Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Islomanes (3): Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire

Elizabeth Knox: Mortal Fire (2013)

People often accuse me of taking a perverse angle on the texts I write about. I recall composing an essay on Angela Carter's wonderful novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman which was devoted almost entirely to the question of whether or not the book was set in South America.

This essay (eventually) formed part of my Doctoral thesis, and I recall my supervisor, Colin Manlove, saying two things in response to it:
  1. What a wonderful book!
  2. What a bizarre and reductionist approach to take to it!
In a sense I agreed with him, but given the thesis was about the various imaginative spins European writers had put on their own pet images of an increasingly imaginary continent they called 'South America,' the emphasis did seem an inevitable one. And it did allow me, contextually, to say a lot of other things about the novel as well.

Elizabeth Knox: Black Oxen (2001)

Elizabeth Knox has already written her own Latin American epos, Black Oxen. In this post, though, I'll be continuing my reflections on Southland, her close-cousin-to-New-Zealand, albeit in a parallel time-line, mainly because she wrote another book set there, Mortal Fire, a few years after completing the Dreamhunter Duet.

I began my previous post on the subject with a quote, as follows:
Southland is a landmass without a native people, so there are not songs or legends for us to consult.
This statement is not so much contradicted, as supplemented, towards the end of this new excursion to Southland, Mortal Fire:
'University isn't for us, eh.'
Jonno said ... 'If I get the job I'll be the first person from my family to go north in five hundred years.'
Jonno's 'five hundred years' made Canny forgive his 'not for us' remark. 'I love it that you can say that,' she said.
'You know, we all read your brother's book.'
'Your family?'
'Nope. All of us.'
He meant the Faesu, the people of the archipelago, Southland's first people, who had twice settled, and twice abandoned, the mainland. [412]
The 'book' mentioned here is by Canny's brother Sholto - a restatement of his undergraduate essay about Southland, which I quote from further down. For the moment, though, let's just look at Knox's map of that 'mainland' again:

Elizabeth Knox: Southland (2013)

It seems, then, that Southland did once have an indigenous race, who 'twice settled, and twice abandoned' their lands. Why, one is tempted to ask? To clear them for white settlement?

Quite a few new parts of Southland's history are filled in in this new book, in various not too unsubtle versions of the old 'So tell me Professor, what did happen in the ...?' 'Well, my boy, I'm glad you asked me that. It was in the early -- hundreds that ...' trope so beloved of genre novelists generally.

Here's one example:
Ghislain took a breath and began: 'The Zarenes were one of the five Elprun families who ended their long wandering in Southland. The island of Elprus was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in - do you know this?'
'And the people of Elprus arrived in Southland?'
'1730. I'm good at dates. Sholto is always telling me snootily that history isn't all dates.'
'No, it's currants and raisins too.' [270]
Mortal Fire is yet another of Knox's magical tales, based on yet another of the five Elprun families who caused all the trouble in Dreamhunter. Then it was the Haims; this time it's the Zarenes. The common feature in their magic, though, is the fact that it all stems in one way or another from the powerful supernatural forces unleashed by the raising of Lazarus in the New Testament.

Christ's raising of Lazarus (12th-13th century CE)

I was actually asked to review Knox's book when it first came out, in 2013. It was frustrating to have so little space to discuss it, so I had to content myself with a few generalities on that occasion, but I do hope that I was able to make it clear just how much I admired the skill with which she managed her narrative, as well-populated with ideas as it was with people:
There was a time when I used to wait eagerly for each new Young Adult novel by Margaret Mahy. Starting with The Haunting in 1982, she had an extraordinary run of success in this very exigent genre. Come to think of it, there was a time before that when I used to read Maurice Gee’s Halfmen of O series with something of the same feelings of fascination and awe.

I don’t know what Elizabeth Knox’s future plans include (perhaps she doesn’t either), but I have to say that I would be very sorry indeed if she stopped publishing teenage fantasy novels such as Mortal Fire (and its predecessors, the Dreamhunter Duet, also set in her imaginary republic of Southland). I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that her books are every bit as good as Mahy’s and Gee’s, but with an extra edge and sophistication belonging solely to her.

That’s not to say that Mortal Fire is easy to read. In fact, there were moments in the first couple of chapters where I found it quite hard to assimilate the sheer weight of information she throws at her reader. Once the story really gets going, though, with Canny Mochrie and her step-brother Sholto’s arrival in the Zarene valley, any such obstacles melt away. This is not a book which could ever be exhausted on one run-through, though.

For myself, I like a bit of a tussle with ethical responsibilities in the dreamworlds of fantasy, and Mortal Fire does not disappoint in this respect. It’s hard to imagine any other New Zealand writer so adroitly mixing a plotline based on the Pike River Mine disaster into the rest of her narrative (though I suppose one might have anticipated it from her use of the Cave Creek disaster in her previous adult fantasy novel Daylight).

Southland is a useful palimpsest for Knox: a new land which can be overlaid with just enough of the actual history of New Zealand to make it relevant to the specific aspects of our culture she wants to examine, but which is also “fictional” enough to combine them with the powerful symbolic realms of magic which interest her just as much.

She does, after all, at the end of the day, have the central duty of constructing an interesting story. And this one adds race and class prejudice to the starker issues of crime and punishment from the Dreamhunter Duet. It’s worth emphasising, though, that this novel can be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of the earlier books. It is, after all, set fifty years after the events in those stories, referred to only in passing towards the end of Mortal Fire.
- Jack Ross: "Wearing their ethics on their sleeves." NZ Books: A Quarterly Review vol. 23, no. 3, issue 103 (Spring 2013): 16-17.

NZ Books 103 (Spring 2013)

I'm sorry that it's taken me this long to get round to saying some more about that 'useful palimpsest' - Knox's choice of:
a new land which can be overlaid with just enough of the actual history of New Zealand to make it relevant to the specific aspects of our culture she wants to examine, but which is also 'fictional' enough to combine them with the powerful symbolic realms of magic which interest her just as much.
One advantage of the wait, however, is that she's now made her own statement about the novel, on her author's website, which is also where I borrowed the map of Southland (above) from:

Grant Maiden: Elizabeth Knox

David Larsen, interviewing me for The Listener, wanted to know why I’d set the book in 1959. It’s a big decision with a huge input into the flavour of the book, but it was one I came to kind of expediently – although very happily. I’d decided one of the defining characteristics of my protagonist, Canny, was that she had a mother who was a heroine. And that Sisema was the kind of heroine who becomes more celebrated as time goes on, because her story is one that her Nation’s identity is forming around. I decided that this would work best if Sisema was a war hero. That immediately led me to World War Two and a Pacific island occupied by Japan. I’m not going to tell Sisema’s war story here, but this decision gave me a possible date for Canny’s birth. I wanted to write about a sixteen-year-old, and my addition gave me the year 1959. To my amused exasperation one mostly very positive review on Goodreads worries that Canny sounds “young for her age compared to US teenagers I know”. Perhaps – the reviewer writes – that’s because she comes from this New Zealand-like place and maybe teens grow up slower there. And I’m reading this and going like, “Um – it’s 1959.”

Beekeeping. I wanted to set my story in a pastoral paradise. The Zarene Valley is kind of based on valleys now beneath Lake Dunstan. Those now-drowned valleys circa 1981, when I was down there with my sister and some friends (touring about in a 1957 Plymouth station wagon). Back then there were no vineyards, and more kiwi holidaymakers than tourists. 1981 is pretty much equidistant from 1959 and 2013, but it was more like 1959. Also I felt that I was in some ways writing the book for my editor, Frances Foster. I was thinking of her as a first reader. And I remembered how, when I met Frances at the Disney Convention Centre in 2008, when I was there for the American Library Association Conference, she told me about being a child visiting her grandparents’ farm in Anaheim, back before Disneyland bought up all the land. I remember her description of the pastoral paradise now under the theme park and hotels and highways. So – old Anaheim, and the apricot orchards under Lake Dunstan, are what made the Zarene Valley.
- Elizabeth Knox: "Letting in the Ghosts: Why certain things are in Mortal Fire." Elizabeth Knox: Author's Website (c. June 2013)

Lake Dunstan (2018)

I think that I might have guessed that detail about the lost orchards around Cromwell, along with that still contentious dam on the Clutha river, but for the most part I'm struck by how sedulously she sticks to personal details, and how little she gives away about the larger questions behind the novel ...

Why, for instance, has Southland now been supplied with a native race, and even an island protectorates off in the Pacific?
Cyrus said to Sholto, 'But she's not your sister, is she?'
'She's my stepsister.'
Canny's mother is Sisema Afa,' Susan said. 'The war hero.'
'So she's not a Southlander?'
The young man looked irritated. 'The Shackles are a protectorate of Southland.'
Cyrus thought, 'Any minute now he'll accuse me of bigotry.'
'Shackle islanders have citizenship,' Sholto went on, then added, 'whether you like it or not.'
Cyrus laughed. 'I didn't mean any offense. I was only curious. I hope my amateur curiosity is acceptable to you, as opposed to your professional one.' [213]

Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch (2005)

It's interesting, too, that Knox should choose to employ a brown-skinned rather than a white-skinned heroine this time - a little like the TV producers of Margaret Mahy's Kaitangata Twist, who changed its originally white heroine for a Māori Meredith instead.

Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch (2010)

That may sound like mere tokenism, but I have to say that the substitution immediately made better sense of Mahy's story - and it's now hard to imagine the narrative any other way. The TV Meredith's motivation is far easier to understand than that of her novelistic counterpart.

Is the same true of Knox's narrative? It's hard to say. I do feel that she must have feared some co-option of her stories by 'Celtic New Zealand' fanatics if she didn't acknowledge this gap in the first two novels - so seized the opportunity to elaborate creatively on the larger Oceanic context of her imaginary island in this way. After all, any version of New Zealand without Māori is a little difficult to justify ...
'Yes,' Sholto said. He knew that the [Lazuli] dam was first planned in the mid-1920s. If it had been built it would have flooded the Zarene Valley and drowned all the orchards. The plans were shelved after the stock market crash, resurrected in 1938, and shelved again when Southland went to war in 1941. [179]
Why, too, did Southland go to war in 1941 rather than in 1939? The rest of the dates here sound reasonably compatible with those in our own 'real' world. Presumably it must have been because Southland is a republic, not a monarchy, and therefore affiliates more naturally with the United States than the United Kingdom.
Calvary was the only sizable town on the Shackle Island chain ... The Shackle Islands produced sugar and, lately, copper. The islands were peopled by their original inhabitants, the Ma'eu; by the descendants of cane cutters brought to the island by blackbirders in the late eighteenth century; and by the descendants of colonial settlers, most of whom had originally come from Southland. [49]
The Pacific paradise of the Shackle Islands has experienced far less of a 'fatal impact' than the real Polynesian islands on which it's presumably based, but I suppose the essence of a parallel time-stream is that you can alter the dates of events, and thus alter their consequences.

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter (2005)

Perhaps the most vital change is expressed by Canny's would-be-historian brother Sholto, in his own overarching theory of Southland:
'He was a dreamhunter!' said Sholto.
'Ranger,' said the barber. 'He was making photographic landmark maps for the Dream Regulatory Body.'
The silence of loss came into the room.
As an undergraduate Sholto had once tried to write an essay about this. The Professor said that it was very interesting, but was Sholto trying to invent a new kind of history? One without historical references and facts? Sholto's essay argued something like this: Southland was a big country, with a population that was sufficiently large but not too large; with industry and a wealth of minerals, with scientifically developed agriculture, good roads, and rail, three deepwater harbors, some fine universities - so why wasn't it more of a player on the world stage? Sholto's answer to his essay's question was that Southlanders were in a sense a sad and defeated people. They were people who had once lived in a beautiful house, which had burned down ... Southlanders had had something irreplaceable - the Place, a mysterious territory where some could go and catch dreams that they could perform for others - they had that miraculous thing, and they lost it.

Am I wrong to hear in this thesis of Sholto's about the 'silence of loss' in Southland culture a distant echo of such portentous 'whither Aotearoa?' essays as Monte Holcroft's The Waiting Hills (1943) or even, perhaps more plausibly, Bill Pearson's classic 'Fretful Sleepers' (1952)?

Paul Millar: No Fretful Sleeper (2010)

Some sense of isolation is inevitable, some detachment and discrimination, but that is the occupational hazard of every artists and especially of the novelist who must always be, so long as there are conflicts within his society, something of a spy in enemy territory. The thing to avoid is developing one’s isolation because that way lies desiccation, etiolation, clique-writing that will get yellow in manuscript and deserve to. Emigration is no solution, even for the novelist or dramatist to whom ideas are more important than sense-impressions. There is stimulation at first, a sense of expansion – but in England the artist’s loneliness that we have known longer is beginning to be felt, and publishing, because of rearmament and American stockpiling of paper, is getting costly and difficult, and liberties of thought are slipping away too. But after the stimulation you will dry up: you can neither feel completely at home in your adopted country, not enough to write deeply of it, nor can you write of your own country except through a mist of nostalgia and unappeased resentments. We New Zealanders have far less in common with the English middle classes than we may think and at best they will patronize us and emasculate us. We could no more lose our national habits if we were to try, than we could, if we wanted to, disguise our kiwi twang. Our accent stands out a mile and the time will come when so does the accent of our literature, but not before we have a social system that makes possible the meaningful liberation of the talents and energies of the common people. Until then there is hard work to be done, there are quiet mortifications to be suffered, humiliations and misunderstandings to be put up with, and yet one will meet a lot of cheerfulness to ease the effort.

Bill Pearson: Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays (1974)

We're doomed to be Kiwis, in other words - so we'd better get used to it, and try to do a good job.

To conclude, then, what is Elizabeth Knox's 'Southland' trilogy really about? Many things, certainly - state oppression; the responsibilities underlying fantasy, the free flow of the imagination; class; families, magic; bees; ice-cream ... There are lovely evocations of her mirror versions of actual New Zealand cities - Castlereagh / Wellington, for instance:
Castlereagh was all hills, ridges around the harbor, and steep-sided valleys where the desirable houses were built up high to catch either the morning or the afternoon sun. Much of the inner city dated from the time when cars were rare, so roads were narrow and steep and many lacked footpaths. Instead there were dozens of ... official and unofficial shortcuts, steps and paths, some with safety rails, some without. The citizens of Castlereagh had strong hearts and big calf muscles. [34]
Predictably, Founderston / Auckland is rather further from the reality of our own garish Big Smoke.

Unlike Elizabeth Knox, Austin Tappan Wright did not live to write any sequels to his own vision of Islandia in the mid-1900s. This deficiency was partially made up for, however, by the editor of his novel, Mark Saxton:
There are also three sequels/prequels ... Reviewers describe these books as entertaining and self-contained. The prequels concern events that are mentioned briefly in the original novel, and are likely based on Wright's unpublished notes. All three books were published with the permission of Wright's estate. Sylvia Wright, Wright's daughter and the executrix of the estate, died shortly before the third Saxton book was completed, and there have been no additional books since.
  • The Islar, Islandia Today - A Narrative of Lang III. Published in 1969, this book is set in the then-present day. The plot concerns a coup attempt in Islandia that occurs while the national government is debating whether to join the United Nations. The protagonist, as indicated in the title, is John Lang's grandson.
  • The Two Kingdoms, published in 1979, is a prequel set in the 14th century. The plot concerns the events surrounding the reign of the only female ruler in Islandian history, and the dynastic change that ensued from this.
  • Havoc in Islandia, published in 1982, is yet another prequel, set in the 12th century. The Roman Catholic Church attempts to overthrow the government of Islandia, and, having failed, is itself expelled from the country (parallel to the expulsion of Christians from Japan).

Athanasius Kircher: Mundus Subterraneus (1669))

It must be very difficult to leave behind any imaginary kingdom so fully formed as these two are (as Plato must have discovered, when he kept on returning to his original inspiration in the successive, not really fully consistent, dialogues Timaeus, Critias and the unfinished Hermocrates).

J. R. R Tolkien, too, at one point in his unending struggles with the unfinished (unfinishable?) Silmarilion, started to draft a sequel to the Lord of the Rings where the rebellious youth of Gondor had developed a fashion of dressing up as Orcs and fetishising the vanished Dark Lord, rather like the skinheads and Neo-Nazis of his own time.

Elizabeth Knox: The Absolute Book (2019)

I haven't been privileged (this time) to see an advance copy of Knox's new novel, The Absolute Book, due out from VUP in September this year, but judging from the blurb description of it as:
a book of journeys and returns, set in London, Norfolk, and the Wye Valley; in Auckland, New Zealand; in the Island of Apples and Summer Road of the Sidhe; at Hell’s Gate; in the Tacit with its tombs; and in the hospitals and train stations of Purgatory.
it's pretty safe to say that she's managed to break free of her own island paradise - for now, at least - though possibly at the expense of an even more perilous sojourn in the Forbidden Realms of Faerie.

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