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New Zealand Literature – Kate De Goldi

June 23, 2013

In an introduction to David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down (2010), Kate De Goldi writes: “New Zealand literature began in 1882 with the introduction of refrigerated shipping. This was the inimitable opening line of the New Zealand Lit course offered at Canterbury University in 1981. It was delivered by Dr Patrick Evans whose undergrad fame preceded him: his jokes were so good people actually wrote them down in lectures. Evans’ thesis, as it  unfolded, was mesmerising – and deeply unsettling. Born in discussion with Dr Peter Simpson, developed through his lectures and burnished in several provocative essays published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it went something like this:
Refrigerated shipping – the vehicle for the frozen meat trade – entrenched the basis of the nascent New Zealand economy: the farming and slaughter of animals. The consequent despoliation and industrialisation of the landscape, and the transformation of the New Zealand colonist into ‘a systematic and calculating’ butcher, described the progress of the ‘New Zealand dream’ from an imagined South Pacific Eden (a ‘better Britain’) to a fallen society with, literally, blood on its collective hands. New Zealand became, not the pastoral paradise envisioned by British utopians, but a society in which an industrialised violence was merely the sanctioned version of other widespread [-p.viii] malignancies. In short, we passed from innocence to a decidedly ugly experience.
New Zealand literature, Evans argued, oscillated between work that danced around the ‘truth’ of this national mythology, and work that confronted it in various compelling ways. Using short fiction and novels from the mid nineteenth century through to the late 1960s he laid out the evidence for  a ‘slaughterhouse fiction’: the farmer in The Heart of the Bush confessing to his wife that not only is he a sheep slaughterer but also the killer of their loved childhood dog; Pat, the servant, in Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’, beheading a duck for dinner in front of the Burnell children (Even Isabel leapt about crying: ‘The blood! The blood!’); the very title of jean Devanny’s The Butcher Shop; the ‘severed heads, human incineration, necrophilia, drowning, car crashes’ of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s fictional world, and much, much more.
It was chilling stuff, and somehow, in 1981, the culture around us seemed to be disposing itself in ways that underscored everything Evans was pointing up. The Springbok Tour (always spoken of in upper case) was underway and the violent clashes between protestors, police and Tour supporters revealed the fault-lines just below new Zealand’s apparently harmonious surface. Significantly, those lines ran between town and country. The laagers of farm vehicles providing barriers against protestors at provincial games were one of the more potent symbols of a country at war with itself.
I was twenty-one that year, newly politicised, idealistic, eager to anatomise our cultural ties and hypocrisies, [-p.ix] to debate the national stories we comforted ourselves with (land of plenty, racial harmony, egalitarianism, social radicalism, shared visions, etc.). Patrick Evans’ alternative cultural narrative seemed like nothing so much as an eerie annotation to the ugly community upheavals we were all witnessing.
And reared as I had been on British and American literature (children’s and adult), this immersion in New Zealand fiction, and the invitation to assess it on Evans’ terms, was nothing short of a cultural awakening. Book after book that year galvanised and disconcerted me. Our damaged relationship with the landscape, our repressive puritanism, the casual violence of family relationships, the inarticulate groupings of romance Kiwi-style, the sweat and tedium of work, and, so often, a watching child – a child doubly burdened by preternatural insight and fatal misunderstanding of the behaviour and events unfolding around him. These themes and the fictional worlds that buttressed them blew open my reading habits and preconceptions: they certainly marked a crucial step in my own progress to becoming a writer.
But the book that contained all the foregoing, and some other, haunting quality, the book that really knocked me sideways was Sydney Bridge Upside Down.” (pp.vii-ix)

“There are many ways to describe Sydney Bridge (in our house Sydney Bridge is always the book, not the splendid piece of engineering): a coming-of-age story, a gothic anti-romance, a ruined-pastoral thriller, a family tragedy. It has been variously assessed as proletarian fiction, young adult fiction, post-provincial fiction. It is all those things, [-p.x] of course, and the pre-eminent example of slaughterhouse fiction: an abandoned meat-works is both the central symbol of the novel and the site of this story’s more troubling events.
For myself, the most piquant description of the book was Patrick Evans’: Sydney Bridge Upside Down, he said, when introducing it to us, is the great, and unread, New Zealand novel.” (pp.ix-x)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine; italics in original) Kate De Goldi ‘Introduction Sydney Bridge Redux’ pp.vii-xiii David Ballantyne (2010) Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Text Publishing: Melbourne, Australia

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