Book Review: The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_seventh_crossFirst published in the US in 1942, this novel is the first unabridged English translation of the original, written by German born Jewish woman Anna Seghers. Of four copies Seghers made, only one made it to publication in the US, and even then it was posted from France, the others destroyed or disappeared. In 1944, a film starring Spencer Tracy based on this book was one of the few movies of the era to depict a European concentration camp.

As we continue to be deluged with both fiction and non-fiction, movies, TV series about the war, the Holocaust, the horrific and terrible cost, pain and loss of everything during WW2, this novel remains as relevant and important as it was 70 plus years ago.

George Heisler is a prisoner in a concentration camp near a town in Germany. Like the author, George is a communist, hence his imprisonment. Along with six others, one day he escapes. This is the story of that escape, how the others are caught, how George evades capture, how he learns who to trust and who not to trust, and how living on your wits is almost fatal work. The seven crosses are a creation of the ruthless and sadistic camp commander. As each prisoner is caught he is dragged back to the camp and tied to the cross erected for the purpose. Day after day the seventh cross remains empty.

Over the course of a very desperate week George returns to the town he came from – Mainz, where he has both good and bad luck in getting help for his continuing evasion from the Gestapo and SS. For the risk remains that he may be betrayed by any one of the people he meets, or that his contacts are in turn betrayed, or make an error that puts them and all their families at risk. It is a perilous world. But as we know, us humans can be capable of great risk taking for another person, and great acts of kindness. That George makes any progress at all is a miracle, but the biggest miracle is what he discovers about himself.

This novel is exquisitely written in its detail of daily life for the average German over this time. There is much putting the head in the sand amongst the citizens, the constant worry that ears are listening and possibly misinterpreting conversations, asides, who one is seen with. The SA, SS, Gestapo and Hitler Youth are everywhere, there is endless fear that one may put a foot wrong. Right up till the very last page, George’s plight could all go wrong.

This is neither a hard read nor an easy read. It is very detailed in the minutiae of daily life and there are a lot of characters, most of whom are peripheral to the actual plot. A character list at the beginning doesn’t do enough to introduce us to all the characters. However, this is a minor issue, as the story of George is really what carries the whole thing along. It would be great to see a remake of the 1944 movie.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Seventh Cross
by Anna Seghers
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780349010670

 

Book Review: That F Word, by Lizzie Marvelly

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Icv_that_f_wordt seems like Lizzie Marvelly is someone everyone has an opinion on – a tall poppy who is poking sticks at a vast range of societal issues which are pertinent not just to the sexual and emotional health of women young and old, but also to those in the LGBTQIA community, as well as to men young and old who she sees need to be re-educated on how to treat women and girls in our society.

I also suspect that there is a feeling there too, of how dare she – a talented, privileged middle class girl who has been wildly successful as an international recording artist and who has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, suddenly turning her nose up at all those who put her there, supported her, bought her music, watched with tears in their eyes as she proudly sang the national anthem. A slip of a girl suddenly coming out with all this feminist zealot stuff, ranting, exclaiming and sweeping the curtains open, on all issues relating to being female in the 21st century. And that of course is her very point – her branding has needed re-branding to expose some much needed truths about the type of society we are currently living in, and whether this is what we really want for our children. Whether people like it or not, this young woman is challenging us to take a closer look at the community we live, work, socialise and raise our children in.

I knew I had to read this book with a very open mind. I am not the target demographic that she has written for, but I have grown up in and lived in NZ for most of my life, so understand the culture she is talking about and can identify, some of it from personal experience, with much of what she has to say. I also have two daughters in their early 20s, navigating the society that Lizzie is writing about, in fact her whole section on rape culture is something that a young woman we know is currently having to deal with. So extremely topical. How does she do?

Overall I think she has done very well. She is an excellent writer, does a superb job at getting her point and argument across with many illustrations and examples to support what she is saying. For someone so articulate though, with a great command of the language, I was annoyed at the overuse of the F-bomb especially in the first few chapters, and that word is not ‘feminist’ or ‘female’! I see her point – she is very angry. By crikey she is angry, angry at the sexist treatment she has received from boys at school, young men, people of power in the recording industry. And above all the insidious damaging power and reach of the internet.

It has to be said that her path to adulthood has not been the norm, and as interesting as it is, I do wonder how relevant or topical it will be to the majority of young women who may start to read this book. I doubt very much the average 29-year-old has accumulated such a range of life experience. I gave the book to a 16-year-old girl to read; she has read the first couple of chapters and is already bored with reading about Lizzie’s life to date, none of it really relevant to her. I am telling her to keep going, it gets better!

However her story does the set the scene, it being her own personal experience of much of what she writes about in the rest of the book. Once I had got through the first third to half of the book, she really pulled the guns out focusing on how girls and young women in NZ are portrayed in the media, advertising, social media, broadcasting, the perils of having the courage to have an opinion, the access of impressionable young teens to on-line porn (and we aren’t talking Playboy or dirty videos), the rape culture so deeply embedded in our society, abortion, the patriarchy. Not much of it is good I am afraid, it’s a scary world out there for young women.

And this is why I think it is an important book for the young women in our families and friends to read. Young women need to know that what they are seeing, reading, listening to, having to deal with in their social/sexual/work lives, is not uncommon, that many others are having similar experiences and reactions to it. This book will normalise the experiences that many, many women in New Zealand have experienced. There is power and reassurance in the sharing of information. There is no big call for unity or protest marches or petitions to Parliament. But there is power in knowing that you aren’t alone when unpleasant or bad stuff happens.

My one criticism – the title puts people off. I work in a bookshop and we haven’t sold a single copy, even though the book is right at the counter. There is no way people are not seeing it – based on the comments people make about Lizzie, her newspaper column, her persona. My theory is that it is actually that word ‘feminist’ putting people off, and my 21-year-old daughter concurred.

But don’t let this ‘judging a book by its cover’ put off the young women in your life or yourself for that matter, from reading this. In light of the #metoo movement, the ongoing drive for pay equality, the anxiety and self esteem issues many women have about their image, the savagery and trolling on social media/internet to anything related to female empowerment, I think this book is compulsory reading. Go Lizzie!

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

That F Word
by Lizzie Marvelly
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541127

Book Review: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hires_babyWow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. At all of 23 years of age, there is an urgency and energy to Annaleese Jochems’ writing. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of ‘me’, and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21-year-old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father’s home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father’s bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia’s self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line  “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.”, to the last paragraph  “For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn’t notice.” This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Baby
by Annaleese Jochems
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561667

Book Review: Selfie, by Will Storr

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selfieI am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

Will Storr’s Selfie takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways – how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading – this is one of my ‘read in the daylight hours’ books, rather than a ‘read before going to sleep’ book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self. After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient – curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity/Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below – neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can’t get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the ‘self esteem’ industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter – how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism – where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn’t! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren’t going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way – how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can’t change yourself – there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Selfie
by Will Storr
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447283652

 

AWF17: Behind the Scenes at Landfall

Another free session! Fantastic, and again 300 plus people. There was a real buzz of anticipation from this lively crowd. I suspect many were there to relive old memories of their association with Landfall over the past seventy years that Landfall has been in continuous publication for. The title of the session would suggest the exposure of numerous scandals and raking over the coals for juicy stories. A little misleading perhaps, as the session was really about celebrating this seventy year milestone. It would seem all old secrets are staying right where they are, in the Landfall vaults. But the session was lively and interesting, with no need for any salacious details, the history of the journal another intriguing morsel in the saga of publishing in this country.

landfall coversThe session was introduced by writer/editor/curator Peter Simpson who would also appear to be the unofficial historian of Landfall. Although never an editor, he has contributed regularly since 1977. Deeply immersed in NZ literature and its authors, he is very well placed as commentator on the story of Landfall and the place it holds in New Zealand’s literary development. Joining him on the panel was Ian Sharpe, editor 1985-1992, Chris Price who edited from 1993-2000, and current editor David Eggleton. I found it really interesting that each of these three editors were poets before taking up the Landfall mantle. I like to think that the poetry side of their lives provided a perfect outlet when dealing with the tumultuous life of being Landfall editor.

There were a number of themes to come out of each of the editors. Firstly, was the ongoing struggle for survival with rival magazines started up, firstly by Robin Dudding and Islands in 1972, then Sport from Fergus Barrowman in 1989. There is such a small pool of writers in New Zealand, and funding has always been very tight. The journal nowadays only survives thanks to a Creative NZ grant, and very generous funding from current owner Otago University Press. Plus, the goodwill of many contributors.

Secondly, there seems to have been a determined commitment to follow the principles set down by founding editor Charles Brasch. A magazine ‘distinctly of New Zealand without being parochial’, writers were to be paid, the perfect platform to show the world what the voices of this country were all about. There is no doubt that the high standards, level of professionalism and genuine care for New Zealand writing that defined Brasch’s legacy set the standard for the journal. In David Eggleton’s words, Landfall is a ’plucky little magazine, a prime mover of who we are’.

landfall covers 2Thirdly, the journal has always had to work hard at keeping modern and current. From post-war uncertainty around what exactly is New Zealand writing, to the post-modernism of the late 1980’s when Ian was editor, to the magazine being approachable and not too high minded for new/young writers, to recognising the increasing regionalism and cultural diversity of this country. Chris Price is particularly proud of starting the annual Landfall essay competition which is still going, having grown and developed to a high standard, contributing to the literature of this country. The latest winner of this competition is in the current issue, the 70th anniversary issue of the journal. David commented further that attracting new and young writers is a constant challenge, especially with the formidable and intimidating air Landfall has developed around it.

pp_david_eggletonThe fourth theme emerging was how damn tough these editors have had to be. A thick hide would appear to be number one requirement, to cope with being the critic of submitted work, managing writer egos, making suggestions for improvements, plus truckloads of stamina. So much going on all of the time in this 70-year history – definitely the little magazine that could. There is also always conflict over the final choices for each issue. David (left) commented that as editor, you may make mistakes in choosing what to publish, it is very hard to please everybody all the time with the content of each issue. But his final words were that each issue of the magazine ‘becomes a time capsule or a particular moment’. And really what else can it be, the fact it has lasted seventy years is testament to how it continues to be both relevant and controversial.

David spoke briefly on the impact of the digital revolution on the magazine. Landfall Review has been online since 2011, with six reviews of current New Zealand writing put up a month. It also chooses to do reviews of books that aren’t extensively covered by mainstream media, giving a much needed avenue to these lesser known books. David also says he does virtually all his communication by email, which has streamlined his job significantly, but has made his relationships with writers and reviewers less personal. He receives hundreds of submissions for each issue which is fantastic, even if it does require him to make some tough calls.

The session organiser did their cunning best to get the panel to talk about skeletons in line with the session title, but those lips were going to remain firmly sealed. There were glimmerings of the conflicts that followed Denis Glover and Robin Dudding everywhere, as well as Dinny Donovan being difficult. Landfall was always associated with factions – in Wellington the likes of Louis Johnson and Alistair Campbell; Auckland with Keith Sinclair, and Kendrick Smithyman; the North Shore with Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame and Kevin Ireland; and continually stirring the pot with his meddling James K Baxter. Oh, such stories those walls could tell! Maybe we could do with a definitive biography of Landfall – it’s first seventy years.

Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Behind the Scenes at Landfall
featuring Peter Simpson, David Eggelton, Chris Price and Ian Sharpe
Auckland Writers Festival 2017, Friday, 19 May, 2.30 – 3.30pm

AWF17: Resolution – A.N. Wilson

My second session for the day, again, a writer I had not heard of before. This man is amazing, the session was packed, full, in the gorgeous Heartland tent complete with ‘stained glass’ borders around it, the perfect setting for such a unique storyteller. A. N. Wilson is English, public school and Oxford educated. He is very well known in the UK as a writer, newspaper columnist, for his extensive writing of biographies, novels, and for his religious views. He has written biographies of all sorts of people – CS Lewis, Queen Victoria, Jesus, Dante, as well as the city of London. Much more recently his increasing interest in historical fiction has resulted in the publication of Resolution, the subject of this session.

The man is a born entertainer, and there were so many laughs from the audience as he regaled us and weaved all over the place with his tales of life on the high seas, the Pacific Islands as seen by Cook and his crew, the French Revolution, Captain Cook himself, Boswell, what scurvy does to you, a stale marriage, Goethe, public school education, and, hilariously, roast penguin.

a n wilson.jpg
Most of us will know Resolution as the ship that Captain Cook captained on his second voyage to New Zealand/South Seas over the years 1772-1775. This novel is not about the Resolution or its voyage per se, but more about George Forster who was on this voyage.

Having had enough of botanist Joseph Banks on the first voyage, that of the Endeavour, Cook employed naturalist Reinhold Forster for this second voyage. I don’t know the reason, and I vaguely recall Wilson saying something about this, but Reinhold also took his 12-year-old son Georg on the voyage with him. What an extraordinary thing to do with a 12-year-old child, going to the other side of a little explored world, looking for the southern continent – Antarctica – in a sloop not much bigger than the tent we were all sitting in.

Reinhold made himself as unpopular on the voyage as his predecessor Dr Banks did, plus it seems young Georg didn’t have the best time either, being under the control and domination of a tyrant of a father. His refusal to eat his daily ration of sauerkraut resulted in him getting scurvy which must have driven Cook crazy, but because George was under his father’s control and not Cook’s there was little Cook could do. Refusing this daily dose was a whipping offence, such was Cook’s passion for the health of his crew.

Hodges,_Resolution_and_Adventure_in_Matavai_Bay.jpg

Resolution and Adventure in Matavai Bay, by William Hodges

Georg was a born artist and during the voyage did the most exquisite and detailed drawings and paintings of flora and fauna encountered on the voyage. Fortunately, most of these works were acquired by the British Museum (another wonderful diversion story by Mr Wilson), and can be viewed there. Georg rocketed to fame when at the age of 23, he published his journal of the voyage, some weeks ahead of Cook’s journals, and considerably fatter. It was an instant success, to the absolute fury of Cook, resulting in Forster being admitted to the Royal Academy.

His future as a scientist and naturalist would appear to be sealed, and he ended up being the librarian at Mainz University in Germany. He became extremely interested in the revolutionary ideas of Benjamin Franklin and the Enlightenment, being one of the founders of the Jacobin Club. He was in Paris when an Austrian/Prussian force took control of it, resulting in him being considered an outlaw for his ideas. He ended up dying in Paris, unable to return to Germany. He was only 39, but look at what he had packed into those years. He had married unhappily, to Therese Heyne, with whom he had three children. She remarried and became a successful novelist, in the Jane Austen vein. In yet another wonderful anecdote, Wilson told the story of how he saw Forster’s small desk that he had on the Resolution with him, in a Captain Cook museum in Whitby that had been donated by a descendant of Forster’s.

Without having read the book the father-son, parent-child theme would appear to be quite strong. Wilson talked a bit about this when asked about why he chose Georg Forster as the subject for his novel. He said that he had read Reinhold’s journal of the voyage, finding it very funny, and in total understanding as to why he was known on the ship as the ‘tactless philosopher’. He did get to wondering what it would be like to have this man as his father.

Wilson, it seems, had a wonderful relationship with his father who was much older than the average father. He spent lots of time with his father, good time, but couldn’t help notice that others saw his father differently, not necessarily in a good light, from how he saw him. I think we all have this with our parents to a certain extent, but for Wilson, it would appear there was a most noticeable and puzzling difference to the two types of relationships.

Aside from this most personal of revelations, this was an extremely entertaining and polished delivery. Wilson was very at ease with this audience, we hung on his every word, he had wonderful illustrations – Forster’s art work, portraits of him pre and post scurvy, his wife, the guillotine in action. The information, the stories, the anecdotes just flowed out of him, and he was even able to incorporate the noon chiming of the Town Hall clock into yet another French Revolution piece of gore – Quasimodo, as well as the Red Arrows overhead with a passing helicopter. We would never have got that level of entertainment sitting in one of the fully enclosed Aotea Centre theatres!

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

You can see A.N. Wilson with Simon Wilson talking about The Human and the Historical, at 1.30 – 2.30pm on Sunday 21 May. 

Resolution
by A. N. Wilson
Published by Atlantic Books
ISBN 9781782398288

AWF17: Vanishing Voices, with Russ Rymer

Russ Rymer spoke at 10am, Friday 19 May at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2017.

This was a free session – yes, free! What a joy to see at 10am, the first session for the day, that the room was almost full – there were around 300 people there, I found out from a volunteer.

I went into this session knowing nothing about the writer, aside from the small blurb in the Festival programme. I wanted to be engaged by the presentation, to be stimulated by new information, ideas delivered orally rather than by the written word. This is especially fitting given that Russ Rymer was speaking about the extinction of tribal languages around the world, which he then wrote into an article for National Geographic, winning an Overseas Press Club of America Award. I gather this is the Oscars of the journalist world. He has had a very successful and respected career as a journalist and writer, also being a Guggenheim Fellow.

russ rymer

Rymer went to three regions around the world, travelling with linguists who were doing their own research – likening them to Indiana Jones-types, and with locals who could also speak English. The first place he went to was the “dark hole of language,”as linguists know it, the remote village of Pilizi in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is in the far north-eastern corner next to Bhutan. This has been disputed land for a very long time, which has left much of the state untouched, and so a rich trove for researchers. Even if it did take three days to travel to Pilizi where the language Aka is spoken.

The second area was in the Mexican desert with the nomadic Seri people, around 1000 to 1300 of them, who have a very small vocabulary as, being nomadic, they have very few possessions that they need identifying labels for. Again, this area is untouched by the West, due primarily to the murder of the first Catholic missionary in the 1700s. The third language was that of the Tuvan people, in remote Siberia. The Tuvans live an urban existence much like we do, but their language is uniquely different from the rest of Siberia and Russia. Unlike in the other two communities, approximately 200,000 people speak Tuva.

Tuvans

马上的图瓦人 (Image of a Tuvan, from Wikipedia)

This sounds pretty simple really – investigating tribes and their language around the world, suffer living in primitive conditions for a little while, speak to a few linguists, and kaboom, you have an article, and bonus an award! Not so. And not for a minute did Russ Rymer go down this path. This project of his was a life changing experience, and has turned him into an advocate for the preservation of thousands of near-extinct languages.

This is something difficult for the average first-world native speaker of English to understand. Never once have we felt that we could communicate an idea or message in any other way than we do. Consider, for example, our decimal-based counting system -learning your numbers is probably the easiest thing about the English language. Even the French change the way they count when they get to seventy. Or words for colours. In one of the languages Rymer investigates, there is no word for yellow. Yet their most precious items are necklaces made from yellow stones picked by ancestors from the rivers. The rivers were picked clean of the stones generations ago, so now there is no word for yellow, only for the necklaces. In this same language, the Aka, there are only two words for animals – those that can be eaten, and those that can’t. For the Tuvans there are 89 different words for a cow!

The anecdotes and the facts were incredibly interesting, as was Rymer’s travelogue, particularly of his time in India. But the whole crux of his research, his article and his presentation to us was: what happens when the last person who speaks the language dies? It is gone, vanished, just like that. And no way of recovering it.

And this perhaps is the greatest challenge facing language extinction – the people who speak the language are dying out, and so the language also dies. What is lost when a language dies? Language is not only words, sounds; it is the expression of ideas, thoughts, culture, identity, spiritualty, communicated in its own unique and precious way. He informed us that there are 7000 languages in the world, dying at the rate of one a fortnight. We now have only a few languages spoken by many. Look at the millions who speak Chinese, the 1.2 billion speakers of Hindi. These are staggering figures.

Here in New Zealand we have our own indigenous language – Te Reo Māori – that could well go down the same path if the careful nurturing and attention given to it over the past few decades does not continue. In Australia, 90% of the indigenous languages are considered endangered.

Loss of a language is also loss of a culture, loss of identity, loss of pride. So much of how things are done in a community are wrapped up in oral communication, for example, in Pilizi, disputes are solved by an elder or shaman telling a story complete with metaphors that fixes whatever the problem was. What was particularly interesting was hearing about the amount of environmental and ecological knowledge, centuries old, wrapped up in these endangered languages. Being urban-based, we have lost touch with the land, with nature. Scientists are finding that by interviewing peoples in their native languages, they are learning much more about the local ecosystems than they ever could have by their own observation and research.

I could go on and on with what I learnt and enjoyed from this session. I was especially pleased at the end when two women, one younger Māori, one older Pakeha, stood up, greeted him in Māori and thanked him most graciously for his time and for contributing to the preservation of endangered languages. The younger woman was now ensuring her children were learning to speak Te Reo, which led Rymer onto his final point: How absolutely crucial that it was for parents to talk to their children and grandchildren in their own language, not just for the sake of the words, but for the preservation of the ideas and cultural values that those words articulate.

I found this session very enlightening. Rymer was a wonderful speaker, warm, gracious, funny, and I think a little stunned by what these two women had to say, stating that he will have to come back to New Zealand to study further the state of Māori language in this country, something it was pretty clear he knew very little about – his appalling pronunciation of the word Māori– but he was so gracious and humble, I think we could forgive him!

Attended and Reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ