Monday, March 5, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE BATTLE FOR NORTH AFRICA” by Glyn Harper (Massey University Press, NZ45) 

Whether dealing with the New Zealand military or with other armed forces, it is hard to regard the First World War favourably. After a century, the causes of that war have become obscure to us. The First World War has come to seem little more than the clash of rival empires. Small wonder that, in recent years, New Zealand’s best military historians have presented quite unvarnished and sometimes unflattering views of Allied officers and men in action between 1914 and 1918. See, for example, the works of Chris Pugsley, Andrew Macdonald’s First Day of the Somme  (reviewed on this blog) and Glyn Harper’s Dark Journey.

But as I’ve argued before (see the posting TheOne True Good War), the Second World War is usually held in popular memory as a fully justifiable war – the defeat of Nazism and Japanese militarism – and New Zealand’s role in it is esteemed. There have been some dissenters from this view, such as Stevan Eldred- Grigg with his self-satisfied book Phoney Wars (reviewed on this blog), which argued that New Zealand contributed little to the outcome of the war and should have stayed neutral anyway. Eldred-Grigg’s argument was so unpersuasive that his book seemed to have been written more to start arguments than to enlighten anyone.

Yet given the generally anti-militarist views of modern New Zealand, and given fading memories, is there now a danger that the Allied cause in the Second World War will become under-esteemed? Being born long after the Second World War, I have no desire to see inflated patriotic myths revived. But I am concerned that the Second World War be remembered accurately, and that how it was fought is seen in relation to possibilities that then existed.

Hence I welcome Glyn Harper’s The Battle for North Africa, which is subtitled “El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II”. As a good military historian, Harper does not present a partisan account of the clash between Allied and Axis forces in North Africa, but rather presents as impartially as possible the story of how a series of major battles were fought. This is a work of corrective memory in the face of incipient historical amnesia. It is a welcome companion to the symposium book El Alamein and the Struggle for North Africa (reviewed on this blog) which Jill Edwards edited five years ago, and to which Glyn Harper contributed.

What we generally call the Battle of El Alamein was in fact a series of three battles fought between July and October of 1942. As Harper explains in his introduction and opening chapter (“Military Background”), in 1940 the British under Wavell had defeated Graziani’s Italian army in Libya; but in February 1941 Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Panzerarmee landed in North Africa and pushed British forces out of Libya and into Egypt. The thorn in Rommel’s side was Tobruk, defended by Australians, which he attempted to besiege. But Rommel was starved of resources (the RAF and British navy controlled enough of the Mediterranean to keep supplies from him) and he had to abandon the siege.

Auchinleck replaced Wavell as British commander but, says Harper, the 8th Army that Auchinleck commanded was “clearly dysfunctional” (p.21). British tanks (Crusaders, Matildas, Stuarts) were inferior to German panzers and had a shorter range of fire. The 8th Army had an ongoing problem in coordinating armour with infantry. Morale was low. As a result, in May 1942, Rommel defeated Auchinleck at Gazala and was able to take Tobruk in what Harper regards as the pinnacle of Rommel’s career. The British had been “out-gunned, out-manoeuvred, out-generalled.” As for Rommel’s chronic shortage of materiel and supplies, there is this bizarre detail:

As the British formations retreated, there was little time to carry or destroy their logistical support bases. In July 1942, the Axis forces were using as many as 6,000 captured vehicles as well as numerous British field guns with ample ammunition stocks. It is somewhat ironic that the spearhead units of Panzerarmee were enjoying British bully beef and Imperial Tinned Peaches while driving Canadian Ford trucks filled with Iraqi fuel.” (Chapter 1, pp.30-31)

The British were now on the defensive and what is known as the first Battle of El Alamein took place in July 1942. As well as a numerical advantage in manpower and materiel, the 8th Army had a great advantage in military intelligence, given that general staff were able to read de-crypted Ultra signals. In this battle, New Zealanders presented an effective counter-thrust to the Italian Ariete division, and Australians and South Africans routed the Italian Sabratha division. But even though this first Battle of El Alamein was technically an Allied victory, it resolved itself into a series of minor actions with neither side gaining great advantage. Auchinleck’s leadership was hesitant and erratic and he often lacked the confidence of his officers. He frequently berated infantry for, as he saw it, under-performing, and ignored that lack of coordination between armour and infantry that had been one cause of excessive  New Zealand casualties at Ruweisat Ridge. And while this muddled battle was going on, anti-British Egyptian nationalists in Cairo were momently looking forward to being “liberated” by Rommel; and there was the big “flap” in which British officials and embassy staff burnt documents in the expectations of soon going into captivity.

The measure of both Auchinleck’s frustration and his army’s low morale is that he seriously petitioned for the reinstatement of the death penalty (abolished in 1930) for desertion. Some of his subordinates (including New Zealand commander Bernard Freyberg) wrote “appreciations” of what had gone wrong, including arguments for the greater coordination of arms. Back in London, Churchill and Alan Brooke argued that there should be a “clean sweep” of 8th Army’s leadership. Churchill appointed General “Strafer” Gott to replace Auchinleck. Gott was not renowned for his skills as a leader. Perhaps fortunately, Gott died when the ‘plane he was travelling in, to take up his command, was shot down.

So it was Bernard Law Montgomery who replaced Auchinleck.

More decisive than Auchinleck, Montgomery ordered all plans for retreat to be destoyed. He faced his first trial in August 1942 when Rommel launched an offensive, generally known as the battle of Alam Halfa. Again the 8th Army was, at first, on the defensive. But Rommel was severely ill, he had lost contact with most of his sources of military intelligence and his offensive bogged down when his panzers ran out of fuel. After six days, the battle was over. This was the last Axis attempt to reach Cairo and it was again, technically, an Allied victory. But it was by no means a knock-out blow. There was no immediate attempt by the 8th Army to pursue Rommel’s foces and morale in the 8th Army remained low.

At this point, I put in a personal observation. For whatever reason, Rommel’s reputation has remained high. There is a certain mystique about the man. But Montgomery has aways seemed to me a less impressive figure and part of me always wondered whether his reputation had been built up by British propaganda. I therefore admit that my regard for him rose when I read Chapter 5 (“Preparation and Plans”) of Harper’s book. Churchill was anxious for a quick and decisive victory in North Africa – something to impress American allies as well as boosting home morale. He therefore nagged Montgomery about delivering such a victory and wanted him to prepare 8th Army for an offensive in September 1942. Montgomery would not be bullied. He stood his ground and insisted that such an offensive required massive preparation and would not be possible until October. He then prepared the ground carefully – a rigorous programme of re-training troops, very extensive use of deception to lure Rommel into believing that the offensive would come from a direction other than the real one, and attempts to re-organise the use of armour. By this stage 8th Army had acquired American Grant and Sherman tanks, far superior to British-made tanks. Unfortunately in this matter Lt General Herbert Lumsden was very uncooperative and Montgomery’s effort to form a corps de chasse floundered. Effective pursuit of the enemy remained a weak point.

By this stage, Rommel’s own preparations were entirely defensive. He had all German positions protected by large minefields and was at first optimistic about this defence.

So in Chapters 6, 7 and 8 Harper gives in great detail his account of the second Battle of El Alamein – the one that is remembered. The Allies had air superiority throughout. British artillery overcame counter-fire. British night-attacks demoralised some Axis units (German and Italian forces rarely attacked at night). The deception plans worked well, as some of Rommel’s forces were at first tied up in unimportant sectors. British sappers made effective breaches in Rommel’s protective minefields. 8th Army infantry (Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Highlanders) generally reached their set objectives. Rommel was aware that he could soon face defeat. He had been away in Berlin on sick leave, and in his absence his subordinate, temporarily acting as commander-in-chief, had died of a heart-attack. Rommel wrote “I knew there were no more laurels in Africa” (quoted p.166)

Even so, this was no easy battle for Montgomery and his army. It went on for twelve days (Harper calls his seventh chapter “Slugging It Out”) and there were again failures in the use of armour. New Zealand infantry and 9th Armoured Brigade made a major breach in enemy lines, with great loss of life, but the 1st Armoured Division was unwilling the exploit the breach. In spite of this, the Panzerarmee was pounded and – despite Hitler’s orders that he stand his ground – Rommel had no alternative but to withdraw 60 miles west.

Churchill had the victory he wanted – the first British victory in the war against German-led troops. Panzerarmee was never again in a position to attack Egypt or reach the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, effective pursuit was again not forthcoming. This is the basis of most criticisms of Montgomery’s command. Weakened or not, Panzerarmee was still intact and the war in North Africa would continue for another 6 months until the end of the Tunisian campaign.

It is not only in his concluding chapter (“Reflections and Reputations”) that Harper assesses the reputations of the military leaders. My impression is that he believes Rommel’s reputation to be inflated and Montgomery’s to be lower than it should be. In the text, however, it is Auchinleck, Lumsden and a few others whom he most berates for their shortcomings. He is, throughout, aware of the difficulties Rommel faced getting fuel and materiel when the RAF and Royal Navy were regularly harrassing his supply lines. But he is also aware that, despite its many material advantages, 8th Army was not an effective force until it had an effective leader. In his Introduction he quotes Freyberg:

Freyberg was right in that the Italians and Germans on the Alamein position could not ‘stick it’ against the weight of manpower and materiel wielded against them by an Army commander who demonstrated considerable skill in their use.” (p.3)

He skewers a number of myths, including the idea that Italians were inferior soldiers to their German allies. In his introduction he notes: “The British Army at last showed it could beat the German Army in battle, even though that army had been made up largely of Italians.” (p.4) And: “While Rommel’s defeated Panzerarmee contained many Italian formations, it is a myth that these units did not fight well in North Africa in the Alamein battles.” (p.6) He proves this by recording (Chapter 8, p.230) that the Italians’ last armoured action, with much loss if life, gave the remaining Afrika Korps the chance to escape.

As a densely written and closely detailed work of military history, The Battle for North Africa often requires patience and close attention in the reading. But it is a persuasive and convincing account of a major battle that has often been obscured by legend.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“NOSTROMO – A Tale of the Seaboard” by Joseph Conrad (first published 1904)

If you make it your business to read the works of canonical novelists, you will soon discover one very interesting phenomenon. Often the novel of a particular author, which is esteemed most by the critics or the dedicated fans of that particular novelist, will not be the novel that is most loved by the mass of general readers. General readers of Charles Dickens will read David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist or A Tale of Two Cities in preference to Bleak House or even Great Expectations, which intellectual Dickensians see as Dickens’ greatest. Online recently I saw a group of Henry James aficionados (of whom I am generally not a member) singing the praises of the later-period James novel The Ambassadors. Most of us non-dedicated James readers would prefer to read Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, The Europeans, The Bostonians or The Aspern Papers. And so too it is with the polyglot Pole, Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski (1857-1924), who wrote as Joseph Conrad. As I’ve said a number of times before on this blog (look up posts on Victory, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes and Heart of Darkness), I went through a student phase of being a very committed Conradian. But, as with most general readers of Conrad, it was Lord Jim, The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness that most attracted me. I’d heard that the best academic critics of Conrad regarded Nostromo as Conrad’s masterpiece; however, I’d also heard that Nostromo was a notoriously difficult novel, as well as being Conrad’s longest. And biographies of Conrad had told me that when Nostromo was first published it was, to the author’s grief, a commercial flop, hardly selling out the first edition and damned with faint praise by reviewers.

So I put off reading it for many years.

When finally I got to read Nostromo, I discovered two things.

First, it really is a masterpiece.

Second, there are good reasons why the general reader tends to shun it.

This is a case where an attempted “plot summary” would be particularly fatuous. In an “Author’s Note” which he added to Nostromo in 1917 (thirteen years after the novel was first published) Joseph Conrad explained the events that were the germ of the novel’s inspiration. In a South American republic, a sailor had been able to take possession of a lighter (a small vessel used for transporting goods) filled with silver ingots, which he secreted and then furtively used over the years as a purse gradually to make himself rich. But if this was the reported action that inspired Conrad and set him writing, it is in no way the heart of the novel. The events concerning a lighter, silver ingots and hidden wealth are confined to the second half of the novel. More central to Nostromo is its panoramic depiction of a whole society. In Nostromo - over which he laboured for two years - Conrad creates the fictitious South American republic of Costaguana, conveying in detail its topography and climate and society and social classes and political tensions. This expansive feat of imagination is what is most praised by sympathetic critics – especially as Conrad had had only a brief, youthful glance at South America (at most, four days ashore in Venezuela many years before he wrote this novel) and understood the continent mainly through extensive reading.

As I experience it, the first quarter of the novel (“The Silver of the Mine”) is like a long, slow establishing shot, introducing us to the land and landscape of Costaguana with much of Conrad’s signature detailed description, especially of the port of Sulaco where most of the action takes place, its hinterland mountains and its gulf of islands, the Golfo Placido. But more importantly, this first part introduces us to the large cast of characters, far larger than the dramatis personae of any other Conrad novel. Though none is caricatured, they can be categorised according to social type.

Representing older-style industrialists, there is the wealthy Costaguanian-born English mine-owner Charles Gould and his wife Emily, usually known as Dona Emilia by the Spanish-speaking characters. Mrs Gould is highly idealised – critics have noted correctly Conrad’s tendency to idealise his sympathetic women characters. Charles Gould has the Concession that allows him to run the San Tome silver mine, which plays such a large part in the narrative. It also means he has many dealings with the English railway magnate, Sir John. Representing the newer breed of exploitative American capitalists there is the millionaire Holroyd. The exiled Italian republican and anti-clerical Giorgio Viola, a “Garibaldino”, lives as a humble store-keeper with his pious church-going wife Teresa and his two daughters Linda and Giselle. At the other end of the political and social spectrum is the old aristocratic Spanish gentleman Don Jose Avellanos, who pines for a more settled political regime and has a much-admired daughter Antonia (she is another idealised woman who, according to one biography, was based on a youthful love of Conrad’s). Some characters are not politically or socially minded, but they represent strongly-embedded values, such as the English Captain Joseph Mitchell, with his attachment to order, regularity and decency as he runs the wharves, the handling of cargoes and the operations of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. More saturnine than this man of order is the English Doctor Monygham, widely regarded as a schemer and misanthrope, though at a certain point in the novel (specifically Part 3, Chap. 4) we hear of traumatic events in his past that have made him that way. In his conversations with Mrs Gould, Monygham opposes Charles Gould’s naïve view that material progress alone will bring about improvement in the human condition.  The most problematic character is Martin Decoud, a Costaguanian intellectual who has had a French education, regards himself as a progressive, runs a political newspaper and is filled with ideas for the improvement of the state. But as events in the novel are to prove, there is a hollow, nihilistic core to this man which is eventually very destructive.

Not all of these characters are introduced in the novel’s first part, for Conrad’s leisurely exposition continues in the novel’s second part (“The Isabels” – referring to islands in the gulf) where we also hear of the bandit Hernandez, the clerical interests of the Catholic Church represented by the pliable Father Ramon and the more dedicated and intelligent senior cleric Father Corbelan, local government officials and military figures. It is in this second part that an ongoing revolutionary conflict in Costaguana is outlined. The “Blancos” (i.e. the older, more Hispanic, less “native” possessors) are at odds with the “Monterists”. A president called Ribiera, who himself overthrew a long-serving dictator, is in the process of being overthrown by General Montero, who has taken over Costaguana’s inland capital and is now sending his forces to take Sulaco. Which side other military figures will take (Generals Sotillo and Barrios) hangs in the balance for some time, and there are some betrayals and some horse-trading. To the European and American interests in Sulaco, the big question is who will control the San Tome silver mine, which is the principal source of wealth for the western province in which it lies.

As this complex psychological and political scene is laid out, it is Joseph Conrad’s acute analyses of characters that most hold the attention. Conrad was critical and sceptical without being a cynic. However negative he may appear to be about some of his own characters, he is never dismissive of them. Of the director of the mine Charles Gould, he notes “Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our action can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.” (Part 1, Chap. 6) He is, in effect, showing Gould to be a man who can find himself only in the “illusion” (one of Conrad’s favourite words) that he is in charge of affairs, when in reality he is dominated by circumstances beyond his control (including the remembered influence of his father). The American investor and millionaire Holroyd is described as having “the temperament of a Puritan and an insatiable imagination of conquest.” (Part 1, Chap. 6), a succinct description of the evangelical zeal with which markets are pursued and developed in an expansive capitalist economy.

Captain Mitchell is very much a minor character, yet he is analysed with the same care as the more essential characters. Late in the novel, the stuffy Mitchell’s character is dramatised when he is threatened by revolutionary soldiers, but faces up to them impeturbably and insists that they return to him his presentation pocket watch, which they have filched. Conrad remarks: “The old sailor, with all his small weaknesses and absurdities, was constitutionally incapable of entertaining for any length of time a fear of his personal safety. It was not so much firmness of soul as the lack of a certain kind of imagination… that sort of imagination which adds the blind terror of bodily suffering and of death… to all the other apprehensions on which the sense of one’s existence is based.” (Part 3, Chap. 2) The secret of Mitchell’s steadfastness is his lack of imagination. This is like a negative image of Conrad’s Lord Jim who, when a storm struck his ship, had too much imagination, deserted his post and became a coward. Not having an imagination may be the key to physical courage.

Upon Martin Decoud, Conrad makes many judgements. We are warned well before the novel’s mid-point that Decoud had “a Frenchified – but most un-French – cosmopolitanism, in reality a mere barren indifferentism posing as intellectual superiority.” (Part 2, Chap. 3) There is something of the dandy and the dilettante to this man who believes himself to be a progressive liberal. Most tellingly, Decoud has no real sense of solidarity with his fellow human beings (that “fidelity” about which Conrad often wrote). Late in the novel, Decoud suffers a complete moral collapse [I will not give the plot details] when he is left, in solitude, to his own mental resources and without other people to impress and influence: “He had recognised no other virtue than intelligence, and had erected passions into duties. Both his intelligence and his passion were swallowed up easily in the great unbroken solitude of waiting without faith…. His sadness was the sadness of a sceptical mind. He beheld the universe as a succession of incomprehensible images… all exertion seemed senseless.” (Part 3, Chap. 10) I should add, however, that many commentators (notably C. B. Cox) have noted how much Conrad identifies with Decoud’s scepticism, which may represent an element of Conrad’s own psyche that he himself rigorously suppressed.

I could quote similarly penetrating comments on many other characters in this novel but I have so far, deliberately, delayed mentioning the novel’s eponymous character. The fact is, Conrad himself delays presenting Nostromo as a rounded character. For the first half of the novel Nostromo is presented in long shot only, as it were, almost as a character of legend. We know early on that he is Genoese, that he is a trusted “Capataz de Cargadores” (foreman of the dock-workers who unload cargoes), and that wealthy employers such as Charles Gould and middlemen such as Captain Mitchell rely on him to keep the workers un-rebellious. He is respected by workingmen and admired by women. We also learn that Gian’ Battista is his given name, while Nostromo is only a nickname: The camp-master was the Italian sailor whom all the Europeans in Sulaco, following Captain Mitchell’s mispronunciation, were in the habit of calling Nostromo.” (Part 1, Chap. 5) Only very late in the novel do we learn that his real name is Fidanza – though Conradians are quick to remind us that the name “Nostromo” serves a thematic purpose as it is very similar to the Italian nostro uomo (“our man” – what Captain Mitchell was probably trying to say), making Nostromo, in his potential and his flaws, a representative of us all, like the way the narrator of Lord Jim refers to Jim as “one of us”.  Even so, for the first half of the novel, Nostromo is presented solely as a public figure, spectacular and picturesque, as in the following passage:

The bright colours of a Mexican serape twisted on the cantle, the enormous silver buttons down the seam of the trousers, the snowy linen, a silk sash with embroidered ends, the silver plates on headstall and saddle, proclaimed the unapproachable style of the famous Capataz de Cargadores – a Mediterranean sailor – got up with more finished splendour than any well-to-do young ranchero had ever displayed on a high holiday.” (Part 1, Chap. 8)

Only towards the end of Part 2, and then in the long third (and final) part of the novel (“The Lighthouse”) do we begin to see Nostromo in close-up, have his moral character analysed, and accept him as a rounded human being. In the long Chapter 7 of Part 2, Nostromo and Decoud are together at sea on the small lighter that is carrying silver ingots away from potential capture by revolutionary rebels. In this chapter the tone of the novel changes considerably. It is as if, stripped of other human company, the real selves of both Nostromo and Decoud are revealed. Decoud remains the opportunist with dreams of leadership. In contrast, Nostromo has a strong sense of his duty to others. We already know this from earlier in the novel when we hear of his service to his employers and his care for the workmen he commands. But, though he himself is an unbeliever and an anti-clerical, we now hear of his pangs of conscience about his failure to summon a priest for a dying woman (Teresa Viola, the “Garibaldino” Giorgio Viola’s wife). Unlike Decoud, he understands that he has to keep promises, live in solidarity with others and observe “fidelity”.

Conrad makes his analysis of Nostromo particularly layered, because Nostromo is characterised mainly through the words and observations of the very flawed Decoud. The dilettante’s view is that Nostromo is driven by vanity and the desire for public approval: “Decoud, incorrigible in his scepticism, reflected, not cynically, but with general satisfaction, that this man was made incorruptible by his enormous vanity, that finest form of egoism which can take on the aspect of every virtue.” (Part 2, Chap. 7) Decoud has no concept of what Nostromo, who is in no way an intellectual, would probably call “honour”.

The morality of this novel is indeed complex, and not as simplistic as the dichotomy of opportunism and “honour” that I have suggested here. Nostromo is a sympathetic character and does emerge as the human embodiment of a fraught historical and political situation. BUT (remember we are reading Conrad here) where this character goes – in the closing sections of the novel which I will not relate here, as you might want to discover them for yourself – is not exactly where you expect him to go. Conrad’s scepticism leads him to question even a man of probity and “honour”, and to tell us that even such a man can be radically flawed. He is indeed representative of us – nostro uomo, “one of us”. It could be that his “honour”, his desire to be admired by others and have a sound public reputation, is indeed a form of vanity.

As one nears the novel’s end, one also questions how much Nostromo has been “used” by other less scrupulous people. In keeping the stevedores and longshoremen in order, has he merely been underpinning an unjust economic order? Is personal “honour” something that can be exploited? Indeed, has Conrad deliberately led us to thorough disillusion in this man, who could be seen as anti-hero rather than hero?

And there is another major consideration. Despite the novel’s title, is Nostromo really the novel’s protagonist? All indications are that Joseph Conrad himself saw “the silver of the mine” as the unifying force in the novel rather than any human character. In one major sense, the novel pivots on how its leading characters – the industrialist Gould, the intellectual Decoud, and the man-of-the-people Nostromo – react to, or are corrupted and deformed by, the silver. Silver is the novel’s “material fact” and Conrad makes sure silver is somehow mentioned as often as possible. Nearly every description of Nostromo himself includes the word “silver”.

One other way of considering this novel is as purely political commentary. As in (the later) The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes and (the earlier) Heart of Darkness, Conrad is in large part concerned with issues of politics, the use of violence, colonialism and economic exploitation. There are passages in the novel that could almost be said to be prophetic, in that they anticipate major destructive trends in 20th century history. To European and North American non-indigenous interests, Costaguana is an under-developed country just waiting to be modernised, and its conflicts are merely the incoherent eruptions of a failed state. The peasants on the hinterland Campo live with “oppression, inefficiency, fatuous methods, treachery, and savage brutality”(Part 1, Chap. 8). When that very unreliable narrator Martin Decoud discusses the situation of the “Blancos” and the “Monterists” with Mrs Gould, he says of his country “We convulsed a continent for our independence only to become the passive prey of a democratic parody, the helpless victims of scoundrels and cut-throats, our institutions a mockery, our laws a farce.” (Part 2, Chap. 4) The independent states of South America are the shattered remains of the old Spanish Empire, which have never settled to true statehood. The old (Spanish) imperialism is now in the process of being replaced by the new (capitalist) imperialism. In a letter, Decoud gives his view of the millionaire American investor Holroyd: “as long as the treasure flowed north, without a break, that utter sentimentalist, Holroyd, would not drop his idea of introducing, not only justice, industry, peace to the benighted continents, but also that pet dream of his of a purer form of Christianity.” (Part 2, Chap. 7) Mrs Gould has already remarked of Holroyd that “his sense of religion… was shocked and disgusted at the tawdriness of the dressed-up saints in the cathedral… But it seemed to me that he looked upon his own God as a sort of influential partner, who gets his share of profits in the endowment of churches. That’s a sort of idolatry. He told me he endowed churches every year…” (Part 1, Chap.6) One immediately thinks of the United States’ interventions – for its own profit – in Central and South America throughout the 20th century, and vigorous American attempts to Protestantize South America, Protestantism (with its individualisation of Christianity) being far more amenable to capitalism and the profit motive than the more collectivist Catholicism.

Festering in the Costaguanian revolution are ideas that would later exert huge influence in the world. Pedrito Montero, one of the “revolutionaries” trying to overthrow the “Blanco” regime, believes “that the highest expression of democracy was Caesarism: the imperial rule based upon the direct popular vote. Caesarism was conservative. It was strong. It recognised the legitimate needs of democracy which requires orders, titles and distinctions. They would be showered on deserving men. Caesarism was peace. It was progressive. It secured the prosperity of the country….. Look at what the Second Empire had done for France…” (Part 3, Chap. 7) As more than one historian has observed, Napoleon III, head of France’s Second Empire, was really the prototype of modern dictatorship – the populist who operated behind a veneer of democracy and made great play of appealing to the “people”, especially through referenda. In many respects, he was the curtain-raiser for Fascism, which is really what Pedrito Montano aspires to. Roll on Juan Peron and a few dozen other South American despots with a populist appeal.

If economic imperialism eats up exploited states, it also corrupts, morally, the exploiters. This, surely, is one of the main points of Heart of Darkness, especially in its depiction of Kurtz. In Nostromo, Mrs Gould eventually realises that economic imperialism has morally destroyed Charles Gould: “she saw clearly … the San Tome mine possessing, consuming, burning up the life of the last of the Costaguana Goulds; mastering the energetic spirit of the son as it had mastered the lamentable weakness of the father.” (Part 3, Chap. 11) To control such an asset is to be controlled by it, as the silver mine is the “material fact” that corrupts a society.

Yanqui imperialism, proto-Fascism and the moral corruption of economic exploitation are all perceived in Nostromo; and so are the very methods by which imperial exploitation works. To “solve” the problem of Costaguana’s revolution, Martin Decoud comes up with the idea of the “separation of the whole Occidental Province from the rest of the unquiet body… The richest, the most fertile part of this land may be saved from anarchy.” (Part 2, Chap. 6) In other words, that part of Costaguana which has the richest resources may – for the convenience of those who wish to exploit it – be separated from the (less resource-rich) rest of the country. This is the political plan that, with American backing, is carried through in Nostromo; reminding one at once of Britain’s later separation of oil-rich Kuwait from the rest of Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Conrad had a more immediate model for this manoeuvre when he wrote Nostromo, however. The year before the novel was published, the United States broke treaties it had made with Colombia and openly backed rebels who set up the breakaway state of Panama, from which the United States extracted the “Canal Zone”, enabling it to control the Panama Canal. It is noteworthy that in 2007 the young Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez wrote a novel, The Secret History of Costaguana, which basically indicts Joseph Conrad for fictionalising these real events, and substituting a silver mine for a canal. Despite this, reference books tell me that Nostromo is now widely read and admired in Latin America for its political acumen, even if Latin American readers are bemused by the way the descriptive details of the novel sometimes jumble together cultural and ethnogaphic details from a number of different (real) Latin American countries.

Descriptiveness, penetrating psychological insights and an important political subtext – these features of Nostromo could be said to characterise all Conrad’s best work. So could the novel’s narrative technique. We are again in the Conradian territory of a “cloud of witnesses” and a number of unreliable narrators. I have on my shelf a simple “reader’s guide” to Conrad’s works published in the 1950s, in which one Oliver Warner claims of Nostromo that it is a straightforward third-person narrative and that  “No narrator or intermediary distracts from the directness of what he [Conrad] narrates.” Nonsense! In the first place place, although the novel is indeed written in the apparently omniscient third-person, we switch from viewpoint to viewpoint as Conrad analyses many characters’ thoughts and impulses. Then there is the fact that other voices do take over much of the narrative. In Part 2, Chapter 7 we have the text of a very long letter written by Martin Decoud, basically giving his cynical view of how political events are developing. Conrad also often uses the device of long, expository conversations, again giving a character’s viewpoint. In Part 3, Chapter 10, it is Captain Mitchell’s inane and conventional conversation which tells us what the outcome of Costaguana’s “revolution” has been. In Part 3, Chapter 11 we learn of developments in Nostromo’s life through a long conversation which Dr Moynigham has with Mrs Gould. We also note that (as, most obviously, in The Secret Agent), the order of events in the novel is not strictly chronological. Some outcomes made plain early in the novel are not fully explicated until much later. To give one bizarre example of a shuffling of events – in Part 3, Chapter 8, there is a painful scene where Nostromo and Dr Monygham converse in the presence of the corpse of a minor character (the trader of hides, Hirsch) who has been tortured and hanged by revolutionary soldiers. Only in the following chapter, Part 3, Chapter 9, do we have the narrative of Hirsch’s death.

I could not finish an analysis of this great novel without mention of the dominant mood of melancholy that it creates – a typically Conradian melancholy. Much of it depends on Conrad’s underlying sense of the vanity of human wishes and the small impact of human effort upon a vast and indifferent universe. When I read such a sentence as “Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small in a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself.” (Part 1, Chap. 6); I am at once reminded of Conrad’s image of the French warship shooting into the immensity of the African continent in Heart of Darkness. Both images suggest an ultimate pointlessness to human endeavour. Where Nostromo is concerned, this relates also to the novel’s political ideas. Conrad was no Utopian. He did not believe that revolutions, changes of government or progressive ideas would alter the essential human condition. One plausible reading of Nostromo is that it tells us plans concocted even with the best of intentions will go astray; that (as T.S.Eliot put it) “history at all times draws / the strangest consequence from remotest cause”; or (as Allen Curnow put it) “to make out our tomorrow from its motives / Is pure guessing, yesterday’s were so mixed”. Of course this view of history is highly inimical to Marxists, who live with the delusion that a comprehensible and progressive pattern may be discerned in history. For this very reason, at least some Marxist critics (such as Arnold Kettle) have produced negative and very reductionist critiques of Nostromo, berating Conrad for using the term “material interests” rather than “imperialism” and claiming that he is avoiding a real analysis of Costaguana’s situation. Given that the novel is one of the clearest indictments of imperialism in the language, it is hard to see much merit in this claim.

But now we come to a major problem with this novel. In an earlier posting on Conrad’s Victory, I quoted Frank Sargeson’s observation “I’ve never been able to make my mind up about ConradI’m worried that the careful plausibility of the beginning goes down the drain as the melodrama begins to go really into action.”

For me, this opinion is especially valid for the closing chapters of Nostromo. Once again, carefully avoiding making a synopsis [you may want to discover how it turns out for yourself], I understand fully the carefully-wrought symbolism of the lighthouse and the hidden treasure. But the last thirty-or-so pages of the novel plunge us into irredeemable melodrama of a very old-fashioned sort. This is true even when we know that (according to Conrad’s 1917 preface) these pages incorporate the anecdote that was Conrad’s first inspiration – the grit in the oyster that made the pearl. Please understand my audacity in stating this. After all, the revered critic Walter Allen said in his The English Novel (as quoted on the back cover of my old Penguin copy of Nostromo), that, of Conrad’s novels “Nostromo is undoubtedly the finest; a good case could be made out for considering it the greatest novel in English of this century. It represents a remarkable extension of Conrad’s genius”. Apparently F. Scott Fitzgerald once said he would rather have written Nostromo than any of his own works or any other novel he could think of. Those who admire this as a truly great novel are many – and I am one of them.

But there is still that clunk of melodrama in the novel’s ending.

To revert to what I said at the beginning of this notice, however, it is not the melodrama that is likely to have put off the general reader. It is the very depth and density of the novel’s portrait of its fictitious South American republic. It is the leisurely way in which the novel unfolds - the very delayed fuse before the final explosions – and the time sequence that deliberately defies chronology. This is not a novel that can be hurried over and it is not a novel that presents a straightforward and simplified morality. In other words, masterpiece or not, it is not the sort of novel to attract the mass readership. And it is approximately seven times as long as Heart of Darkness.

Eccentric and largely silly footnotes: Three mildly interesting things related to Nostromo.

(1.) When I was a senior schoolboy, I had an English teacher of very firm views (the Marist Brother Stephen Coll) who disliked the works of Joseph Conrad (this was before I had read any of Conrad’s novels), and singled out Nostromo as being “boring”. But he did make the interesting observation that Conrad, as a Pole, very occasionally muddled up English idioms. My teacher said Conrad would sometimes say things like “black long shadow” rather than “long black shadow”. I think I found the sentence to which my teacher was referring in Nostromo: “The front of the house threw off a black long rectangle of shadow” (Part 1, Chap. 4) – although frankly I have rarely found this literary genius making similar “mistakes”. I am, however, reminded that English was at least Conrad’s third language (after Polish and French – and probably Russian) when Conrad refers to “the lecture of the letters”  (Part 1, Chap. 6), where he is clearly using “lecture” in the French sense of “reading”. I am also surprised to find this 1904 novel using one word which I thought had been a more recent coinage: “Charles Gould…. had shown himself to be a real hustler” (Part 1, Chap. 6)

(2.) I admit that when he nods, Conrad can go all purty in his descriptions, as when (in one of the novel’s most vivid and iconic sequences) Decoud and Nostromo are together at sea in the small lighter.  “A great recrudescence of obscurity embraced the boat” (Part 2, Chap. 7), says Conrad. I think he means “The boat became invisible in yet more darkness”.

(3.) Nostromo, being totally unfilmable, has had the good fortune never to be made as a film for the cinema, although the English director David Lean did spend years pondering a film adaptation (at different times collaborating on scripts with Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt). What resulted was what the IMBd website calls “probably one of the most celebrated scripts never to be filmed” because, for a huge variety of reasons, the film was never made. What was made by other people (in 1996-97) was a 4-part TV series, with a limp and unpersuasive Claudio Amendola as Nostromo, Lothaire Bluteau as Martin Decoud, Claudia Cardinale as Teresa Viola and English stalwarts such as Colin Firth as Charles Gould, Albert Finney as Dr Monygham and Paul Brooke as Captain Mitchell. Gentle reader, if you want a bare synopsis of the novel’s external action, then this series is adequate. But that is all it is. If you want to taste Conrad’s ideas and style, then the TV series is ridiculous.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I was chatting with an acquaintance about the type of film which had been popular when I was a very young child, in the later 1950s. I have caught up with many of these films as an adult, thanks to TV, DVDs, Netflix, Youtube and what have you. I said I noticed something very interesting about them from a cultural point of view.

In the United States, from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, one of the most popular film genres was the Western, and it was at this time that most of the “classics” of the genre were made. Red River, My Darling Clementine, The Gunfighter, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Yellow Sky, High Noon, Seven Men From Now, The Searchers, 3:10 to Yuma, The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on – not to mention a steady diet of “B” Westerns most of which are best forgotten. At the same time, a high proportion of expensive “prestige” movies – the type that are intended as Academy Award bait – were based on religious or Biblical themes. Samson and Delilah, Solomon and Sheba, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Barabbas, King of Kings, The Big Fisherman, The Greatest Story Ever Told etc.

I suggested to my interlocutor that these genres reflected the Cold War era. The religious films showed that we had God on our side as opposed to those godless Commies. The Westerns presented a stark moral universe of right and wrong, with choreographed violence as a means of settling disputes. They were a popular representation of the way the USA saw itself at that time.

The person I was talking to dismissed this as “conspiracy theory”, but I was nowhere suggesting that anybody had sat down and consciously decided “Let’s make a Western – or religious film – to help fight the Cold War.” As always, Hollywood’s main purpose was to make money, and hence to make films that would attract a large audience. So they appealed to a mood that already existed. I was suggesting that these film really did reflect the dominant mood of the nation at the time, and hence, intentionally or otherwise, reflected the notion of the USA as the armed democracy prepared to fight the forces of darkness. No conspiracy was involved – just the absorption and expression of common assumptions.

I’ve been thinking hard recently about the way films (including TV and cable network films) consciously or unconconsciously reflect the age in which they are made, even those that purport to represent a past age. From Britain, what I am seeing now is a clutch of “Brexit” movies – that is, movies primarily designed to tell British audiences that they are superior to those silly Europeans and hence best severed from them.

This is partly reflected in the long-running TV series The Crown, two seasons of which have so far been shown on Netflix, but four more seasons of which are yet to come. Expensively produced and well-acted, The Crown is essentially very clever propaganda. It purports to give a warts-and-all intimate dramatisation of the Windsor clan, and hence to uncover unflinchingly royal scandals. But so far (I have seen all of the two series as yet broadcast) the scandals are related to those who are conveniently dead. Thus we have seen young Queen Elzabeth II interacting with her foolish uncle “David”, the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII), whose vacuous lifestyle and Nazi sympathies are dutifully dramatised. The man is of course long dead. We have seen the young queen put her foot down rather gracelessly when her hedonistic younger sister Margaret (also dead) wanted to marry a divorced man. Later Margaret did marry a social-climbing photographer, who turned out to be bisexual and had affairs all over the place while Margaret sank into alcoholism and self-pity.

Warts and all, right?

Well actually, not so. The series shows HM (Claire Foy) and her spouse Prince Philip (Matt Smith) as at first having a rocky marriage, Philip being bored with his consort role and with having nothing much to do. There was a scene in which the two of them broke into an argument in front of the press. Early on it was suggested that, when he was away cruising with his male naval pals, Phil might have had some sexual dalliances on the side – but this was suggested so discreetly that it might have passed some viewers by. What is far more important, as the series progresses, is that every private conversation between the Queen and Phil is presented as a loving and thoughtful exchange, even if they do differ over how young Charles should be educated. Of course this is fiction. Nobody knows what the two of them may have said in private, so such conversations are the scriptwriters’ invention. But the purpose is clear. Even if HM is somewhat prim and reproving, we are being told again and again that her judgment in matters of politics is excellent, her marriage is rock solid and her consort is essentially a decent chap.

So Rule Britannia and the stability of its constitutional system.

More clearly products of the Brexit phenomenon are two “historical” films that are currently receiving much praise.

With much technical expertise, Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk tells the saga of the successful evacuation of much of Britain’s expeditionary force from France between 26 May and 4 June 1940.  Nobody doubts the ingenuity of the evacuation or the courage of those involved. However, the event was the beginning of Britain’s “standing alone” (well – “alone” apart from massive infusions of American money) and hence being divested of European allies. As in other British tellings of the story, the film largly ignores or belittles the role of the French. Thus there is little reference to the fact that over a third of those evacuated were French, that the French navy was part of the evacuation and that, most crucial of all, 18,000 French troops died holding the perimeter – the town of Dunkirk itself and other points. Without this rearguard action, the beaches would have quickly been overrun by German forces and there would have been no evacuation. The French Army continued fighting for nearly three weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation, with units still fighting in the east of France up to the final capitulation of France on 24 June.

But Nolan’s film ignores all this and perpetuates the myth of the “little ships” saving the day. Its message for the times is very clear – we are better off without unreliable allies and those foolish Europeans. In other words – support Brexit.

Shortly after this film comes the Churchill film Darkest Hour, wherein Gary Oldman plays the doughty orator who took over from the vacillating Chamberlain and saved the day. Again this is a depiction of Britain “standing alone” against the German foe and divested of unreliable allies. So vote Brexit.

Okay, okay. I know it will be objected that heroic war films have been made for years. It will also be objected that Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are both (more-or-less) accurate, if very selective, depictions of real historical events. But this does not alter the fact that, appearing now, they appeal to a certain popular sentiment. There is no “conspiracy” about it – simply the reality that later depictions of historical events always have a subtext relating to the present. In these cases, the subtext is British exceptionalism.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“PASSANT – A Journey to Elsewhere” by Alistair Paterson (Austin Macauley Publishers $NZ40)

I have this firm belief that reviewers should always declare an interest when they set out to review a book. Otherwise we end up with the risible situation (frequent enough in some New Zealand periodicals) of academics reviewing works by academic colleagues and friends, but without declaring their interest and relationship. So let me say up front that I regard Alistair Paterson as a friend – not a close one, but a friend nevertheless. Though he is some decades older than me, he has occasionally mentored me in the writing of poetry, and I four times acted as guest editor on Poetry New Zealand during the very long period when he was editor-in-chief.

So now you know that Alistair Paterson, prolific poet, short-story-writer and anthologist, and holder of the OBE for his services to literature, is somebody whom I know and like. And that is all that need be said on the matter.

If you are the sort of person who craves short and pithy judgments, I will add that I very much enjoyed reading Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere, Paterson’s memoir of his childhood and adolescence. I might have some misgivings about the way it concludes, and I do admit that it sometimes repeats points it has already made, but in its expansiveness (it runs to 300 substantial pages) it is lively, engaging and enlightening about the way things were in New Zealand eighty-odd years ago.

If you read it very, very selectively, you could see it as an idyll of a past New Zealand and lament for the loss of its simplicities and certainties. Alistair Paterson was born in 1929 in Nelson, together with his (fraternal, not identical) twin brother Charlie. At no point does Paterson suggest that the Nelson of his youth was a perfect society. He notes the snobbery and pretensions of the small city’s wealthier citizens and their tendency towards a peculiar sort of South British jingoism, epitomised in Empire Day. He notes how grown-ups sometimes clung possessively to local heroes, as when he heard them talking about an illustrious person they called “Ernie” (Ernest Rutherford). He is certainly not complimentary about his secondary schooling. Even so, many of the things he did as a child and young teenager suggest the carefree possibilities of an earlier era. Going to the movies. Enjoying Guy Fawkes night. Swimming or sailing in the Maitai River. Listening to early radio in an age when a mass audience enjoyed (of all things) wrestling commentaries involving Lofty Blomfield. The boy is only ten when the Second World War begins, and he tries (in an apolitical way) to understand what it’s all about.

From the adolescent years there are some good self-contained anecdotes, such as the twin brothers labouring to build what turned out to be a useless canoe. Or participating in yacht races. Or young Alistair, with a damaged wrist, painfully rowing two visiting GIs to the local wharf. Or how he and a schoolmate accidentally started a scrub-fire (easily put out by the fire-brigade, thankfully) when they were told to burn off some gorse. There are also some retrospective ironies. Given that the adult Alistair Paterson was for twenty years a naval officer, it is ironical that he got seasick the first time he went on a deep-sea vessel (crossing Cook Strait to Wellington to attend the 1940 centenniel exhibition).

Paterson early strikes a note of loss when he remarks: “On occasional visits to Nelson I’ve driven past what’s left of the flats I knew so well and looked out towards the sea and the boulder bank, hoping to see children playing there. Their absence means that children have lost something of that earlier intimacy with the natural world which my brother and I experienced – and which the wider community might have lost as well.” (p.25)

Another very selective reading could see Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere as chronicling the genesis of the author as creative writer, with its remarks on the boy’s reading habits and first efforts at writing. The books he read as a child suggest robust tastes. He notes how much, as a youngster, he enjoyed Richmal Crompton’s anarchistic, anti-authority schoolboy “William” books; and how he was intrigued by the ingenuity of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. In retrospect, he appreciates the value of reciting poetry in his primary school class, under the instruction of an elocution-trained teacher. At the time, however, his first real introduction to poetry gave him false expectations about how poetry is written: “I found myself trying to compose verses line by line in my head, and, failing miserably, came to believe poetry was written by people of special ability and great genius in far countries.” (p.189)

He is less complimentary about his adolescent years at Nelson College, seeing the teachers as being concerned more with the college’s prestige than with sympathetic teaching. The cane was applied often and there was a dismissive attitude towards pupils (like Paterson) who were not leading athletes or sportsmen. One English teacher told him to give up writing poetry because it was “unhealthy”. Nevertheless, Nelson College did give him the opportunity to be a violinist in the school orchestra; and it did give him the company of other students who were interested in modern poetry, like the one who introduced him to the work of T.S.Eliot.

But attempts to see this memoir as either nostalgic idyll or Kunstlerroman are thwarted by two things, which take up a great part of Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere. First, there is the matter of young Alistair Paterson’s long illness and hospitalisation; then there is the matter of what would now be called the dysfunctional family to which he belonged. To be clear, neither young Alistair nor his brothers were in any way physically mistreated. Their parents were on the whole very considerate people. But the circumstances of the family created severe stresses for the growing boys. At first, Paterson suggests some reluctance to narrate these things. Having noted how a journalist once scorned another person’s childhood memoirs as self-indulgence, Paterson says: “As a result, I wonder why I’m writing about my childhood and whether an account of a dysfunctional family in one’s early years is of any value or worth the trouble.” (p.65)

Briefly put, Paterson’s parents separated in unusual circumstances. After they were first married, they lived with Alistair’s paternal grandparents, the Patersons. But shortly after Alistair and Charlie were born, the older Patersons proved so over-controlling and unsympathetic to the twins’ mother that she moved back to live with her own parents, the Whites. Alistair and Charlie were thus brought up by their mother in their maternal grandparents’ house on Weka Street. But they made weekly visits to their father at his parents’ house on Nile Street East. And, despite their parents’ separation, their father made regular visits to their mother so that, to their surprise, young Alistair and Charlie were  presented with a new baby brother some years after their parents had ceased to live under the same roof. This unusual arrangement built up in young Alistair a sense of shame that his family was not “normal”, like the two-parent families of other boys he knew.  He got on well with his placid, pipe-smoking maternal grandfather, who sometimes did eccentric things, like stealing a neighbour’s dinghy and taking young Alistair for a row on the twilit estuary. But this did not offset the stress of the family situation, exacerbated by overhearing, and not understanding, angry adult conversations about somebody called Betty Sharp, or being aware of the way older generations of the Paterson family spun endless rumours about the financial dealings of a great-grandfather and who might possibly owe great wealth to whom.

One of Alistair’s Paterson aunts, Aunt Elspeth, was anxious about any member of the family marrying and having children. She closely interrogated young Alistair when he started getting serious about girls. The awful truth that Alistair Paterson only understood as an adult was that his great-grandfather Paterson had gone insane with “paralysis of the brain” and was for much of his life locked up in what was then forthrightly called a madhouse. Many of the stresses, tensions and anxieties which older generations passed on to Alistair and his brothers sprang from this fact. (By the way, in this particular matter I am revealing nothing that the back-cover blurb of the book does not reveal.)

All this was one cause of the boy’s chronic unhappiness. But perhaps worse was the matter of his long periods of illness, beginning when he was about eight. At first he suffered from abdominal pains and severe fatigue and underwent an operation on his kidneys. He was diagnosed as having an abcess on his kidneys and possible septicaemia (“blood poisoning”). Then came the complication of osteomyelitis. In all, Alistair underwent four operations and was kept in the children’s ward for nearly two years (22 months). In this long incarceration, the boy longed to be outdoors again, and was briefly driven to small acts of rebellion from the hospital’s severe regime, such as refusing to eat the sago pudding that he was regularly offered. After eventually leaving hospital, there were the difficulties of having to get used to walking again, reconnecting with school again, having a broken wrist and having to learn to write again.

The account of his time as a patient overlaps with with memories of his reading habits. Physical trauma meant he temporarily lost the ability to read and had to re-train himself in the deciphering of words. As all bright children do, he compared the books he liked to the conditions of his own life. Of the influence of The Count of Monte Cristo, he says: “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I probably found this part of the book [where the hero at last uncovers fabulous wealth] exciting and wonderful because it was the climax of Edmond Dantes’ successful escape from imprisonment and the beginning of his reinstatement as a person able to live life on his own terms. It was a metaphor, a fictitious representation of treasure and escape parallelling what children in hospital wish for and can do little to achieve.” (pp.118-119) And of The Three Musketeers he says: “It wasn’t the flamboyance and the devil-may-care attitude of the characters, but at a deeper and subconscious level, the contrast between their freedom of action and my immobility that appealed.” (p.125)

Passant: A Journey to Elsewhere is an affectionate account of a past time, a book on the author’s youthful literary consciousness, and a memoir of a broken family and long illness. Irrational as it may seem, one dominant note is the sense of guilt the boy came to feel. As children so often do, he took upon himself the burden of responsibility for things over which he had no control. In reading this book, I find such words as “shame” and “embarrassment” recurring frequently. To give a few examples -

When, as infants, Alistair’s twin brother walks before he can, and gets applause for it, Alistair is left “sitting on the hall floor lost and alone with feelings of shame and failure and a sudden awareness that success brought rewards” (p.9)

Of the psychological burden of the dysfunctional family we are told: “I knew my brother Charlie and I were responsible for the seemingly unbridgeable schism between the two families we belonged to, that somehow our being born had disrupted their lives and caused irremediable damage.” (p.135)

When the boy is in the hospital after two operations, the adult memoirist remarks “… each of us felt an element of shame at being in the hospital and ‘being a nuisance’, ‘making things difficult’ for the people who looked after us and parents who had to leave whatever it was they might have been doing in order to come and visit us. Somehow it was our fault that we were there and in my case particularly so on account of all the shame Charlie and I had brought to the two branches of the family.” (pp.84-85)

When he returns to school after long hospitalisation, he notes: “embarrassment at not being part of a real family was always present as was the fear that some of the children we went to school with or who lived near Weka Street and knew about us would notice we were there and talk about us.” (p.168)

He learns to play the violin and for once his stern teacher compliments him on his playing. But instead of feeling pleased, the boy feels he has violated the code of “fitting in”: “I felt embarrassed. The sound I’d produced was what I thought of as a kind of pretentiousness and exhibitionism that could be put down to saying, ‘Look at me, listen to me, listen to what I’m doing’. Charlie would have seen it that way and said something about it if he’d heard what I was doing which fortunately he didn’t…. Keeping quiet and avoiding being noticed was our usual way of behaving…” (p.178)

Trying to fit once more into school, he notes: “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to use my damaged arm to write with and was forced to do what I could with my left. The result was an untidy scrawl that elicited sneers and derision from some of the boys who saw what a mess I was making of it. I felt ashamed and embarrassed in the same way I did at people who knew I’d been ill and hadn’t yet fully recovered, and I was doubly ashamed and embarrassed because even when I got back to using my right arm, my handwriting was still clumsy and awkward and has remained that way ever since.” (p.206)

I understand that this book’s subtitle, “A Journey to Elsewhere”, has a double meaning. Simply by growing up, the boy and adolescent is journeying to adulthood. But equally, we as readers are journeying to the other country that was a past New Zealand. In those terms, this memoir works very well and has the ring of authenticity.

Footnote: As for my misgivings about how it concludes – which I mentioned at the head of this review – I am referring to the way Alistair Paterson ends with much documentation, in the form of letters, of his great-grandfather’s mental condition. While this is in some ways the “key” to the anxieties that ran through his family, it still seems a clumsy way to close what is otherwise an engaging and sincere book.