Christian Cullen's biography has predictably sat atop the bestseller lists in recent weeks, but nipping at its heels, like an opposition winger, has been an unexpected publishing sensation.

The Penguin History of New Zealand has burst from the pack, barrelling out of bookshops like no history book before. The first print run of 10,000, intended to last until the middle of next year, sold out in six days. The second run, also of 10,000, was pre-sold by bookstores before the shipment arrived from Australia. The third is almost gone, and a fourth is on its way.

Normally, only sport biographies, the odd cookbook and novels of the magnitude of Once Were Warriors sell so many.


"We are flabbergasted and thrilled in equal measure," says Penguin's publishing editor, Geoff Walker.

Call it a rush for self-knowledge. Say the foreshore ruling has got us reconsidering our past again. Talk about the growing maturity of our national identity or give a nod to Whale Rider. However you explain it, New Zealanders have this year shown a desire to learn about themselves. We have shown, too, that an arts event - the Return of the King launch - can muster almost as much fuss as the Rugby World Cup.

A Zen proverb says, "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear", and the book sales show that New Zealanders have chosen as that teacher a man whose insight we have come to trust. A man who long ago chose to write books for ordinary New Zealanders rather than academia, driven by the conviction that "you can't understand your country and your culture unless you know its history".

A man who got a glimpse of what he means to New Zealanders last month when the news that he had cancer prompted about 900 letters and emails from strangers expressing concern and affection.

Step forward Michael King, winner at this year's inaugural Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement and our New Zealander of the Year.

King is a man of many parts. He has at times been our memory, at others our conscience. He has written the first draft of history, as a journalist, and then as a celebrated author has moved on to the second and third drafts.

Although the move from journalist to full-time author occurred in the mid-70s, and has led to 33 books, he has stayed true to two of the profession's tenets: revelation and truth. What would most of us know of Princess Te Puea, the Moriori or Janet Frame without his revelations? How much more hostile would Pakeha attitudes towards Maori have been in the past 30 years if not for his challenging truth-telling?

And although the 57-year-old has stubbornly refused to let us avert our eyes from the troubles of our past and present, his writing has won him a role as de facto race relations conciliator, speaking first Maori truths to Pakeha and then Pakeha truths to us all.

Back in the 1970s, he "had to be an advocate for Maori culture and history because no one else was". In a John the Baptist role, he prepared Pakeha New Zealand for the Maori advocates to follow.

Then, as Maori have found their mainstream voice and gained respect from government, he began to stress what he calls in the book "a mutuality of respect".

"I have felt in recent years that it was time to also stand up for the basic worthiness and honourableness of Pakeha culture too," he says.

Pakeha in his eyes are no longer expatriate Britons, Dutch and Dalmatians.

"As a historian you've got to tell the whole story. Of course New Zealand has had events that we'd rather not have had, but there's also a long, long tradition of Maori-Pakeha co-operation."

At times it has seemed, to Pakeha at least, that King has provided the most considered arguments on both sides; always teaching us about each other. He has articulated perhaps better than anyone the boundaries of our cultural paddocks and places where we can open gates.

All of this he has done in little and large ways for more than three decades.

This year those many parts have come together in The Penguin History of New Zealand, his magnum opus, and New Zealanders are lapping it up.

This year, too, he - with Hone Tuwhare and Janet Frame - was named a "giant kauri" of New Zealand literature, winning one of three $60,000 Prime Minister's Literary Awards.

All of which would have amounted to a year of great celebration had it not been for a doctor's visit in October. It revealed cancer of the throat and meant six weeks of chemotherapy. He still has a tube in his stomach and is on morphine to stem the pain from a throat full of ulcers.

But just a few days ago King stood at the top of the stairs at his Coromandel home and offered the warmest of welcomes with just a hint of hobbitish fuss - "come in, come in ... take a seat . . . would you like a drink?"

He's feeling pretty good, but the chemotherapy has stolen from him 15kg - at least.

His large glasses dominate a diminished face. The chemo also dried up and burned his throat.

"That was unpleasant, I must say," he notes mildly. "The most unpleasant thing that's ever happened to me."

He must wait another month before the doctors can look and see what's left of the tumour.

"So I'm kind of in a vacuum between now and then," he says quietly.

He's thrilled to be home, waking up to the false dawn and the sound of tui, bellbirds and the ocean.

He grew up around the water and boats at Paremata, near Wellington, the son of a father who ran advertising companies and a devoted mother.

He fell in love with history when he learned of the battles in the New Zealand Wars fought near his home; a passion flamed by the three men to whom the book is dedicated - his father, high school teacher Spiro Zavos and university lecturer Peter Munz.

He has two children of his own, and one adored grandchild, all of whom are spending Christmas with him and his wife Maria Jungowska at Opoutere, which he calls "Paremata with improvements".

Not being allowed to go fishing until the end of January is frustrating - the kahawai and trevally are calling - but he's grateful for every day and for the efforts of his oncologists Michael Tills and Michael Jameson. ("I'd like to nominate them as my New Zealanders of the Year".)

He cannot explain the success of the book he has been working on in fits and starts since 2000, "except that I've always had this instinct that there was a big need for a readable, narrative, general New Zealand history that lay people could digest".

The publicity about his cancer and award helped, but in no way explains the sales, says Walker. "It's just a stunningly good book."

King describes writing it as "an exercise in architecture. To pattern New Zealand historically and metaphorically in a way that I hope would make sense to me, and if to me then other people".

The project had been taking form in King's mind for years, but when he came to writing the guts of it fell on to the page. He allowed himself one indulgence: He had 29 chapters planned, but a superstition about odd numbers meant he broke one in half to make 30.

King has always been evangelical in his belief the we must learn the then to understand the now.

He's still frustrated by those who don't know our history, and so can't understand why Maori have ever wanted anything other than what Pakeha wanted, still concerned by those who try to box us into some false homogenised identity called a New Zealander.

"If we have lingering symptoms of insecurity, that's one of them. It's partly driven by fear of some Pakeha about what concessions to Maori mean.

"But for me there seems nothing odd in being at one level a New Zealander, at another level a Maori or Pakeha, at another a Waikato rugby supporter or a Southlander. We always have these multiple identities that are part of our overall identity."

That truth will become all the more evident as our bicultural debates become multicultural in years to come. "And not just in the sense of Asian minority cultures," he adds. "I think increasingly Maori are going to want to see themselves as regional tribal cultures rather than a national culture. That's got to be part of the multicultural mix, too."

A sense of optimism about New Zealand has always been a feature of King's writing. That remains.

"There were all sorts of lucky things that happened at the outset," he says.

"One of the luckiest things was that the penal colony was established in Port Jackson and not in New Zealand because that brought Maori a period of more than 50 years to get accustomed to a European presence and to develop the skills they needed to deal with it.

"Number two was that we were formally colonised at a time when the evangelicals were in charge of the British Government and we got a treaty. And that treaty, for all its imperfections, was motivated by humanitarian concerns.

"It meant that British authorities asked if they could colonise and, in effect, Maori gave that permission. And while what then unfolded wasn't a perfect scenario, we began in that overall framework ... Part of what was important about that was the almost double-helix pattern of Maori and Pakeha interaction right from the start."

Understandably, he views 2003 with mixed feelings, but is looking forward to the family at Christmas and next year.

"What will dominate next year for me will be finding out about whether the cancer is still there. Until that's settled I'm not really going to think about much else."

He says he has come to terms with dying and the frustration of one day not being around to find out how the story goes, "but naturally my preference is to go on living". The spirit remains willing.

He remains convinced, too, of the good-will and decency that runs deep in this country. After resisting the temptation several times to read from his own book, King finally gives in to the urge and offers the last paragraph.

"And most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has in the past saved the country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism seen in other parts of the world.

"They are as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country's future."

He closes the book, replaces it on the table, and smiles.

* Last year's Herald New Zealander of the Year was police rescue specialist Senior Constable Cliff Jones. In 2001 the honour fell to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, and in 2000 readers voted actor Lucy Lawless woman of the year and rower Rob Waddell man of the year. The New Zealander of the millennium was Michael Joseph Savage. Ten years ago, the award went to film director Jane Campion.

* If you have a suggestion for someone you believe deserved nomination as New Zealander of the Year