murphy used to say – give me a break. This went out with John Buchan.

Of course, there is the heavily themed presence of Dante – Dante’s inferno – get it? The secret society of the Priory of Sion in The Da Vinci Code is here replaced by the Consortium (name changed to protect the conspirators!) and the Da Vinci painting of the last supper is replaced by the death mask of Dante. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, all the art works referred to are real!

By now, Brown must be the second richest writer in history – second only to J.K. Rowling (who by the way is a much better writer). I think it’s time Dan dragged the Illuminati kicking and screaming into the plot. My fee for this suggestion is a very modest ten per cent of the handsome profits. Gosh darn it, Brown has already thought of the notion. How about a flying saucer buried under Rangitoto by Nazis? The inscriptions on the Tamil Bell contain the clues … Yet once you choke down Brown’s execrable style, suspend disbelief in the preposterous plots, there’s always the thrill of the chase. Langdon alas, is a wooden fellow compared to 007. Compared to Brown, Ian Fleming is Graham Greene on steroids. Such is Brown’s pervasiveness that his new genre has spawned a flurry of imitators who write books with titles like The Atlantis Code, The Lucifer Code, The Oracle Code etc etc. It seems the world has gone conspiracy mad and a few authors whose prose is as purple as a bishop’s mitre can hee-haw all the way to the bank.

 

THE KEEPER OF SECRETS by Julie Thomas, William Morrow, $24.95

The current success of Julie Thomas’s first novel is both inspiring and daunting. A “self made” woman, she used to be an advertising copywriter for numerous radio and television media but found the time each morning (4am to 8 am) to write this harrowing war time tale of a missing Guarneri del Gesu 1742 violin. Before we look at the novel, it is appropriate to reflect on Thomas’s early ill health and note her elaborate and resolute self-marketing campaign. She had a heart condition as a child that made any physical exertion to cause her to turn blue. The famous surgeon Dr Barratt-Boyes successfully operated on her in a pioneering open surgery, opening up the possibility for a more active life. Her early immobility was enriched by her mother reading to her.

This is a confidently and tightly written novel centering on a missing musical instrument during the war years. It is a far cry from the usual women’s historical fiction which tends to have a lighter more romantic flavour. Though there is a New Zealand chapter, the major part of the book is set in Europe during World War Two. The book is highly readable. In fact, one could say too readable as most of the chapters are just a few pages long. For this reviewer, the shortness of the chapters and the snappy time jumps made it resemble a film script rather than a novel – though a novel it most certainly is. It would have been an even richer experience if it had been twice as long. Perhaps then, it is geared to today’s notoriously short attention span market where everyone is supposedly becoming blog-capable only and unlikely to read anything much longer.

One of the most moving sequences is when a Nazi officer, a second lieutenant at Dachau Camp in 1941, is so taken with Simon Horowitz playing Vivaldi he treats him with relative kindness, providing extra food for him and his father. Echoes of Sophie’s choice perhaps? It both humanises the brutal face of the Nazis and the horror of the death camps. The German officer is compelled to play a double game – he must appear brutal to all Jews when observed by other German officers or he will face severe penalties, while, in private, he displays a surprising degree of softness to the Jewish violinist. How doth music soothe the savage beast! This scene in particular, and the book as a whole, has potential movie written large upon its pages. The Jewish-Nazi scenes have an authentic yet perhaps overly familiar ring. The charm of violin music, though perhaps dangerously close to sentimentality, nevertheless makes for poignant reading. Indeed, though Thomas is not herself Jewish, the book went to the top of the Jewish reading list – no mean feat.

This novel lacks the more final authority of The Conductor by Sarah Quigley. In Quigley’s sombre and excellent novel, the famous composer Dmitri Shostakovitch is a central figure but makes no more than a passing appearance in Thomas’s novel – though this is no criticism.

Thomas has researched her book well – for instance, she alludes to the “night witches” of the 586th Fighter Regiment. These brave Soviet women flew small wooden planes over enemy lines, shut off the engines and dropped small bombs by hand on the Germans. Authentic and moving as Quigley’s The Conductor and Thomas’s The Keeper of Secrets are, they pale into insignificance alongside that massive 900-page masterpiece The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, the greatest novel ever likely to be written about the vast and tragic tableau of World War Two.

 

IN THE MEMORIAL ROOM by Janet Frame, Text Publishing, $35

It is commonly stated that Janet Frame is our greatest author. Possibly, she is. On the other hand, she may be second in rank to Allen Curnow, our greatest poet. In the 1970s, C.K. Stead wanted to nominate Curnow as a possible Nobel Prize candidate but the majority of PEN (now the Society of Authors), opted for Frame. Stead reluctantly swung into line but nonetheless wrote a warm letter of support. Though Frame was reportedly short-listed more than once, she never won the world’s most prestigious literary prize. In my view, shared by Karl Stead, Curnow was the stronger candidate. Hence, by backing Frame rather than Curnow, we lost our only chance to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Michael Hulse, a prominent English critic, believed that Curnow was the greatest poet writing in English in the world. It’s a breathtaking claim when you think about it. There is no writer in Curnow’s class today. Lloyd Jones is our only (future) hope.

Initially, I mistakenly thought In The Memorial Room was a “new” Frame manuscript discovered in her papers but in fact it is an “old” Frame, written in the 70s, and deliberately kept under wraps until now. The first thing that strikes you is that the customary baroque, highly wrought poetic style that is the Frame trademark has been dropped for a spare more direct mode. Though it may sound like sacrilege, I found it quite refreshing compared to her normal almost overwrought milieu which could lead to a charge of the literary crime of “fine writing”. The more recent work of Richard Ford (as compared to his earlier gritty “dirty realism” style), plus Rick Moody and John Hawkes (say) are comparable examples of writers who strain too hard for beauty of style and convoluted syntax as though they were trying to top Henry James.

The Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship at Menton in the south of France is clearly a satiric reverberation of the real Menton Fellowship and the fictional poet Margaret Rose Hundell is a distant echo of the real Katherine Mansfield. And, as the novel informs us, the room is a grim little place lacking in creature comforts with scant facilities – no water, no electricity. In the 70s, I heard rumours of domestic culture shock when writers arrived – no welcome, (even no key!) and forced to find accommodation elsewhere. Not to be deterred, poet David Mitchell apparently bunked down on the floor in the interests of economy.

Poor (fictional) Harry Gill, a medium weight historical novelist, and a mere youth of 33, is not quite sure why he applied for the Fellowship. I can think of several good reasons Harry – a generous allowance, the exoticism of living in the south of France, and plenty of time to write. Doesn’t sound that bad to this perpetually poor scribe. But Harry seems to suffer from low self esteem rather than the necessary arrogance of imagining one’s self a genius, a necessary illusion to give creativity the required takeoff.

Menton is viewed as being ruined by developers – this was the 70s remember? – so what must it be like by now? Harry begins to lose his hearing and that’s a cruel thing for a writer if you like to catch dialogue fresh from the lips of potential characters. And one gathers that Harry’s deafness is a possible symbol of sorts for Frame’s own mental infirmity. In the end, Frame survived the austerity of Menton and the 70s in a way that her protagonist Harry Gill did not. This is a minor rather than an ambitious novel but its charm lies in its directness and unpretentious lucidity.

 

THE SEA ON OUR SKIN by Madeleine Tobert, Two Roads, $36.99

If the title doesn’t hint clearly enough, the garishly candy-coloured cover, which looks like a failed Christmas card, reinforces the obvious: this is a novel set in the tropics specifically, I presume (though this is never stated) Samoa.

This is a sad yet haunting story of a totally romanceless marriage between Ioane Matete and Amalia Hoko. The beginning of the novel hints at emotional grimness – Amalia was not expected to marry because she had no father, brother or uncle to give her away. The day of the wedding there is a terrible storm and the bride is worried that the bad weather will bring bad luck, that her makeup will run and streak her face, that her white dress, rendered transparent by the rain, will prove an indecent garment.

The wedding and wedding night turn out to be virtual non events. Amalia wakes up alone, sore between her legs. Of her husband there is no sign – he has taken his boat and departed. Amalia discovers that this one night of intimacy has resulted in her being pregnant. For many years after, she lives the life of a single parent. If that isn’t bad enough, when her husband eventually returns, he seeks to teach his son to be like his father – restless, never home. The central character, somehow not a heroine (though she is really), bears her unhappy fate with philosophic calm. There are of course no counsellors or well meaning but often ineffective agencies to help out.

In the end this is a story of quiet courage, of stoic endurance, of acceptance that life can be a hard row to hoe and yet we must keep planting, we must not allow the ground to remain barren, we must not give in to despair, depression or suicide. Amalia Matete’s story is not a fairy book tale, nor a contemporary moral parable of feminist triumph but a tale of human endurance. In fact, before the novel is half way through, Amalia has quietly died and her cold husband has some more life to lead before he too, dies. Though Ioane is cold, callous and violent, he too has values and feels a surprising affection for the twins that Amalia has given birth to after their son.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and in the case of The Sea on our Skin, this is distressingly so – while the cover presents the tropics as a brightly coloured paradise, the book explores joyless lives dominated by emotional hardness. The moral of the story might be we do not need tyrannical governments or sadistic secret police to oppress us or show us how to be cruel – we can manage all by ourselves. The simple ending sentence – “And the family prepared lunch”, affirms that family and food are two positives that endure.

 

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