Zone of the Marvellous: In Search of the Antipodes by Martin Edmond
Auckland University Press, 2007. Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON
Over the last couple of decades Martin Edmond has won critical acclaim and a considerable readership with a books that combine autobiography, history, and fiction. Edmond’s 1992 breakthrough book The Autobiography of My Father is a study of his own grief as well as a reconstruction of his father’s passage through postwar provincial New Zealand society; his wonderful 1999 volume The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont combines a hallucinatory journey in search of the late painter’s surviving canvases with memories of the recklessly experimental life Clairmont lived in the 1970s; Chronicles of the Unsung, which was published in 2004, moves between accounts of youthful wanderings in America, Europe and the Pacific and meditations on the fates of Rimbaud and Van Gogh; and the baroque masterpiece Luca Antara mixes memories of the seedy side of Sydney in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the bizarre and violent story of the first European visits to Australia.
In all of the books just mentioned, an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical narrative unfolds between asides which take the reader into recondite and fascinating corners of the past. These asides are made possible by Edmond’s massive reading, but they are shaped by a poetic imagination, rather than by scholarly procedure.
Edmond has sometimes been compared to WG Sebald, the Anglo-German professor whose accounts of walking tours over the drained swamps of East Anglia are punctuated with, and sometimes almost overwhelmed by, asides about the violent history of Europe. Despite the superficial structural similarity between their books, though, Edmond and Sebald treat the relationship between the past and the present in very different ways. Where Sebald contrasts a dour present with the drama and horror of the past, Edmond establishes a much more dynamic relationship between history and the present. The ecstasies, sufferings, and absurdities of the poets, painters and explorers Edmond finds in the past are paralleled in strange and instructive ways in the lives of the characters that live in the present tense of his books. For a generation of Kiwi writers, Edmond’s poetic explosions of the limitations of both literary fiction and scholarly non-fiction have been an inspiration.
Last year Edmond published The Supply Party, a book which retraces the route of the Burke and Wills expedition whilst telling the story of Ludwig Becker, who had the misfortune to be the expedition’s official artist. In his review of The Supply Party in the Kiwi literary journal brief, Jack Ross noted that the book seems more interested in the past than in the present. As he drives north into the Australian Outback that killed Burke, Wills, and Becker, Edmond engages in desultory conversations with locals in bars or hotel lounges, and reports fragments of news or rumour, but his mind moves quickly and hungrily back to the details of the doomed expedition, and to the life and art of the ascetic aesthete Becker.
The present was a fading presence in The Supply Party, but in Zone of the Marvellous: In Search of the Antipodes it has disappeared completely. In place of the old pattern of autobiographical narrative and historical asides, Edmond’s new book offers up eight historical essays connected precariously by a theme. Zone of the Marvellous is, Edmond explains in his introduction, an enquiry into the long history of European fantasies and misperceptions of the South Pacific, written in the ‘neutral and passive’ third person voice favoured by academics and most other writers of non-fiction. Drawing on an improbable variety of primary texts – sweat-stained diaries of sailors, obscure treatises of medieval geographers, the fragments left behind by the conceptual explorers of antique Greece – Edmond works his way through the history of Europeans’ fascination with the liminal ‘southland’ at the bottom of their maps.
Edmond’s abandonment of the structure that worked so well in books like Luca Antara and Chronicles of the Unsung creates a couple of problems for Zone of the Marvellous. One problem is epistemological; the other is structural. In Edmond’s earlier books, his excursions into the past seemed intended to create new contexts for the narratives they interrupted; they asked to be judged as literature, not scholarship. The scholarly format and tone of Zone of the Marvellous means we are inclined to subject the book’s truth-claims to much more rigorous standards. Edmond’s abandonment of the autobiographical narrative that drove most of his earlier books forward also creates structural problems for Zone of the Marvellous, because it leaves the text needing some other way of carrying the reader from page to page and essay to essay.
It seems to me that Edmond struggles to deal with either the epistemological or the structural problems that his turn away from the format of most of his earlier books creates. Although the essays in Zone of the Marvellous show a formidable familiarity with primary sources relating to European conceptions of and early contact with the South Pacific, they are almost innocent of the body of commentary on these sources. The history of the ‘exploration’, (mis)representation, and colonisation of the Pacific is a politically explosive subject, and it has bred an enormous and disputatious literature, as generations of scholars have interrogated the speculations and rationalisations of European adventurers and imperialists, searching for lacunae and distortions, as well as genuine historical and ethnographic insights.
In the introduction to Zone of the Marvellous, Edmond defends his lack of interest in this secondary literature, claiming that he does not ‘read much theory’ because he prefers ‘ideas in things’. But what Edmond calls ‘theory’ is inescapable whenever we study the past, or indeed any aspect of the universe. As philosophers as different as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have shown, we can never view even the simplest fact, or indeed fiction, without theoretical presuppositions of some kind. To study the past we must become aware of our presuppositions, convert them into hypotheses, and modify or replace them if they conflict too egregiously with the evidence our research uncovers.
By avoiding an engagement with the secondary literature on his subject, Edmond has not avoided theory: he has simply refused to recognise and interrogate his own presuppositions. As a result, far too many of the claims his book makes are informed by unacknowledged and outdated theories. At one point, for instance, he tells us, without bothering to support the claim with evidence, that ‘all Polynesian societies’ were ‘highly stratified’. This stock proposition of nineteenth century ethnology was long ago demolished by anthropological and archaeological research revealing the diversity of the sixty-odd societies that make up Polynesia. Peoples like the Tongans and the Hawaiians certainly evolved intricately hierarchical societies, but other Polynesian groups, like the Niueans, the Maori of Murihiku, and the Moriori of Rekohu created much more egalitarian societies in their corners of the Pacific.
Zone of the Marvellous is not a book rich in arguments. Rather than lay out a network of propositions and support them with evidence, Edmond tends to flit from interesting anecdote to diverting detail. This impressionistic approach works splendidly in the historical asides of his earlier books, but it gives Zone of the Marvellous a static, confusing quality, as detail piles upon detail without apparently leading anywhere.
When Edmond does construct arguments, they are too often speculative and whimsical, and thus at odds with the scholarly format and tone of Zone of the Marvellous. In a chapter called ‘Ulimaroa, Yonaguni, and Other Enigmas’, for instance, Edmond uses the work of the crank ‘scholar’ Stephen Oppenheimer to argue that the Polynesians and other Pacific peoples might be related to the inhabitants of a continent that supposedly existed near South East Asia before disappearing into the sea many thousands of years ago. Oppenheimer’s theory seems to appeal to Edmond as a sort of poetic myth, and he might have discussed it in a book like Luca Antara without trying to make us take it too seriously. The scholarly format and tone he adopts in Zone of the Marvellous, though, seems to compel him to try to make a sober case for Oppenheimer’s absurdities, and such a case can only be made at the expense of the evidence accumulated by generations of historians, linguists, archaeologists, and anthropologists, not to mention the oral histories of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.
It is painful to see Edmond trying to misrepresent the now-discredited claim that kiore bones two thousand years old have been found in New Zealand as evidence for Oppenheimer’s thesis. Even if the test results which gave the kiore bones that age had not been disregarded after several exhaustive investigations, the fact is that they would not give any credibility to Oppenheimer’s claims that Polynesians were dispersed across the Pacific many thousands of years earlier than is generally believed. Even though mainstream opinion holds that the Eastern Polynesian islands which were the launching pad for the colonisation of Aotearoa were uninhabited two thousand years ago, the more westerly archipelagos of Tonga and Samoa were then already host to thriving Polynesian cultures, and could easily have been the source of the canoe voyage to these islands that would be required to deposit rats. In ‘Ulimaroa, Yonaguni, and Other Myths’ Edmond comes worryingly close to the special pleading which is the speciality of crank pseudo-historians like Gavin Menzies or Stephen Oppenheimer himself.
Martin Edmond is an extraordinary writer who has produced a series of books which deserve permanent and prominent places in the canon of New Zealand literature. In Zone of the Marvellous, though, he has lost his way.
SRB’s first, and far more postive, review can be viewed here
Scott Hamilton is a writer and researcher based in Auckland. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Auckland, and has published extensively on literary, historical, and political matters. Manchester University Press will be publishing The Crisis of Theory, Hamilton’s study of the work of the great British historian and political activist EP Thompson, later this year. A collection of Hamilton’s literary writing called To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps was issued by Titus Books in 2007 Hamilton’s blog, which can be found at http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com, attracted more than sixty thousand visitors last year.