UNQUIET TIME by Colin James
(Fraser Books, $40)
Reviewed by Jim Eagles
The 2017 election campaign is certainly filled with excitement. But the spectacular changes of personnel, swings in opinion polls and dramatic revelations rather fade in significance when compared with the serious challenges the next government - and its successors - will have to grapple with in what Colin James rather understatedly describes as an "unquiet time".
James has been a political journalist for almost half a century, in recent years focusing on issues and policies, making much of his work too boring for the modern media, but of great interest to opinion-leaders and decision-makers.
This book represents a melding of the many briefings he has given to government agencies, business leaders and not-for-profit organisations on the issues facing New Zealand. Those issues include a backlash against the globalisation which has been a key driver of the international economy, a panoply of environmental threats headed by climate change, a technological revolution which is destroying jobs, increasing economic inequality and a growing divide between the political elite and ordinary citizens.
If all that sounds off-puttingly gloomy, James also points out that "by comparison with most other places in the world Aotearoa/New Zealand stands out positively - especially to people living in polluted or very poor places and to some of the world's very rich.
"[Having] a bolthole here is not to go into isolation but to secure a part of a special place."
Among our blessings is that we live in a beautiful country which is still relatively empty and unspoiled, our institutions of government and justice are of the highest quality, our land is extremely productive, we are developing a unique bicultural accommodation and our geographical isolation provides a buffer against terrorism and conflict.
But, if we are to take full advantage of those blessings, future governments - and voters - will have to become meaningfully engaged with difficult issues like sustainability, inequality, migration, technology, globalisation and trust.
James records a few small steps in that direction, including New Zealand's continuing work to encourage a rule-based global order, experiments in how best to deliver public services, progress in cleaning up dairying and management of fresh water, trials of a more distributed form of democracy, increasing signs of a bicultural approach to issues and some serious thinking about new ways of looking at work and income.
Nevertheless, he concludes, "the next decade will likely be turbulent. It will likely be challenging and energising, painful and uplifting ... It will likely test ... whether [we] are flexible enough to absorb and adjust to the impacts of change but to keep intact a strong inner core built on our bicultural base and liberal democratic, largely corruption-free institutions."
A good way to start meeting that challenge would be to read his book.
THE PACIFIC ROOM
by Michael Fitzgerald
(Transit Lounge, $30)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
One of the biggest bunfights in the literary world at the moment is who gets to write who. Where is the line between imaginatively entering into the world of a character different from you and cultural appropriation?
The Pacific Room, the debut novel of Australian journalist Michael Fitzgerald, is the story of Robert Louis Stevenson's final days in Apia, Samoa, in the late 19th century, and of modern-day art historian Lewis Wakefield's journey to Samoa to research the portrait of Stevenson painted just before he died.
One of the reasons my mind is stuck on questions of identity and representations is because these are recurring themes in the book. Wakefield's twin was killed when they were children and he doesn't entirely know who he is without him. Stevenson is, rather coyly, never referred to by that name, but instead goes by his Samoan cognomen Tusitala or simply "the writer". He is worried about the portraits made of him and how he is represented in other men's art. Hovering underneath everything is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson's iconic work of split identity.
All this made me wonder about the identity of the author. Fitzgerald's bio does not include his race, gender identity or sexual orientation, which is often an indicator of what is generally regarded as the default option: male/heterosexual/cisgender/Caucasian. Some of his characters, however, are not.
The Pacific Room is set largely in Samoa and features Samoan characters, including fa'afafine. In the acknowledgements, Fitzgerald thanks the Samoan fa'afafine community, presumably for helping him with his research. Does this mean it's okay? Who gets to decide? These unanswered questions troubled me throughout the book.
Fitzgerald's prose style is poetic and rather dreamlike, which is sometimes beautiful and sometimes irritatingly languid. "The heat softens [Wakefield], as if his body is but a membrane porous to the stories floating through the air." The multiple points of view structure is distracting: I found there were too many characters for me to become fully invested.
There's something about The Pacific Room that doesn't quite work. I recommend instead the real deal, Black Marks on the White Page, an anthology of Pasifika writing and art edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti.
INDIVIDUAL HAPPINESS NOW
by Len Lye and Robert Graves
(Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, $12)
Reviewed by David Hill
Len Lye: his kinetic sculptures, films, inventive scratchings and the gloriously glowing New Plymouth gallery holding them bring visitors from across the country and beyond. They also bring apoplectic splutters from reactionary ratepayers.
How significant is the guy? Ingenuity, sensory impact, subversive wit, even enchantment; his works have them all, especially as rendered by John Matthews' remarkable engineering. Emotional resonance? That shifting of the world which major art can bring? Maybe.
Lye wrote as well - voluminously, perceptively, sometimes pretentiously (his own word), passionately. He's near his best in this short, co-operative essay, elegantly introduced by Roger Horrocks. Individual Happiness Now took form in 1941, a time in World War II when German victory seemed imminent.
Lye wanted to promote values and a vocabulary "that would function as a powerful alternative to Nazi propaganda" and focus on "freedom FOR ... not freedom FROM", in language that went beyond the British government's cautious cliches. Lye urged a politics that started from each person's world view. Individual virtues needed to be developed (art would help); small groups of like minds encouraged.
The essay was never published. It ended up being part of the papers Lye bequeathed to a not entirely appreciative New Zealand. Horrocks makes a strong case for it being particularly relevant in our increasingly totalitarian and irrational era of Trump, Isis and Kim Jong Un. I suspect people will read it mostly for its stylistic idiosyncrasies and historical curiosity.
It's a nifty little publication, accessible and stylishly presented.