One of the first things that strikes the reader about Robin Hyde's 1936 Passport To Hell, an account of the war experiences of James Douglas Stark (known as Starkie), is how very modern it is. There is a widespread misapprehension that history and biography containing invented dialogue and shifting perspective was an invention of the late 20th century. Robin Hyde was doing it in the 1930s, with a keen journalist's eye for drama and conflict and a novelist's understanding of character. There is also the novelist's skill in invention and hyperbole, although in the first edition of the book Hyde began her preface, "This is not a work of fiction."
Much of the invention comes from the subject himself. As editor D.I.B. Smith notes in his introduction, "Starkie had been polishing his accounts ... for some 18 years prior to meeting Hyde." At the time of that meeting he had been writing up some of his experiences with the help of a mysterious C. Murphy, who was an inmate at Mt Eden. Hyde was to write a second book, Nor The Years Condemn, about his later life. Passport To Hell covers Starkie's childhood, youth and war years, and it is salutary to realise that he was only 19 years old by war's end.
James Douglas Stark (1899-1942) would be challenging to dream up as a fictional character. Born in Invercargill to a Delaware Indian and his Spanish wife, he was rebellious from his earliest years. He refused to go to school, despite vicious beatings from his older brother and schoolmasters. At 12 he went to sea, with his father's blessing, since there seemed he could do nothing else with the boy.
The brutality of the men working the coal runs was no more or less than the young Starkie had already experienced and was good training for the agonies and horrors he was later to suffer at Gallipoli, on the Somme, at Armentieres and in countless other battles and skirmishes. Before the war he was in and out of prison, once in Christchurch for assaulting a special constable and stealing his bicycle during the strikes of 1912. When he appeared in court the judge asked, "Maori, is he?" After Starkie's ancestry was explained the magistrate commented, "Red Indian. A savage," and sent him down.
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Racism and prejudice were to plague Starkie through the various campaigns, especially from English officers who doubly discriminated against him as a colonial and a man of colour. He was often court martialled for various misdemeanours, enduring weeks of solitary confinement and a bread and water diet. For a period in France, having escaped a military prison, he fought without papers or uniform, or at least the correct one: he'd picked up the uniform of a dead Australian light infantryman and wore that, though he lost the hat.
Lyrically and powerfully, Hyde gives us not only a portrait of the man, but also of a New Zealand that no longer exists. Courageous, optimistic, hard as nails, a rascal of principle, Starkie was beloved of women and loathed by the authorities. It is easy to see why Hyde, champion of the underdog, was determined to write his story. As we are served up earnest series and articles to commemorate our involvement in the Great War, it is a joy to read this freshly minted, genuine classic that is a vital part of our national literature.
Passport to Hell
by Robin Hyde
(Auckland University Press $39.99)