Zone of the Marvellous by Martin Edmond
Auckland University Press 2009. Reviewed by PAULINE DAWSON
Martin Edmond’s Zone of the Marvellous is an amazing treasure box of fact, fiction, myth, history, fable and imagination in search of the antipodes. Helped on its way by a Copyright Licensing Writers’ Award won by the author in 2007, in eight discrete essays, the author writes that what he seeks “to do is describe how this other place was first rumoured, then imagined, then looked for, discovered, plundered, colonised and finally domesticated”.
Following the rather ’straight’, yet lyrical telling of the historical story in The Supply Party (Edmond’s last book), Zone of the Marvellous goes back to the densely packed stories and tangents found in Luca Antara. While Supply Party had strong undertones of loss and absence, Zone, although also telling tales of journeys, is much richer. Perhaps this is simply the contrast of the Australian outback to the tropics of the Pacific and the Asian spice routes.
Other reviewers seem to have only touched lightly on the final chapter, After Erewhon, yet I found this the most intriguing. Here Edmond considers “artists, of those who continue the dialogue between the real and ideal in their work” with a particular focus on Sidney Nolan and Colin McCahon. This exploration of the antipodes in a rather different form from the other chapters is quite a contrast, unless you consider these artists as adventurers and risk takers as much as Marco Polo, Dampier, or Cook.
The creative look at McCahon and Nolan as ‘near contemporaries’ is revealing and it is very interesting to consider them in terms of the “Holy Yes and the Holy No as equal and opposite paths to enlightenment“. This chapter provided much food for thought and Edmond’s analysis of McCahon’s work is quite a different take from much that has gone before.
My only quibble over the whole book is that it would have been helpful to have included some illustrations, particularly of the ancients maps discussed. However it sparked my interest enough to go and seek these out myself.
I liked this book for many reasons; the continuing themes of journeys and exploration in much of Edmond’s work, the new ideas and stories it led me to. As always with this author, it was the beautiful writing that kept me reading it almost straight through in one sitting. It is history, not in an academic style but as a yarn or epic, told by the fire with all the embellishment and intrigue that suggests.