I love finding new ways to look at our history. It’s so tempting to think of colonial times as English vs Maori that it’s easy to disregard all the other nationalities and peoples who arrived on all those ships, all those years ago. On 22 January 1859, the Equator delivered a young German man from Neubrandenburg to Wellington, and I am very glad he came.
Friedrich August Krull must have been an extraordinarily warm, capable and interesting man. The person who emerges from these letters is a curious and welcoming observer, and a charming teller of tales. I really wish I’d had this book during my history degree, because it gives you a real sense of what it would have been like to live here in the nineteenth century. Krull describes the people, places and ways of living so deftly and vividly that I felt a shock of new understanding.
It was a different time. Societies and lands were being formed, broken, and reformed in new patterns. Maori outnumbered Pakeha and the threat of interracial violence was never too far below the surface. Krull’s observations of the Maori he met are fascinating: he comments on their strange customs but seems to be free of the common European urge to ‘civilise’. He exchanges gifts and makes friends wherever he goes.
The natural environment was different then too. My favourite part of my journey with Friedrich was tramping with him through the bush: gluttonous foliage and deafening birdsong for miles upon miles upon miles. The mozzies must have been dire but he doesn’t dwell on them, describing instead his enchantment with the fresh and bursting beauty of the nineteenth-century Wellington landscape.
The publisher has sprinkled period illustrations liberally throughout the text, but I found them to be a distraction. With such a vivid, luscious film unspooling through my head from Friedrich’s words, the tiny, drab watercolours and amateur sketches looked dreary and at odds with the story. I also found I had to intentionally ignore the illustrations’ captions, in order to not interrupt the flow of the text.
But, in the main, Krull’s letters have been lovingly and beautifully published. The book is physically solid and satisfying – it feels exactly the right size, weight and texture, and the design and typesetting is superb (well done Greg Simpson). I particularly liked the choices of fonts, which work together in a way I wouldn’t have thought of, but which is exactly right.
Interestingly, the publishers have made the decision to use modern spellings of place-names, including macrons for Maori words where appropriate. While I understand this drive to change the author’s voice for the sake of clarity, I would have been curious to learn, for example, how Krull spelled ‘Maori’ in German.
Overall, then, I highly recommend letting Friedrich August Krull take you on a guided tour around his Wellington. He is so enthusiastic, so curious, so eager to learn, to be pleased and to teach. An Indescribable Beauty is an unexpected joy.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
An Indescribable Beauty: Letters home to Germany from Wellington, New Zealand, 1859 & 1862
by Friedrich August Krull
Published by Awa Press