There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sails,
There gloom the dark, broad seas …
- Tennyson, Ulysses
For the record, let me be numbered amongst the admirers of the New Zealand pavilion at the 2012 Frankfurt Buchmesse – an arrangement of outsized book-shapes, three to four metres tall, within which were concealed caves hung about with clumps of New Zealand books on wires like strands of kelp, with wool-covered forms scattered about for visitors to sit and read or listen to a soundtrack of bush noises, muffled recitations of poetry and musical kiwiana; and all of this set beneath a ceiling of twinkling stars on an “island” surrounded by a glassy paddling-pool ocean. This was an island nation I was happy to call home, although for me the stronger visual impression was of a migratory waka, with books as sails, bearing passengers across unfamiliar seas to some mysterious landfall, as the deep moaned round with many voices.
So what if, on the first day of the Fair, some dozen or so guests stumbled into the dimly-lit room and straight into the water, prompting the management to instruct the stewards to whisper a multi-lingual warning to all entering the venue? I would have thought it was only proper that, in their efforts to engage with the book-culture of our corner of the Pacific, some people would end up with wet feet.
Guest of honour status at the Buchmesse grants the nation so favoured the right to stage a writers and readers festival alongside the world’s largest publishing trade fair. Under the moniker “While you were sleeping”, New Zealand fronted a creditable line-up of living treasures and enfants terribles, foodies and crime writers, children’s writers and digital media entrepreneurs, with cameo appearances by Ministers of the Crown, singers, carvers, kapa haka groups, actors, broadcasters (have I left anyone out?), all fueled by bottomless barrels of lamb and Marlborough chardonnay.
That said, the main business of Frankfurt takes place elsewhere, in a maze of halls connected by travelators and a free mini-bus service, through ritual tete-a-tetes over iPads between smartly dressed publishers and distributors and agents. (I was told that most of these discussions are continuations of others begun at the Leipzig and Bologna book fairs, that they will be resumed in London and Rome and Beijing, and that 90 percent of them will come to nothing.) Though the subject of all these interchanges is books, and they are conducted in book-lined stalls displaying all the latest titles, this is not really a place for the writers of books (think of farmers in dungarees witnessing their lovingly-produced wares being sliced and diced at the Chicago Futures Exchange), nor indeed for their readers (the books are not for sale, although some publishers will sell their stock on the last day of the fair, in order to lighten their luggage on the journey home).
Life for the New Zealanders at the Buchmesse revolved around the pavilion (affectionately known as “the pav”), a number of other performance venues around the city, Hall Eight (where the NZ publishers had their stands), and the “Green Room”, the nerve-centre of the Kiwi effort, where presenters lowered their heart-rates prior to their curtain calls, and from which I emerged one morning to find the ground floor cafeteria packed and the unmistakable voice of Arnold “Terminator” Schwarzenegger, regaling the locals with, I assume, tidbits from his newly-published memoir, Total Recall (reputedly anything but). I can report that he has that strong German accent even when he is speaking German.
Our guest of honour status brings up that unsettling question: what exactly is New Zealand literature? I never heard the question posed as such in Frankfurt, but it didn’t need to be. Many if not all of our readings and panel discussions (including the one into which I slipped as a late ring-in) strained in some fashion to answer it.
From within the narrowest brief of the Green Room team the answer is clear. New Zealand literature is intellectual property, a “weightless” export that does not evoke angst about fossil fuel consumption, and that generates a stream of bankable returns to individuals and entities residing in New Zealand, at least for tax purposes if not for much more. And they have a valid point. What writer would not, on the basis of export earnings, want to be counted as classmates with the NZ wine export industry?
Yet, for those who don’t view the possession of a NZ passport as proof of New Zealand-ness the question remains. Iceland, our immediate predecessor as guest of honour, has its own language, which most of its writers use. This can be said too of almost all of the GoHs in the last decade – including China, Turkey, Russia, Catalonia and Lithuania. And Brazil, to whom the torch has passed for 2013, has 80% of the world’s Portugese speakers, so it effectively has a language of its own too. Guests of honour have traditionally had a kind of hermetic quality to their culture, a quiddity brought about or accentuated by geographical or linguistic or political isolation.
This is not to say that New Zealand’s indigenous language didn’t feature prominently at Frankfurt, in waiata and mihimihi, and in those imported words that increasingly nugget the seams of contemporary NZ english. But ours is still an offshoot of English literature (as Wikipedia defines us), into which te ao Maori and te reo Maori are increasingly infused, giving us our own “hybrid vigour”. We are English without being quite English. We are clearly not American (a point everyone seemed to grasp, and which makes the Canadians envious). Nor are we Australian (a point that we like to labour, although surely we no longer need to do so), so we don’t have to put up with the assumption that all of our writing is, deep down, about a spiritual terra nullius, or the true meaning of mate-ship or of aboriginality. We have a colonial past, and it lives on in ways that alternately charm and embarrass us; and yet, unlike the literature of India or the West Indies, we don’t suffer the colonial language as a necessary evil forced upon us by linguistic fragmentation. By and large, we are affectionate towards the mother tongue, and have fun using it.
One thing that was obvious to the burgers of Frankfurt about New Zealand, I believe, is that, unlike the City of Oakland, there is a there here. Though what that there consists of seems willfully elusive and as yet unsettled. (The best fun I had in Frankfurt was at a performance called “Carnival of Souls”, in which a 1960s American B-grade horror movie was screened, with its original soundtrack supplanted by live lip-synching actors and musicians and sound-technicians. So very Kiwi!) Perhaps this is an attribute of our relative youth, that, in a young country, to paraphrase TS Eliot, the past can still be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. Perhaps this frees NZ writers to wander as rogue stars in the constellation of English literature, to play with language and form and culture, and yet to be “rooted” cosmopolitans when we want to be.
Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that art is one of the few endeavours in which we can simultaneously lose ourselves and find ourselves. Such paradoxical ways of talking can seem a cop-out, but there is for me something uniquely New Zealand – seen in our poetry and our prose, our children’s stories, and (convince me, someone) even in our writing about food – in reaching at the end for some kind of quirky irresolution. How better to get the world thinking about New Zealand-ness than to entice them with sounds and scents and imagery but to deny them any real sense of landfall?
Let us hope that the Buch-waka, dismantled though it now will be, sails on, paddles smiting the sounding furrows, charting a course between those dark waters and that endless starry night.
(As a final note, apropos of modern journalistic practice, I should point out that Thomas Merton had a New Zealand connection; his father was Owen Merton, a notable Cantabrian landscape artist. And he had a quirky ending too – initial rumours were that he was electrocuted in a Bangkok hotel room while using a hair-dryer for some purpose clearly unrelated to hair, since, as the photographs show, he was monkishly bald. The truth, more prosaic, was that it was a faulty electric fan that delivered the fatal blow.)
John Sinclair is the author of The Phoenix Song, the Listener Book Club book for December. If you are in Auckland be sure to come along to Shanghai Lil's, 311 Parnell Rd, November 13th, from 6pm where Tim Wilson will launch The Phoenix Song. The Wellington launch was excellent but we're sure Auckland will step up to the challenge and be a great night out!