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ASK THE POSTS OF THE HOUSE
Reed, pbk, $30
At the end of his tenure as Burns Fellow in 1975, Witi Ihimaera decided to cease publication of his work for 10 years, both because he feared his early stories were encouraging an outmoded pastoral stereotype of Maori life and because he did not wish to stand in the way of other Maori writers who might present different visions.
His only publication of the next 10 years was an anthology of the work of other Maori writers.
When the "new Ihimaera" appeared in The Matriarch in 1986, he was a politicised, postcolonial writer presenting an oppositional Maori view of New Zealand society and history.
Postcolonial critics and theorists welcomed him, but this new Ihimaera also refused to be typecast. Instead of producing the promised sequel to The Matriarch, he went off in different directions for the next 10 years, most notoriously in Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1996), his first overtly gay novel.
In more than 10 years, the only predictable quality of his work has been its unpredictability, the appearance of more new Ihimaeras.
The five novellas and two shorter stories of this sixth collection of short fiction present a variety of Ihimaeras, explained in the full authorial notes at the end.
The shorter first and last pieces, first published in volumes 2 and 4 of The Best New Zealand Fiction, are from an ironised version of the postcolonial Ihimaera.
As early as 1999, in his parody of an abstract of a literary conference paper in the anthology Writing Wellington, Ihimaera showed that he could make fun of the language, dogmatism, and pretentiousness of a variety of critical-theoretical approaches, including the postcolonial.
In these two stories, I've Been Thinking About You, Sister and Meeting Elizabeth Costello, he employs a humorous double-edged irony (using in the first story a narrator who claims his friends "bemoan the fact that I don't have an ironic bone in my body") both to make his postcolonial point and to satirise the approach.
On the other hand.
Medicine Woman, a story salvaged from an unproduced television script, takes its postcolonial vision straight, with its moving portrait of Paraiti, a traditional Maori healer faced with a dilemma that shows how Pakeha "civilisation" has "infiltrated and invaded the moral world that [she] has always tried to protect".
Similarly, the title story is not at all humorous as, in the vein of The Matriarch, it reveals the disastrous results of a whanau disguising and rationalising abusive incest.
It is a story that Ihimaera says he could write only when he could distance its biographical origins, partly through the invention of a fictionalised narrator.
Other Ihimaeras appear in other stories.
In the Year of Prince Harry, with its gay narrator, an English-born classical violinist, shows comically (and at the end farcically) how it is possible to turn 49 and still be happy in the youth-worshipping gay world.
The other two novellas, Ihipi and Dead of Night, show how Ihimaera could operate within popular European genres and yet write fictions "embedded with a Maori kupapa and [his] constant environmental concerns".
Ihipi is a mythic fantasy, drawn from the notes for an unwritten play that had been intended to "have about it the resonance of Maori myth".
The "myth" is invented, a kind of pastiche of bits of Oedipus, the Fisher King and the Waste Land, Tolkien-ish battles, etc.
It is competently done, with nice narrative use of a double time-scheme and a complex point of view, but for this reader, at least, it lacks the desired resonance.
Dead of Night was written for the literature and science anthology Are Angels OK?, and is an exercise in serious science fiction dealing with the possible implications of the space-time continuum in relation to the Maori concept of Te Kore, the Void.
It is an ambitious but not entirely successful story, as it falls into some of the traps of its genre - stereotyped characters, wooden explanatory dialogue, scientific and technological terminology used like brand names in a James Bond novel.
Ihimaera's constant questing, his refusal to be typecast, has led him to some unsuccessful narrative experiments, but it has also led him to some fine accomplishments that we might not have anticipated.
This volume is of interest to anyone interested in following his protean imagination, and the best of the stories are good indeed. - Lawrence Jones
- Lawrence Jones is emeritus professor of English at Otago University.