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Saturday, January 25, 2014

A political review of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)

A political review of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)

Nobody can deny that this is a very well crafted novel – less discerning readers might call it convoluted. In terms of its artistry one may however point to the age-old dilemma of differentiating between art and craft. Since the novel is set in Victorian New Zealand – hence is very British in its characters – one could perhaps make an analogy with the Victorian obsession with extremely intricate needle-craft that compelled well-to-do ladies to spend most of their life time in contemplation of intricate patterns while life outside raged in the most outrageous political degradation.

As such one would have hoped the The Luminaries have some sort of Dickensian purpose, namely to uncover some of the more unsavoury aspects of the Victorian empire. So let us first uncover some of the unfortunate aspects of the novel that adhere to the Victorian ideal of idle pattern-making: the astrological contrivance of the plot is as pointless as ‘astrology’ has always been. Sure, it is a popular past time next to religion, and since the novel also makes a play on the opium consumption of Victorian proportion – including the Chinese connexion – one would have expected at least a pun on Marx’s famous quote of ‘religion is the opium of the people’ by replacing ‘religion’ with ‘astrology’. That the slightly evil character Francis Carver deals in opium is therefore not a surprise. That the ‘whore’ Anna falls for opium and that Emery falls for Anna and a bit of opium is another contrivance that neither explains nor tries to uncover the politics of opium in Victorian times. Catton could have done a Baudelaire turn and explored the positive effects that opium can have, but, alas, there is no sign of it.

With astrology and opium out of the way we can comment on the pattern of narration that is obsessed with the closing of the narrative cycle – as associated with the cyclical nature of astrology. As mentioned in the beginning, this is done very well as we end up with Anna and Emery, with a hint of a happy ending that star-struck lovers usually have. With Anna as a central character we note that there is a quite clever Victorian contrivance in that she as a ‘whore’ never has any sex to speak of, for sex in Victorian times, as the cliché goes, was never talked about and only performed under cover of the dark. How the ‘magnate’ Dick Mannering as her pimp in Hokitika manages his escorts is also quite murky and mysterious. The politics of Victorian sex are as such submerged in the sludge of Hokitika whilst there is the frequent mention of the ‘whore’. The plot seems to suggest that ‘whoring’ is a deviant occupation in that ‘fallen girls have no future’ and that Anna as a good girl (from the beginning) redeems herself in the end by going cold turkey on her opium addiction which was imposed on her by her pimp: another cyclical narrative aspect.

Next is the gold or ‘colour’ as it is termed in Victorian English (on which we shall comment later on). The gold rushes in the new world are both legend and testimony to the mad capitalism that engulfed the world from then on. The politics of gold as the worst tool of imperialist manipulation and exploitation has been documented only in a few anti-imperialist works that are nowadays suppressed as evil propaganda that seeks to overthrow the status-quo that still is built on gold. Of course Catton has nothing to say on these matters. What she does say is that gold that comes around goes around: the mysterious Crosbie Wells who makes a fortune in the Otago gold fields only to have the gold stolen by Carver and Well’s wife Lydia, from him under his nose. How the gold gets back to him, or rather to Emery or to the infamous Lydia Wells aka Carver aka Greenway, via Quee Long and Anna, is one of the most convoluted stories imaginable. I always think that the strength – if not artistry – of a novel lies in its believability, even if it involves magic realism (as mastered by     authors like Vikram Chandra and Márquez), hence above story line is lacking in this department. The more unbelievable a story is the more one can lead the reader by the nose to figure out how it all happened, and when the plot is finally revealed the reader feels cheated as it was impossible to predict such a ridiculous series of events. At this juncture I always quote Chomsky who said that nothing is impossible but many things are unlikely. Even in fiction we want to be confronted with what is ‘likely’ and not having to work out what achieved by the narrative device known otherwise (and suitably so) as deus ex machina. To have five pounds or so of gold sown into dresses by Carver and Lydia, to be shipped illegally to Australia, billed to the politician Lauderback who is thus blackmailed (and who is Crosby’s long-lost half-brother) but the trunk is sort of intercepted by Crosbie Wells and gets loaded on a ship bound for Hokitika where the ship promptly sinks, what with the unclaimed trunk’s dresses  to be sold to Anna who in turn doesn’t know that they contain the gold but Quee Long finds out and who in turn smelts it into bars that Emery secretly buries only to turn up at Crosbie’s hut and is thus found after his death, to be claimed by Lydia and God knows who – all of this is quite bizarre to say the least.

Catton does well to describe and bring to life the hustle and bustle of Hokitika during its short-lived gold rush and one can be sure that many of the shenanigans described have some historical background, as in fact Catton credits the well-known (in New Zealand) historian Eldred-Grigg who wrote a populist account of the Southland gold rush days in his (2008) Diggers, Hatters and Whores. Obviously Catton made good use of it like involving the daily news sheets brought out in Hokitika, conveniently inventing a Jewish newspaper man by the name of Löwenthal. The idea that the ‘service industry’ for the gold diggers made more money than the diggers themselves is of course also well documented and The Luminaries are mostly drawn from this murky world of entrepreneurs. That there were some 120 pubs/hotels during the heydays of the 1860s Hokitika with a population of about 6,000 highly transient inhabitants is of course a statistic one can make good and entertaining use of in a novel of this sort. Given the enormous money-go-round it was no wonder that a far-off place down under could sport the latest furniture from London as well as assorted fashions of the day, not to speak of delectable food and drink imported from afar. Visually this was very well exploited in the movie The Piano (directed by the NZ director Jane Campion) whereby a piano was transported to a pioneer’s cottage somewhere in the middle of nowhere, sparing no expense and effort to have the darn piece of furniture dragged through the mud and rain that is so iconic for many parts of NZ even today (it is of course a nice touch that the novel itself ends with the very word ‘rain’).

Before we get to the politics of the novel – or the lack of it – let us look at the language used: I suppose Catton got seduced by the newspapers of the day what with their style of language that seems so contrived today, and perhaps with the whole of Victoriana which while puritanical to the extreme also relished in a type of language that was as pretentious as it was flamboyant in its theatrical embodiment. The professional classes wrote their missives in a manner that was both laughable and exulted. Catton put in a huge effort to replicate this style, and while successful for the most part, it reads in the end like a Victorian Mills and Boons. She should have adopted a Dickensian approach and cut out the frills and spills. Whilst it is quite cute to spell ‘connection’ as ‘connexion’ and reduce evil Victorian swearwords like ‘damned’ to ‘d-ned’, one is put out, so to speak by the overwrought language that even the working classes in the novel seem to come up with. One would have wished for some more Victorian Cockney as many of the characters seems to originate from London. To Catton’s credit she also introduced two other languages in their original wording, namely Cantonese and Maori, which also brings me to the characterisation of the protagonists involved.

The two Chinese characters, Quee Long and Sook Yongsheng, play quite different roles, what with Sook Yongsheng having a parallel history with ‘blackguard’ Carver and gaoler Shepard and second-hand wife Margaret – all of whom reunite in Hokitika of all places and play out their convoluted connexions. The history of Chinese diggers as indentured labourers in New Zealand is of course a classical case of exploitation close to slavery, and Catton makes a good fist of it by letting the European rednecks use extreme violence against the ‘stinking Chinaman’. On the other hand she present both characters as somewhat bumbling simpletons who fail in all their endeavours such as killing Carver and/or making enough money to get back to China. That they cannot speak English properly is a cliché that echoes today’s ESOL industry in New Zealand (note the only French character in the story, Gascoigne, speaks English quite perfectly, as does the Jewish Löwenthal who stems from Germany – wouldn’t both French and German accents make for good entertainment?! ). Surely the British must come a close second to the Germans in their disdain of people of colour who cannot speak their tongue – even if they do (but the colour bar simply renders it impossible).  New Zealand is still a vastly mono-lingual country even though it is officially a bi-cultural and bi-lingual one, which brings us to the other language, namely Maori.

The solitary Maori character, Te Rau Tauwhare – not being a member of the luminaries of course – is much different to the Chinese in that he is portrayed as  a ‘noble native’ who does his very own thing, wandering around the bush looking for pounamu and otherwise educating the willing Pakeha (like Crosbie Wells) in te reo Maori and tikanga, both concepts that the unwilling colonist-Pakeha (like most of the luminaries) do not have the intellectual wherewithal to deal with. The whole idea of a solitary Maori stalking the story line like some exotic bird is somewhat of a cliché, especially as the philosophical Maori is one that values whanau above making friends with Pakeha who by and large rape the land for its mineral riches and leave a big mess behind. There is even an allusion by Catton (via Te Rau) that the nobility of the  Maori language is so far removed from crass everyday English that it is sometimes impossible to translate between the two languages, a notion that is in vogue with cultural relativists, but is total nonsense in linguistic terms. To be sure, some of the English natives of this world have much to answer for in terms of their imperialist and genocidal politics and armed interventions: for example the Chinese and Maori in general were hard done by, suffering injustices and insults around every corner: it’s just that this has nothing to do with language per se. Catton who hails from the South Island in NZ but grew up in an internationalist family with North-American leanings (and got part of her literature education from the writer’s Workshop in Iowa) should have a good idea about Maori and Maori politics and history and as such portray Maori in her fiction as ‘special’ because that’s what makes New Zealand special. For this to succeed one has to do much more (descriptively and imaginatively) than introduce a solitary Maori into the Aotearoa landscape, much in the same manner as Australian writers introduce the solitary Aborigine as a tracker who shows the Europeans what is what but otherwise disappears into the background as some sort of unsubstantial supporting actor. It is perhaps no surprise that the only other NZ Booker Prize winner was Keri Hulme in 1985 with her Maori-based novel called the Bone People, and which was in a time when English literature from the colonies was written, if at possible, by indigenous (or at least semi-indigenous) authors. This trend was of course occasioned by the English language literature explosion in India (and in the Caribbean to some extent) what with Arundhati Roy and her The God of small things being a prime (and actually very deserving) example. New Zealand’s indigenous populations of Maori and other Polynesian peoples have always been kept to the sidelines, in literature and otherwise. Eleanor Catton as a sort of internationalist (north-American) Kiwi author did well to resurrect a historical episode of New Zealand but she did not achieve a well proportioned depiction of what in the 1860s was the last stand of Maori against  European/British oppression and land alienation – the so-called Maori wars of the 1860s find no mention at all in her book. Hence in depicting a solitary Maori figure in the sea of European-British ‘luminaries’, she does a disservice to Maori and Maori history. Authors do have the task to educate readers when it comes to ‘historical novel’ and this task is ever more important in the contemporary context, especially as Maori grievances against the Crown are played out in the Waitangi Tribunal, what with historical data playing a key role. The majority of Pakeha New Zealanders are still ignorant in these matters and are prone to hold racist views that are no different from those held in the 1860s. I just saw an Internet article entitled something like ‘the best 20 or so novels to read that address racial discrimination’ and The Luminaries certainly wouldn’t qualify.

So let us turn to the thorny issue as to why the novel lacks a political perspective. Detractors will immediately claim that a novel doesn’t have to have one. I disagree because all good stories convey, covertly or overtly, life as we know it, hence are political in nature. The Luminaries even has a politician in it and as such should covey the New Zealand politics of the 1860s. However what we learn in the novel about Mr Lauderback is only a vague approximation: yes, there are the usual machinations and manipulations of the electorate, the empty promises, the wheeling and dealing, the normal immorality of philandering, the revengeful character and so on. Such a disastrous political landscape begs for analysis: that Catton doesn’t provide one is best explained in that she perhaps doesn’t have one, or worse, that she is implicated in and approves of these processes as some sort of normality. As such it is no surprise that the current PM, John Key, has endorsed the novel as a good read. You couldn’t get a worse recommendation. Consider the reverse: J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy with its benign political critique of contemporary British politics was savaged by the political right (the Conservatives) as a sort of communist manifesto, hence one must assume that if they were to read The Luminaries, they would concur with their political peer, PM John Key (I am putting words in his mouth), that it is a good read that upholds good old Victorian values, values colonialism as a commendable policy, promotes ‘gold’ as an economic necessity, renders ‘aliens’ and indigenes to the periphery, accepts the governmental institutions (goal, court, Reserve Bank, etc.) as God-given (note the half-baked prison chaplain who helps Anna and other souls in need of comfort), and generally celebrates the laissez-faire of the ‘free market’ as long as not too many common laws are broken in the process: to obtain a ship by fraud and blackmail is in the novel frowned upon but it is quite OK to buy and sell ‘indentured’ labour. Above all the novel seems to concur with – if not to celebrate – the pioneering spirit of the time, a spirit that is upheld today, of the pioneering entrepreneur who steps over corpses to make a billion or more, the rough and tumble of greed and decadence, the imperial mind-set that allows people to exploit natural resources wherever they please, causing pollution and natural degradation wherever they operate (gold mines in NZ to this day cause untold chemical wastelands) – and finally - and perhaps most incomprehensible since it involves a female author – the degradation of women as ‘camp followers’ and ‘whores’ as if this was an inevitable accompaniment of the times (and to this very day). Feminist literature seems to have died out: the women in the novel are by and large pathetic creatures, in the service of men, and in the case of Lydia, are as conniving and Thatcher-like as can be.

The whole novel is thus reduced to a very well crafted (twisted) sailor’s yarn that can be read on steamship from Southampton to Sydney to Dunedin. It has no political consequence and is as entertaining as a good Hollywood movie. Hokitika comes to life as a gold rush town where things happen when men and women engage in a pointless exercise, when everyone is in everybody else’s pocket, when fortunes are made and lost at the back of coolies, when diggers move on to the next field, when the mud and the rain turn the landscape into contradiction between nature and mankind. It made no sense in the 1860s and it still makes no sense today as a historical treatise cum novel. As Marx said (with my emendation in brackets): to repeat history the first time is a tragedy, to repeat it a second time (and again and again in historical novels like The Luminaries) is a farce.


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