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The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Victoria University Press, $55)
Review by Vaughan Rapatahana

LuminariescoverAs you no doubt know, Eleanor Catton is a 28-year-old New Zealander who — with this massive 832-page novel, set during and nominally about the 19th-century New Zealand gold rush — has scored the 2013 Man Booker Prize and who, inevitably, has also scored a myriad of mainly positive reviews.

Make no mistake, this is an unputdownable tome that is very cleverly pieced together, rather like those clichéd Russian dolls that nest inside each other or, perhaps, an ouroboros: a mythical serpent that devours its own tail and symbolises constant re-creation. Before even beginning to write the book, Catton must have spent eons drawing up micro-plans and infrastructures and interconnecting webs and wefts similar to the mass of astrological charts she employs throughout. They recursively parallel the 12 “main” and all-male zodiacal characters lurking, shirking and working inside the covers, whom we initially encounter in a sort of Last Supper setting. I spent hours propelled forward by the lure of any possible, cogent conclusions to the plethora of plots, sub plots and sub-par plots enveloping the plotting performers.

This meticulousness of method leads to my main point here. The Luminaries is so intelligently (perhaps too intelligently) constructed and connived, researched and ravelled, yet I came away with the distinct feeling that Catton rather enjoys playing the role of God. “We” is her neat way of disengaging any individual character’s voice rattling on interminably about particular events and views, and she takes on an overlord role as ventriloquist for their manifold stories. She does this so omnisciently, and with much pilfering from and many pokes at Victorian novels potted into her mélange of Wilkie Collins and Jane Austen et al.

In the end, as chapters downwind into parodied shorter versions of their lengthier preambles, I realised that this is a book that is full of sound and fury, yet ultimately signifying nothing except wonderful wordplay, or perhaps itself. It’s as if the Empress indeed has no clothes; in other words, in addition to all the accolades, there really needs to be further critical depiction of the lack of thematic substance as to what is inside. My point is that the novel has no point to make, not even the notion that there is no point in life, nor that – after the tenets of Speculative Realism – that matter matters more than man.

By golly, Catton has set up all her followers to invest in her claims, to take a stake in the promised nuggets. But as past and the present dates and vistas synchronistically come together in these final pages, it becomes clear that this book was never intended as a literal historical fiction, despite the parade of apposite and detailed descriptions of dress, paraphernalia, and terminology; nor does it unravel as a deft postmodern pastiche of such either. Far from being a reinforcement of human existence without agency, as “a convoluted picture… and how difficult to see, in its entirety” (as one of the protagonists, Walter Moody reflects), it is more than anything, a delightfully grandiose construct in onanism, on grand display for the readers. With ample reward for all.

Accordingly, there is not one character I can empathise with, for everyone in this gargantuan dance is not only flawed in some fashion, but is also more wraith than flesh and blood. Certainly the rather aloof Māori with moko (tattoos) never strikes me in any way as a well-rounded figure. The two Chinese men are treated as caricatures both by other characters (the scheming Mrs Greenway-Wells-Carver insists on grease-painting their faces so as to silently depict them as inscrutable “orientals”, so they further highlight her nutty séance) and by their creator, who represents them as interchangeably featured, dressed and named gold digger and opium addict respectively, and who are as frequently mixed up accordingly by the non-Asian protagonists throughout. One, Ah Sook, is ultimately murdered by the mean-spirited brother of a man who thinks he — Ah Sook — was the original killer of his similarly nasty piece-of-work brother in Sydney, while the other — Ah Quee — is permanently indentured to gold mines and is treated terribly by all and sundry.

There is more of an Asian connection too, for the chief antagonist, the wicked Francis Carver, was born in Hong Kong, speaks Cantonese, and deceives and denigrates just about everyone in this fictive froth as he tries to suborn his fortune after his 10-year incarceration in a Sydney jailhouse, by stealing and dealing gold and opium. It goes without saying, of course, that Ah Sook remembers him from Kwangchow and is determined to kill Carver for the latter’s past vile misdeeds — because in this book the past resonates in the present and therefore into any portent of a shared future.

Indeed, we later come to learn that many characters have crossed another’s path at earlier stages and elsewhere than in Hokitika on the West Coast of Aotearoa-New Zealand, where most of the “action” takes place. Hokitika is the mere stage for scenes, which had earlier been well played out elsewhere.

Catton does finger-point the English colonialists as grand-despot designers of the scourge of opium for the Chinese population. She also utilises transcripts of phonetic Cantonese throughout as well as (non-macronised) Māori reo or language. Strangely enough, however, there are no translations of these passages into English, leaving one to wonder how they are to be comprehended by non-speakers of either of these tongues, or if perhaps the author determined that their speakers were even more insignificant in life on this rugged antipodean frontier. (I am fortunate to be Māori and my daughter has Cantonese as her first language, so I could read through these curlicues.)

The Māori and the Chinese in the book — while no more un-filled-out than their fellow European cast members — are only granted cameo roles: show-pony decorations inside the more massive architecture that is the wrought European weave of The Luminaries. They may be as economically marginalised as, for example, Anna Weatherall, the English whore who has her way of life altered by the machinations of others so as to become a “good girl”, but in terms of any overall balance they—unlike her — always remain that way at the bottom of the heap, and worse. Ah Sook is slaughtered and Tauwhare — with his tribal lands long since exploited away anyway — becomes the slaughterer of Canton Carver. No redemption is proffered, just as no sense of a nice tidy ending ever prevails.

As brilliant and as beguiling as The Luminaries unquestionably is, I feel compelled to note that it is a book that will resonate far more resoundingly with the very people who most profitably populate its many pages: eccentric and rather egoistic European folk searching for gold, and determined to do whatever it takes to grasp it. And to keep it. And to keep it for themselves. And, ultimately (if that could ever be a word to use with reference to this book) for these selfsame European folk to write reviews about what has, after all, hit gold by winning a prize for Western-infused fiction writers writing in English.