t. 92, Michalia Arathimos, Aukati

by Michalia Arathimos.
Wellington: Mākaro Press (2017).
RRP: $38. Pb/flaps, 360pp.
ISBN: 9780994137852.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.

Aukati is a provoking novel by Michalia Arathimos mainly because, as she says in her notes at the back of the book, ‘This novel is set at an imaginary pā. The atmosphere of this pā is reminiscent of the rural Maori community of Parihaka, but is not Parihaka.[1] The events in this novel reference the events of the ‘Terror Raids that occurred in Aotearoa in 2007’ (p 364).[2] Aukati is current, political and earnest and puts the spotlight on many cultural differences, often lesser known ones. It is refreshing to find that through the story line and dialogue the novel dismisses many a cultural stereotype. The characters are individuals. Like all individuals they have their own opinions which affect group dynamics.

Alexia is a young Greek female law student who joins an environmental protest group opposed to fracking the Taranaki landscape and, in particular, the land surrounding one marae where the group sets up camp. Isaiah, a young Māori man, has returned to this marae for the same reason. The story line follows their developing relationship and the complex events affecting political and environmental issues in Aotearoa. The heavy hand of the law, oil exploration, pollution, sabotage and justice permeate their way alongside Alexia and Isaiah’s quest for their own identities. A growing awareness of injustice in the wider world begins to illuminate their own individual truths. This is no easy journey of discovery.

The two main characters connect on many levels: both have one Pākehā parent, a sad loss and grief for a loved one, a lack of direction, some resentment, and they both have a profound sensual awareness. For Alexia it comes in the form of synaesthesia which means she sees music as bright colours. For Isaiah, he is connected to the natural world through a love of drawing and photography and his Māori spirit. Add the bush fairies (‘patupaiarehe’[3]) into the mix and you are in for some interesting reading.

The supporting characters are well drawn and dialogue believable except, for me, the farmer Taylor with his pack of dogs with elaborate flowery names. Arathimos’ young folk, and Polly, the kuia, are particularly well-drawn, life-like. Protest action is absolutely that – action. The pace builds well with, often, good use of present tense – giving immediacy – and reduced adverbs which have a tendency to slow the narrative. “Through the small window she saw three pigeons land on a telephone line, land and leave, circling away and back … Sam’s silence … convinced her … what was happening wasn’t normal. Alexia had read that all around Auschwitz the birds did not go near the camps, as though they knew what terrible things were happening there. This means we are okay, she thought. The birds are still here …’ (p 284).

During the invasion of armed police when the protesters are forced to lie down, we read:

‘The wrongness of it made the light go weird and full into Alexia’s eyes. Suddenly the scene seemed backlit.  Polly’s elbows hit the dry ground … The colours were all too vivid, too real.  The sky was a deep blue and the marae red and black against it, the people like actors playing at war. The green of the grass was a wall … the untouchable tableau … their faces anguished …’ (p 280).

In another passage, Alexia’s mind rambles in an evocative state of hypothermia:

‘The branch … had struck her … her mother struck her … fallen into this deep ditch. Beethoven’s fifth. Isaiah was coming. It was cold it was cold … an actual pain. The fairies were mischievous, not evil … The flutes called and called. Gold, green … Red. Don’t watch the lights … the death smell of soil under her nails. Gregorian chant. Damp … she wasn’t sure anymore what … and she couldn’t get off her … Isaiah was coming …’ (p 267).

A suspicion grows that there’s an informant amongst the protest group; there’s evidence of surveillance bugging, and then a dramatic and frightening fracking tower explosion. And more frightening still, ‘The thinking was that the series of small quakes had been brought on by the explosion. Circulating amongst them was the term ‘aftershock’. No one mentioned the other word, the more frightening one: ‘pre-shock’ (p 247). Eventually an informant is identified. Yet, like most life stories, there is no neat tidying up of all the complicated threads.

With Greek, English and Māori headings the story is divided into the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, as well as into four sections of ancient Greek comedy: Parados, Parabasis, Stasimon, and Exodus. What a pity such an original guiding device is muted by the lightness of the heading print; the tactic most definitely adds to the character of the novel. It says: these are the seasons, this is how Life is.

[1] A village founded c1866 by Māori chiefs Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi on land seized by the government during the post-war land confiscations of the 1860s. On 5 November 1881, 1,600 troops and cavalry entered the village at dawn. The soldiers were greeted with hundreds of skipping and singing children offering them food. Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested and jailed for 16 months, 1,600 Parihaka inhabitants were expelled and dispersed throughout Taranaki without food or shelter and the remaining 600 residents were issued with government passes to control their movement.

[2]  A series of armed police arrests conducted on 15 October 2007, in response to the discovery of an alleged paramilitary training camp in the Urewera mountain range near the town of Ruatoki.

[3] In Māori traditions, patupaiarehe (sometimes called tūrehu or pakepakehā) are fairy-like people who live in the forest or on the misty mountain tops.

Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to MeSwings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.