Monday, July 22, 2019

Islomanes (2): Elizabeth Knox's 'Southland'

Elizabeth Knox: Southland (2013)

Southland is a landmass without a native people, so there are not songs or legends for us to consult.
- Dr Michael King, A History of Southland (1904)

Elizabeth Knox's imaginary country of 'Southland', the setting for her two Dreamhunter novels and their sequel Mortal Fire, continues to fascinate me.

On the one hand, it's clearly New Zealand - albeit a New Zealand through the looking-glass, a Mirror City version of the rather less tidy set of islands we actually inhabit.

On the other hand, there are several vital differences in this alternative history version of our country.

The first one is mentioned above. The extracts from Dr King's imaginary history of this 'landmass', quoted from Knox's novel Dreamhunter (2005) - incidentally, note the symmetry between the 1905 the story is set in, and the 2005 of the novel itself - mentions 'the arrival of the first settlers nearly two hundred and fifty years ago."

In other words, the late eighteen, early nineteenth century of the real settlement of New Zealand, has been moved back to 1650 or so - back to the approximate time of Abel Tasman's drive-by in 1642, in fact. What if New Zealand hadn't already been settled by 'a native people' with their own 'songs or legends to consult'? What if Tasman had gone ashore, established 'a fort and a river port'? Perhaps a town called Founderston would have been the result ...

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter (2005)

The second major difference between 'us' and 'them' is described as follows in Dr. King's history:
Excerpts from 'The Invisible Road', a chapter from Dr Michael King's A History of Southland (1904):
It is difficult to convey to anyone beyond our shores the extraordinary influence of dreamhunting on the life and culture of Southland. Since the arrival of the first settlers nearly two hundred and fifty years ago much has been made of the tyranny of distance, the fifteen hundred sea miles between ourselves and our nearest neighbour, and five thousand between us and the great centres of civilisation. Ours is a productive but isolated country. Southland can export wool and leather, but not meat or milk; wine, but not fruit; grain and linen, steel, tools and machinery - but not dreams. Dreams are a highly perishable commodity and are yet to be sent offshore. [73]
The real Michael King had, alas, died in a car crash before these words were published. His immensely successful Penguin History of New Zealand (2003), which clearly inspired this mirror history, is written in much the same bland yet authoritative style.

Interestingly, in this version of history refrigeration appears to have not yet been trialled. In reality, of course, the first cargo of refrigerated meat left New Zealand for Britain in 1882.

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamquake (2007)

So what exactly are these dreams King makes so much of? Their use and abuse is the main subject of Knox's fascinating story. They are found in a part of the country called 'the place', which can only be entered by certain people with a hereditary disposition. Of these, only a few can catch the dreams which are localised in certain parts of the realm. Here's a map of 'the place' from the endpapers of Dreamhunter:

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter (2005)

Note the dots with strange names beside them: these are the resident dreams to be found there by those gifted enough to retain them, and then redream them for the public in specially constructed dream palaces.

And here's the section of the country, in the very North (looking a bit like Farewell Spit in Golden Bay) where the almost illimitable 'place' can be found:

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamquake (2007)

If we try to narrow in on precisely what dreams are - or rather what they are like - the following conversation between Rose Tiebold (one of the two adolescent girl protagonists) and her father Chorley may give us some clues:
'Mother can catch horned whales, a dream of horned whales. Dreams have sound and sensations, colours and tastes. Films don't.'
'So you think films are only a novelty?' Chorley asked his daughter.
'No - but they're for recording facts. They can't do fiction, like dreams can.'
'Has anyone been able to establish that dreams are fiction rather than fact? They may all be true. They might be like a mirage - a strange image of a distant place, some spot in the world very like here. No one knows what they really are.' [71]
Is it too much of a stretch to see this conversation as referring to fiction - and creative writing in general - under the guise of these metaphorical dreams? There's a reference later on, in Dreamquake (2007), the sequel to Dreamcatcher, to certain distinctions between dreamers:
Jerome Tilley, one of the rare Novelists (as those who caught split dreams [dreams from more than one point of view] were called) [379]
As well as this, there are 'Gifters' - those 'who can take [their] own memories of real people's faces and manners, and graft them onto the characters in the dreams [they've caught]' [354]; 'Soporifs', who can 'enhance the effects of anaesthetics' [285]; and the illegal 'Colourists,' who can insert little extra ideas, such as the desirability of retaining certain officials past their allotted term, into the edges of someone else's dream narrative.

Elizabeth Knox: The Dreamhunter Duet (2005-7)

Elizabeth Knox's inaugural Margaret Mahy Lecture in 2014 was entitled "An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms" (presumably a reference to Marianne Moore's famous poem Poetry and its "imaginary gardens with real toads in them'). In both cases the emphasis seems to be both on the close interconnectedness of the 'unreal' worlds of the imagination and the 'real' world of experience.

Or, as W. B. Yeats put it, even more trenchantly: 'In dreams begin responsibilties.' You are responsible for the products of your imagination. 'Did that play of mine send out / certain men the English shot?' as he demanded of himself in one of his very last poems, 'The Man and the Echo' (1938).

In other words, did his early play Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), with its striking final image of the bent old beggar woman suddenly straightening up into the magnificent young nationalist firebrand Maud Gonne - the very embodiment of Ireland herself - provide an important motive for at least some of those killed in the tragic Easter Rising of 1916? It's a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but not - given the sheer incantatory power of his imagination - an unreasonable one.

Does Elizabeth Knox see herself as a mythmaker on that level? A 'novelist', what's more, a dreamer with the power of capturing more than one point of view - unlike the short story writers and poets who are more common among us?

That may sound a bit conceited, but it really isn't, given the status of her imagination here in New Zealand. If so, what might she be trying to tell us in this parable of hers?

Elizabeth Knox: The Invisible Road (2008)

Why, to begin with, does it have to be 'without a native people,' unlike the actual New Zealand? On the surface, this might seem to have analogies with Austin Wright's choice to make his imaginary 'Islandia' more than a thousand years old - a chronology similar to that of Iceland, in fact.

Given the obvious analogies between Wright's visionary state and the actual South Africa ('Bants' for 'Bantu', German colonies across the border, Arabs up the coast, etc. etc.), this works to substantiate the Afrikaaner myth that their migration into the hinterland took place at the same time (or even before) the Bantu migration south - caused by the devastating mfecane wars in the early nineteenth century.

Wright's idealised Afrikaaners therefore have a superior right to the land they inhabit than the Black races who surround them on all sides (particularly the violent and destructive 'Mountain Bants' immediately across the border). It resembles more than a little the various racist myths of an initial white settlement in America predating the arrival of the 'Indians' themselves.

We have more than our fair share of such self-serving colonialist 'theories' in New Zealand also. Note what Knox herself has to say about the early settlement of her 'Southland,' though:
He [Sandy] had already done the Hames and history. He knew - for instance - that they were one of five families who had come to the country from the island of Elprus after a volcanic eruption. The Elpra who crossed the seas all settled in Founderston - then a jerry-built settlement around a fort and river port. They were welcomed for their highly cultivated skills in silk making - and for the relics, the bones of St Lazarus. ... The islanders stayed together as a people in the streets they built, in what, over the centuries, became Founderston's Old Town. In fact, up until eighty years before Sandy was born, the Old Town was predominantly peopled by the dark-skinned, curly-haired people, and would be still, were it not for a cholera epidemic, and the two contaminated wells in the Old Town which caused more than half the epidemic's deaths. [214]
These violin-playing, textile-savvy, 'dark-skinned, curly-haired people' sound more like Jews or Gypsies than the solid Anglo-Saxons who seem to make up most of the rest of the population.

Southland, after all, has at least seven major towns, most of them named after British and European statesmen, just like so many cities ([George Eden, Lord] Auckland, Governor-General of India, 1836-42 - [Admiral Horatio] Nelson, victor at Trafalgar, 1805 - [Arthur Wellesley, Duke of] Wellington, victor at Waterloo, 1815, British PM, 1828-30 & 1834) in New Zealand itself:

  1. Founderston
  2. Metternich [Austrian Foreign Minister, 1821-48]
  3. Westport
  4. Middleton [a suburb of Christchurch]
  5. Castlereagh [British Foreign Minister, 1812-22]
  6. Canning [British Prime Minister, 1827]
  7. Esperance [French for 'hope' = Akaroa?]

The comments about the 'contaminated wells' are particularly disturbing, given the long history of Christians accusing Jews of poisoning wells to cause epidemics. There's an atmosphere of pogroms and racial prejudice lurking under the surface of the whole novel, in fact, as the ultra-white Secretary of the Interior Cas Doran and the President Garth Wilkinson plot to set up a quasi-fascist state in Southland.

Brian Wood: The Great O8 (2008)

There's another interesting subtext in the novel, though, too: let's call it its Norma Rae moment - union, union, union!
Sandy felt herded and corralled. But he was the son of a shop steward in a factory that made flax matting. He had been raised in a house with strong views on the rights of working people. 'You know what we need?' he whispered to his uncle as they tramped along 'We need a union.' [354]

Could Knox's 'Hames' have been Māori, rather than Greeks refugees? Possibly, but not without great difficulties when it came to introducing the Golems and other dream trappings her novel is constructed around. There would be an immense risk of giving cultural offence if she were to impose an entire mythology on the actual native race of New Zealand (however disguised).

I'm inclined to think that we may have to give her a free pass on this issue of eliminating the Māori from her alternative history version of New Zealand, then. It's not a question of simply scrubbing the question off the landscape, as in Peter Jackson's version of NZ-as-Tolkien's-Middle-earth. She's nothing if not a careful thinker about the consequences of her creative decisions (as you can see in Tara Black's witty cartoon below):

Tara Black: Ode to Ursula [Le Guin] (2018)

This is not the end of the discussion, however (heaven forbid!) For all its beauty and richness, I'm not sure that the Dreamhunter Duet did actually accomplish all that Knox intended to do with Southland, her imaginary kingdom by the sea. So she returned there, a few years later, in another YA fantasy novel called Mortal Fire ...

Elizabeth Knox

Elizabeth Fiona Knox

Select Bibliography:

  1. After Z-Hour. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1987.

  2. Treasure. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992.

  3. Glamour and the Sea. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1996.

  4. The Vintner’s Luck: A Novel. 1998. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999.

  5. The High Jump: A New Zealand Childhood. Pomare; Paremata; Tawa. 1989, 1994, 1998. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000.

  6. Black Oxen. London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.

  7. Billie’s Kiss. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002.

  8. Daylight. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003.

  9. Dreamhunter. Fourth Estate. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers Pty Limited, 2005.

  10. Dreamquake. Fourth Estate. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

  11. The Invisible Road. 2005 & 2007. Harper Voyager. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Limited, 2008.

  12. The Love School: Personal Essays. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2008.

  13. The Angel's Cut. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009.

  14. Mortal Fire. Wellington: Gecko Press, 2013.

  15. Wake. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013.

  16. An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms. The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Lecture, Christchurch 31 August 2014. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014.

1 comment:

Dr Jack Ross said...

[I'm reposting your comment on this blog from the 'Roland Huntford' page, Richard, as it contains some interesting points that I think readers might like to see in context:]

...Re Knox and your post on her, it looks interesting but I am a bit confused. I know of Knox and know she is held in pretty high esteem in certain circles, but I have to admit I myself kind of contradict my own 'universality' which I always urge is theoretical or is a potential, not me: and the me me is, in some ways, rather conservative. One small point though: Plato's 'Atlantis', in the Timaeus and Critias, is meant surely to be fictional: it is interesting but I think it fails to illustrate sufficiently what he has to say on writing vs. speech or has less to say in the stories (both those texts though have a strangeness and a beauty for a man who wrote the Republic, except for the beautiful Cave analogy etc. This comment is on the wrong post though so I will look again at the Knox post. But for me the problem is the weird. Dreams for me are almost always virtually nightmares or eerie and unpleasant (I know there are supposed to be ways to combat this). This steers me away from Knox for now but you certainly bring in some fascinating conjunctions! Who has read the plays of Yeats let alone his poems!? But your description of his play has caused me to want to read Yeat's plays, as I like reading plays! ([Previously] I had suspected they were probably not very good cf. his poetry).

This is all a "drama of reading" and trying to understand. How to understand Yeats when he talks about 'the responsibility of the imagination'? He from a kind of 'supernatural' position, Sartre from Marxism: no one (Sartre's general thesis is) can be really subconscious is (more or less) his theme: we are all responsible as are all those in his 'No Exit' or Huis Clos (he affirms free will, although...)...but for me the effect is like 'The Third Policeman' by Flann O' effect of terror and horror (for me, there is no escape in such: it's a nightmare, "help"! I cry!)! Eagleton in a book about 'Evil' uses that book as one example of the punishment of an evil act...If evil can be real (but there are (at least) 3 diff. kinds, Sartre's, Dante's and Yeat's ('The best lack all conviction / The worst are full of a passionate intensity' and things like '...the heart that's fed on fantasy's grown brutal from the fare'...and those things). These are works and words of imagination but, indeed, they have power....But eerie and frightening to think Yeats might have influenced the events of 1916. You go down some subtle twists and turns Jack!!