Novel by Vaughan Rapatahana
Rangitawa Publishing (2018). RRP: $30.00
Reviewed by Piet Nieuwland
This is Rapatahana’s second novel. In a 4 December 2018 article in The Big Idea he talked about advice to his 22-year-old self. It can be summarized as “When you cease your speeding you actually can and will become a better writer. In other words, WAIT to write. Experience some ordeals, some adversity.”
Rapatahana has lived for extended periods in the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China as well as ‘the skinny country’ Aotearoa New Zealand. Novel clearly draws upon that experience of place and in the characterization of people in the book.
The descriptions of life under the intense wet heat of the tropical and sub-tropical sun are at times vivid. From this he begins a deconstruction of some of the elements/principles behind the English Novel which are included as an Addendum. For example, the pages are replete with the performance of bodily functions, spitting, vomiting, farting, sweating, defecation, oral sex, passionate sex…
Novel draws upon relatively recent events, arrests in the Urewera of a so-called gun-wielding terrorist group, cybercrime, hacking, virtual war, classified information releases by Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and the often chaotic tectonics of global superpower struggles for domination and influence.
The plot lines with characters of multiple identities involved in spying, assassination and surveillance are not unlike a Bond movie or a John Le Carre thriller except there is no single hero; everyone, in their own way, is making the best of their situation, helping each other, surviving. Neither is there a single villain. The power dynamics are not with Britain and Russia any longer, but are closer to our home. The countries are ours and our not so distant neighbors. The context is the new kind of conflict predicated on the dangers and opportunities provided by our addiction to mass electronic data storage and digital communication media.
What is enjoyable is the way in which these events impact on the lives of the characters. The story is mostly told through the experience of Norton, an ex-Vietnam veteran who works in an abattoir. He is coming to terms with a series of murders and releases of information for which he is accused but innocent.
The novel then blazes through a series of fast paced events, switching settings from tangi on marae to downtown Hong Kong SAR, Mainland China, and many places in between. Navigation is assisted by a location code at the start of each chapter and a multilingual glossary. This is an absorbing and easy book to read. It was almost impossible to put down, but it is good to do that, to savor the rush of events and exotic characters that emerge out of the darkness in startling guises throughout. Also, to reflect on how close the events bear resemblance to what is happening, or might be happening, who really does know? It is accurate to describe it, as Bob Orr does, a having a highly visual cinematic quality to it.
Furthermore, it does take a step into a new kind of worldview where the colonial assumptions of the English and other such powers are put to the knife literally and figuratively. The place of ‘the skinny country’ is realigned to its naturally closer Pacific and S.E. Asian origins.
Piet Nieuwland has poems and flash fiction appear in numerous print and online journals published in New Zealand, Australia, United States of America and Canada. He is a performance poet and book reviewer. He edits Fast Fibres Poetry and lives near Whangarei.