Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Welcomed to the wharenui

Oh, wow. A completely un-academic analysis, but that is my reaction to Potiki. It is so beautifully written, with passages that are at once stunning yet so real. More precisely, they describe a shocking event but do so the way you would watch a shocking event happen in real life. The narrators describe them in an even measure, a stunned acceptance; there is no panic or dramatic flair in the telling of their story. When Toko describes the burning of the wharenui, there is the moment when Manu wakes from sleepwalking: And then Manu began to shout too, 'It is! It is! Oh it's real! We're all awake and it's real! Fire is here, and burning!'
'Leave me,' I said. 'Go and help them.'
'People are making a chain to the sea.'
'Leave me and join them,' I said. ...
The firemen were running with the hoses, jetting the water into the flames, but the roof had gone. The great head of the great ancestor that looked out towards the people whenever they advanced across the marae had gone.... We could only stand silent in the night's silence and in the night's darkness. (135-36)
The scene, for me, is so vivid, yet at the same time, poetic and abstract as if you are watching a video from something that has already occured and already been healed. It is even difficult for me to say "Grace tells the story so beautifully, so evenly, so objectively and with so much empathy", because the characters and the narrators she has created are the ones who tell the story. Perhaps her extraordinary technique is so jolting for me because I am a reader who usually skims the descriptive passages to get to the next part, the next important event or action. I am not, by nature, a reader who savours descriptions. In Potiki, though, the description is so entrinsically woven into the story, it cannot but be savoured.
And this is what makes the novel so powerful, to me, because it is about stories and about weaving stories into our everyday lives. When I was growing up, we moved a lot. My dad worked for a large engineering and construction company and we moved every 3 years, when a site was finished, to the new site. We lived all over the country, so for me, my 'childhood home' is my grandparents' house in Arkansas. All my dad's family lives within 3 miles of their house, my grandmother's kitchen is always the gathering place. There is never anything really going on, just the day to day lives of my relatives as some stop by to visit and others have to leave to go to work. But there is always a group of people in the kitchen- sitting at the bar or at the table- my grandmother (believe it or not she is Granny too) is always there in the same chair unless she is cooking and moving about the kitchen, which is about half the time, and not much changes. There is hardly ever a new car, a new significant other, a new job (but when there is, it's big news), but there is always good food and there is ALWAYS stories.
I would visit twice a year, my dad, my sister, and I were the outsiders, really, but we never felt like it. I loved to listen to them tell stories about people they all knew, and the stories behind the stories, and the stories of those people's families. I didn't know any of the people they talked about, but I loved to listen. And they asked me for all kinds of stories, not just the big ones, but how I spent my day to day life.
There was a paper mill where Gramps and my uncles worked in this tiny little town. It shut down and now my cousins work in fast food restaurants or the one grocery store, or drive an hour to work in the nearest city. My Dad started at the paper mill too, but he go out after a few years. I'm glad he did, but I'm also, selfishly, glad they all stayed there and created this longstanding place that I think of as home, even though I never lived there.
Potiki reminded me so much of that place. Hemi reminds me of Gramps, Roimata reminds me of my Granny more than Granny in the story does, Tangi is a lot like my sister. Nobody wants their land, though. Which also made me think about the resort that Dollarman and his associates wanted to bring - made me think a step further about the people who would be coming to enjoy these 'amenities'. People like us, and my family in ARkansas, would go if they could afford it. They would go to work everyday and try to make a bigger pay check or try to save everyday and forgo some 'amenities' in their daily life (such as, maybe, some of their time at home so they could work overtime) to be able to go. And this doesn't mean that they value family less, or that they are superficial, but it struck me that these types of vacations, which are full of distractions and attractions, are kind of a superficial way to spend quality time with your family.
The people in Potiki know the value of what they have, they know they have all that they need, and they don't waver in that. This is where their faith, their goodness, and their strength spring from. We see, in the end, that the Dollarman's power is no match for that.

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