Easy history lesson from Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera's latest is an accessible, one-dimensional yarn.
Witi Ihimaera's latest is an accessible, one-dimensional yarn.

The right level for younger readers new to the subject, writes Nicholas Reid.

It's always good to ask what age group a novel is intended for. I read The Parihaka Woman assuming it was meant for grown-ups.

I was preparing to write a harsh account of its many shortcomings when I took the trouble to look up a number of online booksellers' catalogues. I found they classified it as a book for "Young Adults" or "over-15s". This puts quite a different complexion on it. As a novel for adults, The Parihaka Woman doesn't cut it. As a yarn for schoolkids, it might be just the ticket.

<i>The Parihaka Woman</i>, Witi Ihimaera, Vintage/ Random House, $38.99
<i>The Parihaka Woman</i>, Witi Ihimaera, Vintage/ Random House, $38.99

Witi Ihimaera's latest is a heavily fictionalised version of the Parihaka affair and its aftermath. This time Ihimaera won't be accused of plagiarism, as happened in the stoush he had over his last effort, The Trowenna Sea. His fairly clumsy and obvious device is to have an amateur historian as his main narrator. This guy has read all the relevant books about government-sponsored seizure of Maori land in Taranaki in the late 19th century, and Te Whiti's campaign of passive resistance.

Every so often, therefore, the narrator is able to say something like "as Rachel Buchanan has splendidly put it" or "this is how James Cowan describes the scene" or "Michael King has said" and we then get some paragraph lifted verbatim from the appropriate text. There are footnotes, and 14 pages of notes and references at the end. I'm sure Ihimaera's new publishers have gone over it with a fine-toothed comb.

No plagiarism, then, but the effect is still of mugged-up History Lite, perhaps designed to appeal to those who can't cope with the more grown-up and detailed history books that have been plundered.

Ihimaera's other device is to graft on to the historical story of Parihaka an entirely fictitious story. In this case, the fictitious plot is borrowed from Beethoven's opera Fidelio, and that raises a lot of questions.

The opera told of the strong-willed wife Leonore who disguised herself as a man to free her husband, the political prisoner Florestan, from the clutches of the evil prison governor Pizarro. Ihimaera has the strong-willed Parihaka woman Erenora (Leonore) disguising herself as a man and travelling to Dunedin to rescue her warrior husband Horitana (Florestan) from the evil scar-faced Pakeha whom the Maori call Piharo (Pizarro). In his endnotes Ihimaera points out all the plot parallels just in case we missed them. The different parts of the book are called Act One, Act Two, Act Three etc.

OK, I already knew that prisoners taken at Parihaka were sent south and treated abominably. But what was the point of grafting this piece of European high culture on to an essentially Maori story? Was it an attempt to prove the novel's own high-culture credentials? Or was it meant to provide a melodramatic framework because Ihimaera had failed to engage imaginatively with the real past age he was supposedly writing about?

As so often in this writer's work, the dialogue is uncomfortably self-expository. Modern-day opinions are placed in the mouths of characters from long ago. Much of the story supposedly comes from Erenora's diary, and she neatly says all the things a modern liberal would want her to say, often in very improbable language. The real curse of this sort of novel is that it leaves readers with the impression that all "good" people in past ages thought just the way we do. It doesn't imaginatively illuminate the past. It throttles the past in readymade second-hand judgements.

And then I remember that it's meant for the "over 15s".

For high school teachers looking for an accessible text, it probably ticks all the boxes. It has the girls-can-do-anything theme of Erenora's journey. It tells a reasonably good yarn. Its characters are clear-cut, one-dimensional goodies and baddies. It gives an easy history lesson. And, if this history is entirely new to the kids, they probably won't notice that Witi Ihimaera doesn't offer the ghost of an original insight about it.

Sunday Star Times