What makes a novel political? In the salubrious surrounds of the Heartland Festival Room the expectant gather for Fiona Farrell’s lecture and settle in with their wines. What follows is accomplished, rich and moving (what goes better with wine than sweet words?).
Does the novel’s political status depend on authorial intention or because contemporary political figures are mentioned? And why is it that her most recent work, the novel Decline and Fall on Savage Street, the companion volume to The Villa at the Edge of Empire, is the only one of her works that has been dubbed political?
Fiona agrees with Carol Hanisch that the personal is political; you cannot escape it. Every imagining is inescapably political – all of her own works are political for they are the product and culmination of her Irish ancestors arriving here, having an education and the good health to write, and the readers with the money to buy her books.
Julius Vogel, flush with the success of the colonies and in his ‘gouty retirement’, wrote New Zealand’s first political novel, Anno Domino 2000 – it was ‘tosh’. There are other, better known (and simply better) examples: 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale ‘have regained currency’ in light of the Five Eyes network, mass surveillance, images of burqas and conceptions of Islam. Fiona’s point is that the ‘political is reframed within our preoccupations’.
In some novels, the political dimension is quieter. There is Jane Austen with her efficient, coded comments: by using ‘retrench’ in relation to Sir Walter’s finances in Persuasion, she alludes to the libertine Prince Regent’s response to a parliament asking him to reign in his spending. Words become politically charged. We are asked to consider ‘excellence’ and ‘opportunity’ – these are loaded, tinged with the neoliberal.
But in this sphere, absence is also striking. There are no novels about the Wahine or Erebus disasters. Fiona suggests that perhaps we feel too close in a small country, that ‘fiction is eclipsed by reality’. War novels were written long after the war. It was some 20 years before Robin Hyde’s Passport to Hell, and Maurice Gee’s Plumb was written decades after the events he describes in it. Fiona contends that these imaginings are closer to the truth than the journalism of the time with its edits, omissions and political motivations.
The novel can place its ‘finger on the incident so tiny it would otherwise go unnoticed’ and can lead to a change in thinking. But in the public sphere, our divides are not critically examined – gender, race and the political, where left is set against right in a ‘fierce and visceral manner’. It is not the law that silences us, but rather what Fiona dubs ‘supermarket syndrome’ – fear we might bump into people or lose that promotion. Instead our public political imaginings are left to the political commentators, the likes of Garner and Hosking.
Finally, Fiona turns to Christchurch and its prolonged disaster – the subject of her two books. Its unsteady ground was charged with disaster capitalism and the dominant narrative that played out was that ‘it was a great place to do business’. In Christchurch, the writing is on the hoardings at the library under construction; they speak of break-out rooms, an espresso bar and so on, but no mention of books. Here, Fiona identifies a public dismissal of fiction, part of the same movement and culture that does not respect universities, that lauds money and the physical.
The novel does such important work in a nation lacking wider critical political discourse. It can locate the ‘Tiny intimate pain where all politics have their origin and end’.
I was moved to think that quietly and thanklessly, the New Zealand fiction writers carry on, boats against the current, keeping political discourse and imaginings alive.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Decline and Fall on Savage Street
You can see:
Fiona Farrell in conversation with Alex Miller
on Saturday, 19 May 2018, from 1.00 – 2.00pm, Heartland Room