May 22, 2012

Post-festival thoughts: what visiting writers take away

“The tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart.”

As do the writers. The international stars of AWRF 2012 have departed along with the golden gnomes who flanked their armchairs on the stage of the ASB Theatre, although the loss of these last might be assuaged by the arrival of by a giant gold-trimmed carousel outside in the square, which I only figured out right now might be related to the arrival of Mary Poppins – the show, not the nanny, or, as PL Travers might have said, “the show, not the book” (although I think she didn’t dislike the show based on her book as much as she did the movie).

Speaking of international authors who depart, do you sometimes wonder what image of New Zealand they take away? I remember Christos Tsiolkas telling me at an AWRF a few years back about how he had spotted a sign as he exited his hotel for a place called Café Olympus or Café Zeus or something and, assuming it was a Greek establishment, headed straight there to enjoy a Greek coffee -- only to find a Chinese family behind the counter.“Christos, this is Auckland, not Melbourne!”

The great poet and adventurer Blaise Cendrars (a passion I share with Donald Kerr, Special Collections Librarian at University of Otago) passed through New Zealand at some point between the wars, wild years for him which he spent criss-crossing the world by land and by sea. He wrote about his impressions of New Zealand in his book Dan Yack, published in 1929, a notably modern book for its time with a note on the first page to say that it was not written but dictated entirely into a DICTAPHONE (capitals his). He goes on to say, “What a pity that the pages of a book do not yet have sound. But it will come. Poor poets, let us keep working.”

Dan Yack is Cendrars’s alter ego, and this is what Dan Yack has to say about New Zealand back then:

"If there exists anywhere in this world a Land of Tenderness, it seems at first sight to be New Zealand. On these favoured isles great flocks of pedigree sheep and cattle graze the tender grass in the small valleys. From one end of the year to the other, nothing comes to disturb them. You can travel by car for days, or on horseback for weeks, without ever meeting a living soul: you can cross peaks, descend again into new valleys, without ever leaving the pasture-lands. Apart from a petrified cataract, a wild corner that looks like a miniature Switzerland (and is reserved for newly-weds who come to spend their honeymoon there, or old couples who come to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary), and what little remains of the primitive flora of the country --- a few groves of rare and curious tropical plants, notably the giant cruciferous ferns, which are as flourishing here as in Ceylon – nothing picturesque ever strikes the eye. The whole of the interior of the country is divided into rectangles by high fences, with five strands of barbed wire, which separate the pastures; valley dovetails into valley, hill follows hill, nothing comes to interrupt the uniformity, the monotony of the gleaming grass spread everywhere, this dark-green grass which reflects the sky like water, dominates the landscape and gives it an aspect of calm, repose, peace and a warm silence.

"With a little bit of luck, you might chance to stumble upon a cluster of tall eucalyptus trees full of the cooing of doves, and, sheltering beneath their shade, a farm, if you can call this brand-new bungalow a farm, inhabited as it is by a colonist rather than a peasant, and a middle-class housewife rather than a farmer’s wife; they dress for dinner every evening, he in a dinner jacket, she in an evening gown, to play the pianola together or huddle over the radio.

"This couple is always very young-looking, although it’s often an old established household, where the boys are passionately devoted to sport and the young girls cling superstitiously to the social conventions and to the protocol of French etiquette in the colleges and clubs on the coast. Tens of thousands of similar couples are scattered about the solitude of the country, leading exactly the same respectable and well-to-do life from one year to the another, and no external event ever comes to disturb the monotonous and sublime course of their sentimentality. Time has passed. They have grown old without realizing it. But they have preserved all the illusions of the heart and the vigour of the senses. They live a deux. For themselves. Egotistical and complacent.

"Thus, the mentality of each New Zealander is insular several times over, because each couple is isolated in their own personal feeling of contentment, each farm is a Robinson Crusoe’s island amidst the solitude of the pastures, and the twin islands, which appear like a double oasis on the waters, are not welcoming, but close ranks and defend themselves fiercely against any immigration. New Zealand has broken her moorings and remains in contact with the rest of the world only through a moral link that attaches her to Great Britain, of which country every New Zealander is immeasurably proud to be a distant descendant, thus adding a feeling of pride to his insularity and confirming him in his rejection of all human fraternization.

"… This success, this maintaining of a precarious civilization at the furthest ends of the earth, this specialized and material activity, this total absence of moral grandeur, this lack of ambition, this extravagant practice of sports and games, this cult, this adulation of the body, this voluntarily restricted horizon, this intransigence, this lack of tolerance in the manifestations of social life, these concessions to nothing but well-being and personal comfort, this lack of humanity, these narrow prejudices and this complicated ceremonial which lays down the different degrees of worthiness of human beings, this situation of a group of people at the ends of the earth, this voluntary insularity, exclusive and individual, this optimism a deux, this mutual admiration in the bosom of the family, this complaisance in the face of everything concerning love, this communal salacity, this erotic curiosity which affects the young people very early and which still shakes couples in their extreme old age, this self-satisfaction, this pride, this arrogance, this selectivity, this refusal to cross-breed, this fine health of the body – in brief, all that the New Zealander of today considers to be his conquest and his achievement, the manifest signs of his independence from old Europe, and even this independence itself .. when one looks at all this close to, making allowances for a certain materialistic aspect that modern life tends to take on more and more in every region of the globe, and especially in the most far-flung places, where this contemporary trend towards uniformity and massiveness is increasing day by day; one perceives that nothing has changed in these islands, that New Zealand has made no progress at all, and that life continues as in the time of the cannibals and expresses itself through a whole series of laws, interdictions, repressions and cruel dreams under the aegis of the great god Taboo."

-- from Dan Yack, 1929







Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00
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