Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays


The temptation of modern writers is to find in the Maori the virtues that are missing in the Pakeha and to use him as a criticism of Pakeha society. It is interesting that though there is something of this in Grace, it first appeared seriously in Katherine Mansfield, in that part of her Journal written in 1908 when she was sent on a caravan tour from Napier to Rotorua before she left again for England. The attitude, in spite of her 'visions of long dead Maoris, of forgotten battles and vanished feuds', is a real recognition of an unappreciated quality that the romances had conjured away as an old nobility remaining from a simpler and heroic society. Katherine Mansfield writes:

There is one fellow . . . who speaks English. Black curls clustering round his head band, rest, almost languor in his black eyes: a slouching walk, and yet there slumbers in his face passionate unrest and strength.

And again:

Here, too, I meet Prodgers. It is splendid to see once again real English people. I am so sick and tired of the third-rate article. Give me the Maori and the tourist, but nothing between.

At this place where the Maoris talked English as well as Maori and dressed in Pakeha fashion she 'found nothing of interest', it 'proved utterly disappointing after Umuroa, which was fascinating in the extreme'.36

And in her story, 'How Pearl Button was Kidnapped' (1910),37 page 57 Pearl Button, a little girl who lives in a suburb of 'houses of boxes' in a row, from which men go daily to offices, is led away by some Maori women who shower her with affection and make her feel shy and happier than she has ever been. They eventually persuade her to paddle in the warm (and symbolic) sea which had frightened her. But her journey to Utopia is interrupted when 'little men in blue coats' come blowing whistles to take her back to the box-like houses. It is interesting that in this story the Maoris are not called Maoris, and they speak good English: so that the reader approaches them with no preconceived attitudes.

And the contrast between Maori courtesy and Pakeha 'civilisation' is expressed in Mr Sargeson's story, 'White Man's Burden' (1936).38

We should remember that the Maori's tradition is one of communal living and co-operation: he is thrown into a competitive Pakeha world with an economic system foreign to his traditions, in which the emphasis is on the individual acquisition of money and property. The adjustment is difficult for him, and it is not for us to lecture him. The most we can do is understand and help where help is needed and desired. But even there, we have to remember that we are dealing with people who have their own thoughts and sentiments. Understanding the Maori mind can be just as fruitless as refusal to understand: ask ourselves, none of us would feel easy if we were being observed and questioned by someone humourlessly determined to understand us. There are dangers in the Pakeha writer, with his different traditions, trying to see a Maori from the Maori point of view. He is apt to create a puppet figure of his own, covering his own frustrated aspirations in a brown skin, like a hermit crab.

Mr Sargeson in his short novel, I Saw in My Dream (1949), uses the Maori as a symbol of the uncorrupted simple life as opposed to the more callous, selfish and inhibited life of the Pakeha. Roderick Finlayson in his stories of Maori life of about twenty or thirty years ago (when the population was less than two-thirds of what it is now) announces his purpose in the preface to Brown Man's Burden (1938): notice that is not Baucke's 'white man's burden', it is the brown man who is carrying the burden.

It may be asked why I have written almost solely of the Maori people in these stories of New Zealand life . . . Only among that remnant of the Maori race does one find such unconventional humanity so immoderately generous, so quietly courteous with such a cheerful neglect—often to the point of squalor—of material surroundings, and such a fine disdain for those banes of the European world—time and money. For, in spite of the destruction of Maori culture by the European, and the gradual invasion of Maori life by modern materialism, the Maori still retains much of the poetic life of his forefathers. By 'poetic,' one doesn't mean a sentimental enthusing about flowers and moonlight, but rather a life dependent on the forces and powers of Nature—a life page 58 governed by poetic justice (which in the end is God's justice) rather than by convention and mere formal justice, which can be no more than man's substitute.

Now this poetic quality is wanting among the European inhabitants, who lack a true right to the land they live in, having, as yet, no deep love of its familiar and unprofitable aspects, nor intimate understanding of its nature as the Maori had, but only a kind of curious patronage of its 'scenery' like any other alien tourist. The machine age and modern education have at once removed the means and killed the desire for identity with the soil, which is the pride and birthright of the native.

For my part, I prefer to write of those, left almost landless by the European, who are still more truly of the land than we who have dispossessed them. Others have written romantically of the old-time Maori culture. These stories deal chiefly with the annihilation of that culture by our scientific barbarism, and the something, pathetic or humorous, that yet remains.

Mr Finlayson is turning his back on Pakeha society because it is cold and callous and convention-ridden, nagged by the clock and obsessed with money and property. And his Maoris embody the antithesis of all these evils, and little else. They are pathetic and humorous, and their lives are 'dependent on the forces and powers of Nature', which means that they are governed by impulse and instinct and are frequently the victims of their own passions. Their passions are simple: love, hate, jealousy, revenge; and because they are simple, Mr Finlayson can only solve their problems by simple expedients. In the twelve stories in Brown Man's Burden, two stories end with suicide, there are two murders, one death by makutu and a sudden fatal motor accident, and one story ends with an old man getting his revenge by setting fire to his brother's whare. Mr Finlayson finds pathetic humour in Maori Christianity, when Wi gets the gospel39; when Henare, the man of good religion who does not believe in divorce, re-marries twice, on both occasions when the earlier marriage breaks up, and so becomes a trigamist.40 He is sceptical and amused at Maori efforts to forget old tribal jealousies. He finds such virtue in the carefree life of the village that he appears to be pleased when the slump forces Peta out of his Government clerical job in the city and makes him come home to work at flax-cutting.41 In another story a Pakeha is made a little more human by a brief acquaintance with the Maori.42

Mr Finlayson does not often try to enter the minds of his Maori characters, and when he does he is not convincing: their thoughts seem to be too trite and simple. He is at his best when he is observing and describing, especially scenes that involve a crowd, as in 'The Totara Tree',43 or in 'Sweet Beulah Land', where a hapu is celebrating the sale of some land to the Government on the Government's terms, celebrating but knowing that it has been tricked,44 or as in 'The Everlasting Miracle', page 59 when a young prophet announces that he will walk the waters, and some swear that he did.45

In 'The Totara Tree' a Power Board inspector wants to cut down a totara which is the birth-tree of an old woman Taranga. She climbs the tree and refuses to move.46 Below her old Uncle Tuna and Panapa, who is presumably of middle age, and younger Taikehu watch with other villagers: the younger ones get excited, dance a haka and inadvertently set fire to the scrub. When they rescue Taranga from the fire they find she has been dead for some time. The villagers bury her under the tree, so that in the end the Power Board has to leave it standing and carry the power lines clear of it.

'The Totara Tree' is successful because Mr Finlayson is describing without comment, and because he catches the tensions within this Maori community, tensions caused by different ways of adjustment to the European occupation. Uncle Tuna is of the oldest generation, as is Taranga herself; he fully believes in tapu; he is angry at the younger generation because of their mad excitement and he tells them that they have been corrupted by Pakeha ways. The younger ones do not pay much heed to Uncle Tuna now; they are caught between two worlds and they express the conflict in humour. Panapa at first sides with the more powerful: the Pakeha's 10,000 volts will make Taranga spring out of the tree; the police will drag her down. But all the same he'll laugh to see her claws on the policeman. The children too rejoice to anticipate the fun. They caress the inspector's car, symbol of his power. The soldiers will come with machine-guns and go r-r-r but Taranga will just swallow the bullets. She is a witch all right, but all the same they don't believe that old witch stuff. But when the inspector threatens them the Maoris become serious. Taikehu, who is Taranga's grandson, has no awe for Taranga but he respects the tapu of her birth-tree.

They express their communal excitement in a haka, but it is a half-humorous one. Later the haka becomes mad and excited and Uncle Tuna, knowing that this haka is a mockery of an old tradition, watches the fire they have started and sneers at this senseless generation of Maoris working their own destruction. Panapa's last comment concedes to the winner of the struggle; the Pakeha may have had 10,000 volts and a police force, but Taranga had cost them thousands and thousands of pounds. He is making his judgement in Pakeha terms.

It is Mr Finlayson's natural sympathy for the Maori that gives his stories their virtue; so long as he is sympathetically observing, he is at his best. But we should realise that 'The Totara Tree' is not only concerned with the conflict between Maori values and Pakeha values: it is also a declaration against what we usually call progress. Mr Finlayson does not only want the Auckland Electric Power Board to respect Taranga's tree; he does not want any power-lines at all. He does not ask whether the Maori objection is to offending tapu or to electricity. Yet Te Whiti laid page 60 on electricity eighty years ago at Parihaka, and right now I doubt if the people of the East Coast would object to power-lines.

In an essay published two years after Brown Man's Burden, Our Life in this Land (1940), Mr Finlayson laments the disappearance of the virtues of the pioneering period of New Zealand, what he calls 'free and natural qualities, strength of character, and healthy manhood'. Following the poet D'Arcy Cresswell, he sees science as sorcery and he deplores centralisation of government, the development of telegraph and railways, and all planning of society. So far as he offers any remedy, it is to return to a simple small-holders' agriculture under provincial governments, with horses and no tractors, growing what we need and exporting nothing. It is a romantic anarchism and Mr Finlayson may have outgrown it; but these ideas were in his mind when he wrote 'The Totara Tree'.

And, I think, that would be, from the point of view of the Maori people, the weakness of his attitude: that when he prsises their 'cheerful neglect of material surroundings' he is making squalor seem charming. He is persuading us that that one-eighth of Maori houses, the huts and baches and whares, are all right; they like to live like that; good housing would spoil them.47 He does not like them coming to the city. He is amused at their efforts to help themselves, and the more they try to adjust themselves to the fact of the Pakeha culture, the less he likes it. There is something in common between his attitude and Grace's. It is fair to insist, however, that his point is that there are values more important than material well-being.

Mr Finlayson has written with more recognition of the complexity of the problem in later stories in Sweet Beulah Land (1942), showing the degradation of Maoris in city slums or working for market gardeners near the Manukau, and in a recent story 'A Little Gift for Harry' (1952), in which a near-Pakeha's threat to disrupt a Maori community is foiled. In his short novel Tidal Creek (1948), he turns mainly to Pakeha characters, as he does again in The Schooner Came to Ada (1953), a novel of a Pacific island, presumably in the Cook group. Recently he has written some very good Primary School Bulletins which to my mind are the best historical fiction dealing with Maoris that I have read.

36 The four preceding quotations are in order from The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, (ed. J. Middleton Murry), Constable, London 1954, pp. 24, 30, 29, 29.

37 Mansfield, Katherine, Something Childish and Other Stories, Constable, London 1924.

38 Sargeson, Frank, Conversations with My Uncle, The Unicorn Press, Auckland 1936.

39 Finlayson, Roderick, 'Wi Gets the Gospel', Brown Man's Burden, The Unicorn Press, Auckland 1938.

40 'A Man of Good Religion', ibid.

41 'On Top of the Hill', ibid.

42 'Standards of Living', ibid.

43 ibid.

44 Finlayson, Roderick, Sweet Beulah Land, The Griffin Press, Auckland 1942.

45 45.   Finlayson, Roderick, Tidal Creek, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1948.

46 Mr te Hau tells me that the story recalls a real incident in the King Country when an old woman who allowed a mining company to lay a loco-track through her land claimed a higher royalty than she was given and lay for three days across the tracks to prevent the loco passing.

47 At the time of which Mr Finlayson was writing, the proportion of Maori dwellings of one or two rooms was over a half, and if one adds temporary dwellings the proportion was 67% (New Zealand Population Census, 1926, XIV; 8-9). The corresponding figures for pakeha dwellings were 9.1% and 13.5% (ibid. XIII: 4).