Sunday, 14 February 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 35 - "The Luminaries," by Eleanor Catton

There are few substantial land-masses in the world more remote than New Zealand, fifteen hundred kilometres distant from Australia in one direction, and nine hundred kilometres from the Polynesian islands of Fiji and Tonga in the other. As such, it is unsurprising that it was one of the last such land-masses to be settled by humans. Whilst, in the Old World, the civilisations of Assyria and Egypt; Greece and Rome, rose and fell, the wild animals of New Zealand (including such evolutionary oddities as the flightless moa and kiwi) had their islands to themselves, an Eden without an Adam or an Eve to name or exploit them.

The first Polynesian colonists seem to have arrived in the second half of the 13th Century AD, and their descendants, the Maori, who named the islands "Aotaroa," went on to develop one of the most sophisticated civilisations of the Pacific region. Their first encounter with Europeans was, ominously, a violent confrontation with the Dutch crewmen of Abel Tasman in 1642. The coastline of New Zealand was mapped in much greater detail by James Cook, in 1769, and the territory became a colony of the British Crown in 1841. It was settled, neither with slaves (as the American colonies had been), nor with convicts (as in Australia), but by families from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, coming in the hope of a better life, initially from sheep-farming, and trade with the Maori.

New Zealand emigration poster, 1839 (image is in the Public Domain).

A Maori family in the 1880s, by Josiah Martin, Musee de l'Homme, Paris (image is in the Public Domain).

Everything changed, however, when gold was discovered in the Otago district of New Zealand's South Island in 1861. European prospectors, many of whom had been disappointed in the earlier gold rushes of Australia (1851), Colorado (1859) and British Columbia (1860), flocked to New Zealand, where they were joined by a small army of Chinese labourers. Predictably, there were always many more prospectors than there were fortunes to be made, and, whilst many trusted to luck, there were others quite prepared to use criminal means to prey on the luck of the fortunate few. New Zealand's "Wild South" was every bit as wild as its Western American equivalent.

Gold nugget from Arrowtown, Otago. Photo: Bgabel (licensed under GNU).
Gabriel's Gully, Otago, in 1862, showing the tents of prospectors. Photo: Harry Gore, National Library of New Zealand (Alexander Turnbull Library) - image is in the Public Domain.
Reconstructed huts of Chinese prospectors at Arrowtown. Photo: Rob Young (licensed under CCA).

By 1864, the attentions of the prospectors had shifted from the inland gold-fields of Otago to the western coast of South Island, around the settlement of Hokitika, already a place of importance to the Maori as a source of pounamu (jade), which they valued far more highly than gold.

Hokitika Bay. Photo: HerrSchnapps (licensed under CCA).
Hokitika township in the 1870s. Photo: James Ring (1856-1939), National Library of New Zealand (image is in the Public Domain).
Chinese miners at Arrowtown. Photo: National Museum of New Zealand (image is in the Public Domain).

1860s Hokitika, a small and hastily built settlement in which Europeans, Maori and Chinese live uneasily together, provides the setting for Eleanor Catton's novel, The Luminaries. An apparently luckless prospector has been found dead, and an unexpected fortune has been discovered in his home. Another prospector, thought to have been far more successful, has disappeared without trace. A group of twelve men gather in a hotel to unravel this series of interconnected mysteries, and into this gathering steps a stranger, Walter Moody, but, in a community that has greed as its principal common denominator, nobody knows who they can trust. Wherever Europeans have trusted their destinies to fortune, they have taken astrology with them, and astrology is one of the structuring principles of this novel.

Catton cheerfully, and magnificently, breaks many of the established "rules" of modern creative writing. Her Nineteenth Century story is written in Nineteenth Century idiom (third person omniscient; unafraid to tell, as well as show), which few contemporary writers could pull off successfully. At 832 pages, it is a longer novel than most publishers would wish to receive from a debut novelist, yet it manages, still, to be a page-turner, the sort of novel that Charles Dickens might have written if he had known Hokitika as well as he knew Rochester. Its themes (including identity theft, ethnic stereotyping, drug addiction, the sexual exploitation of migrant women), are surprisingly modern in a historical novel, yet based on close and detailed research.

"Moody's natural expression was one of readiness and attention. His grey eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern ... He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed of the kind of roguish, unsullied vigour that conveys neither gullibility nor guile ... He had, in short, an appearance that betrayed very little about his own character, and an appearance that others were immediately inclined to trust ... "

"'We must do away with the old,' Shepard said. 'I will not suffer whores, and I will not suffer those who frequent them.'

Shepard's autobiography (a document which, if ever penned, would be rigid, admonishing and frugal) did not possess that necessary chapter wherein the young hero sows his oats and strays ... He had always been irreproachable in his conduct, and as a consequence, his capacity for empathy was small. Anna Wetherell's profession did not fascinate him in the least, and he had no boyhood memories of tenderness or embarrassment to soften him towards the subtleties of her trade; when he looked at her, he saw only a catalogue of indiscretions, a volatile intelligence, and a severe want of promise. That a whore might attempt to take her own life did not strike him as a remarkable thing, nor a very sad one; in this particular case, he might even call a termination merciful. Miss Wetherell lived by the will of the dragon, after all, a drug that played steward to an imbecile king, and she would guard that throne with jealous eyes forever."

"But onward rolls the outer sphere - the boundless present, which contains the bounded past. This story is being narrated , with much allusion and repeated emphasis, to Walter Moody - and Benjamin Lowenthal, who is also present in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel, is hearing parts of the tale for the very first time. Suddenly he is put in mind of an event that occurred some eight months prior. When Thomas Balfour pauses to drink, as he is doing now, Lowenthal steps forward, around the billiard table, and raises his hand to indicate that he wishes to interject. Balfour invites him to do so, and Lowenthal begins to narrate the memory that has so recently returned to him, speaking with the hushed gravity of one conveying very important news ... "

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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