Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Bright Side of my Condition (Penguin 2013) by Charlotte Randall

Charlotte Randall is one of contemporary New Zealand literature’s most accomplished novelists, and The Bright Side of my Condition is her seventh novel.  The narrative is about four convicts who have escaped the penal colony of Norfolk Island and have been deposited on a remote island in the Southern ocean by a Captain who promises to pick them up in a year.  He doesn’t.  The story of the men’s life on the island is told through the perspective of Bloodworth who comments on his relationship with his fellow castaways Gargantua, Toper and Slangam. 

The four men have very different personalities.  Bloodworth professes to be lazy but enjoys observing nature on the island, Gargantua believes himself the font of European knowledge, Slangam is a worker, and Toper has a religious bent.  Throughout the novel we learn how the men ended up at Norfolk and how they escaped onto the ship, and are deposited on the island.  The four men represent different belief systems and ways of approaching life.  While Gargantua relies on his knowledge, and Slangam finds meaning in life through work, Toper prays, while Bloodworth observes and thinks about different ways of existing on the island without the structures of society determining their actions.

However, as soon as they are on the island Slangam provides a structure for their existence and survival on the island which involves practical things like getting firewood and building a hut, but it also involves the structure of law.  At one point Bloodworth is punished for stealing potatoes and the penal system he thought they had left behind is enacted.  Although the prisoners are free on the island they enact the system of law which is an example of Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus.  The prisoners recognise themselves in the values of the dominant class from which they come and reproduce the ideology by becoming jailers.  Bloodworth comments that, “The nonsense is that free on our island we fashion a little replica of what we come from, a sad little copy of the big world.”  Freedom, and what is done with it, is questioned throughout the novel.

The novel is also metaphorical in that it references story; the correct way of relating a story, and stories the men remember.  At one point the men are discussing Robinson Crusoe and Gargantua notes that readers have to suspend belief to go along with the story, to which Slangam replies, “Yer have to be a fucken idiot.”  The facts of story, whether there should be facts in fiction or not, is debated by the men.  Gargantua notes that the basis of Robinson Crusoe was Robert Knox’s story of shipwreck, to which Toper replies, “that second one were the real story and Crusoe weren’t,” to which Gargantua replies, “the second only provide the facts for the first, that aint enough for a story, in fact it weren’t a fucken story at all.”  It is certainly a more lively debate about the basis of story that I encountered in any university tutorial.  Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is also referenced in the novel.  The island on which the men have been deposited has a colony of albatross and the men become to fear the bird because of what it signifies in the poem; death. 

Questions about religion, belief, and fate come up throughout the novel.  Bloodworth reflects about what God says about men having talents and that they should use them, also on sexual morality, and Toper worries himself about heaven and hell, good and evil.  Although Toper seems to be constantly crossing himself to ward off evil he also introduces to the group Eastern devout practices and different systems of belief.

On one level the novel is a survival story, about the dynamics between the men and whether they work for each other or against each other.  Bloodworth’s journey is the most fascinating because he is the one that is questioning the structures of their lives and undergoes a personal transcendence; magical realism is used by Randall at the end of the novel in a somewhat Rushdie-like fall (if I say anymore I will ruin the ending – but I’d like to discuss it more) which seems to signify Bloodworth’s transition from the real to the magic within the real.

I only have a couple of gripes about the novel.  The first is narrating the story using the idiom of an uneducated man, not because it is hard to understand or read but because Randall used a similar device in Hokitika Town, and while I thoroughly enjoyed that novel and the use of idiom in it, I wanted something different in this book.  Secondly, some of the facts she relates about mental health seem to be left over research from The Curative (another book that I thoroughly enjoyed – though at times the main character seemed too knowledgeable about the future of mental health).  While I think the execution of these elements is great, I question the repetition of their use in this work, I expected something different in this novel from such an accomplished writer.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Self-Portrait by Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson (Auckland University Press) 2013


Marti Friedlander is the photographer that people who know nothing about photography know.  This beautifully produced book of Marti’s photos is more about the images rather than the words, as perhaps it should be, but the words do show that Marti is a curious and intelligent woman with chutzpah.  Throughout the text she explains her interactions with people and places that have bought about some of the most iconic New Zealand images. 

She doesn’t talk about her parents, or how she and her sister came to live in an orphanage in London in the late 1920s-early 30s.  Gaps and silences are as interesting in their omission as to what is included, and I am curious about Marti’s parents, but it is her self-portrait and she gets to choose how she composes the text as much as any photo.  Marti does recollect her transition from having no personal relationship to photography as a child, to starting her career in London, and moving to New Zealand with her husband in 1958.  At that time New Zealand appeared barren, bland and devoid of culture but thankfully Marti managed to find herself amongst European immigrants and the boho crowd who gave her a taste of culture that she missed from London.  While Marti has recorded the lives of artists, writers, protests, and politicans, she also reflects on her opportunities to photograph women at Parihaka and her work with Michael King on his publication Moko.  The memoir in some respects isn’t about Marti at all but is about her recollections of the images and the people in them; it is a social history of New Zealand as much as it is a memoir.

Marti uses a digital camera these days and notes how easily people delete the photos that they aren’t happy with which means, “They will never understand the absolute thrill of rediscovering an image years later which takes on a whole new relevance and wonder” (242).  Her comment made me think of the big box of photos that mum used to have up in the wardrobe when I was a kid.  Our ‘proper’ photos had been put into albums but then there was a box with all the duds.  People in the images weren’t smiling or looking the right way, or the camera wasn’t focused.  As kids we would occasionally take the box down to have a look.  There was one of Grandma (who hated having her picture taken) standing in the backyard next to Granddad’s impressive vegetable garden by the rotary clothes line, with her face turned away.  On first glance the image isn’t a Kodak moment, but it shows her in everyday life, which is what I think of when I think of her; we would hang out in the backyard stealing peas off the vine or water the sweet peas that grew up the side of the shed, or sit inside the state house with the sun streaming in the venetian blinds first thing in the morning and watch the wax eyes in the tree.  The picture of Grandma is one of an ordinary person going about her life, which illustrates Marti’s approach to photography, and with the passage of time that ordinariness has become extraordinary to me because it accurately shows my Grandmother.  People won’t have those boxes of photos in the wardrobe anymore because we’re all deleting the shots that don’t quite look good enough (and even the good ones we upload and never get around to printing).   I can also remember taking the thin brown negatives out of the photo envelopes and holding them up to the light to see the image in various shades of brown.  Marti’s book shows the changing technology of photography and highlights what skills and images we may be missing out on while making technological gains.

I was particularly interested in her impression and images of New Zealand’s artists and writers.  It seems anyone who is anyone has had a run-in with C. K. Stead who according to Marti has, “to get out what he feels, regardless” of the feelings of his longstanding friends (164).   The book highlights how hard it was (and perhaps still is) to gain recognition for art and writing in New Zealand society, the struggle to make ends meet, and for artists who coupled up, what happens when one artist gains more recognition than the other, and the effect it has on their relationship.  Readers also get an insight into Marti’s relationship with her husband Gerrard, and how each of them has grown as individuals, and as a couple.  The book is about being an outsider in New Zealand, being Jewish, coping with illness as a child, and of loss, but alongside these trying experiences there is also an enthusiasm and joy in life.