I’ve been reading Hamish Clayton’s novel Wulf, which Penguin published last year. It’s his first novel, and a few weeks back won the New Zealand Society of Authors award for best first novel of 2012. I can see why. Fantastic stuff.
The story pivots – creatively – around a real episode in New Zealand’s history; the notorious Elizabeth affair. Back in 1830, Captain John Stewart was persuaded by the chief Te Rauparaha (Clayton’s ‘Wulf’) to carry a war party south to the Akaroa peninsula. Stewart and his crew were complicit in the atrocities that followed, including what by British law was kidnapping, murder and cannibalism.
Clayton’s fictional version is unashamedly literature, formed as a Saxon epic poem. It is not ‘history’ in a literal sense. People of 1830 didn’t talk and behave as he portrayed them. His lead character is soulful, poetic, intellectual - the antithesis of rough sailors of the day. Clayton’s words speak to modern values, styles – the very things that make the book such great literature; he offers an epic, haunting experience for the twenty-first century reader.
And I think all of this enhances – not diminishes - the value of the book as a voice commenting on our history.
Let me explain. I’ve written the factual story of the Elizabeth affair into several of my non-fiction books – most recently Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, where I devoted half a chapter to it. And there is one curious fact – every source varies in the details. Sometimes opposing each other.
That has been the story for me – the fact that it has come down in versions, that we cannot reduce the tale to a coherent list. I devoted a chunk of that chapter in Convicts to the differences. But it doesn’t mean the truths of what happened are a mystery – quite the opposite. All the evidence, however much it collides in detail, points to a single coherent truth. We get a clear picture of the dissonance between British and Maori values, the strictness with which Maori adhered to Maori protocols – and the disgraceful way the British captain and his sailors disregarded British ones.
This is what history is really all about – events whose meaning highlight the human condition. I approached it one way in Convicts. Clayton has done so in a completely different way in Wulf. Allegory and metaphor – all the art of writing, in short – still conveys the real truth about what happened when people of one culture were removed from the frameworks that constrained them and fell to the lure of what was forbidden to them in their own world.
It’s not just a New Zealand historical thing. It’s called succumbing to temptation.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012