Author’s Background and Writing
Themes, Motifs, Symbols
Author’s Background and Writing
Patricia Grace is a major New Zealand novelist, short story writer and children’s writer, of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent, and is affiliated to Ngati Porou by marriage. Grace began writing early, while teaching and raising her family of seven children, and has since won many national and international awards, including the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for fiction, The Deutz Medal for Fiction, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, widely considered the most prestigious literary prize after the Nobel. A deeply subtle, moving and subversive writer, in 2007 Grace received a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to literature. Her writings explore the world of the Maori that she herself belongs to .She is adjudged the first voice of Maori consciousness.
The protagonist of the story is an old man who is about proceeding on a journey and the attitude of the younger people around him who make him feel rather old, doing everything for him,-‘buttoning up his coat for him and giving him money.’ The purpose of this journey to the town is to discuss with government officials over his family land, especially how the government should desist from acquiring it and turning it into a ‘development area’.
Making this trip alone is gratifying to him, as he will be able to be his own man, instead of a life of pampering by people around him. He intends to return by 5:05pm when he would be picked up at a designated terminal.
The rest of the narration entails all the things he observes as he makes the trip (The heavy construction work, railway station etc.); his reservations, criticism and acceptance.
When he finally meets the government official called Paul and makes his demand of having their ancestral land restored to them and having it allocated to each family member of the family, he is told that the whole area has been set aside by the government as a development area, where the government instead, is planning to turn into a planned area, with all the basic and modern facilities and infrastructure.
The argument continues as the old man and the government official could not agree on what development is .The family of the old man would have to be relocated and resited with equivalent of what they used to have, but the old man could not understand the rationale behind this. He would prefer his whole family be settled in one place, while the official feels this would not be economically beneficial.In a spontaneous reaction to his frustration in not being able to make the government official change his mind, he hits the desk with his foot and he carries the hurt he gets as a result till the end of the story. He is later asked to leave the office.
As the old man is being driven home, he enters into a conversation with the driver who displays some care and concern for his old age. The driver commends his gardening skills. Getting home, as he is still feeling the pain in his foot, but he could not tell his family members how he sustained the injury. His family also expects him to share his experience, but after sometime, he breaks his silence that when he is dead , they should not bury him in the family land, but rather cremate his body. His leaves his bewildered family wondering what he means by this.
Attitude towards land-The old man’s attitude towards land is so consuming and important, that he has to make the journey to town to go have a meeting with the government official. This meeting more than any part in the story shows the old man’s attitude towards land. To him, it is an aberration for a government to take it over or even earmark it for development as a development area. He would prefer a situation, where his family, the original owner of the land remains on their ancestral land and not scattered. He would prefer a communal living and would not embrace the so-called amenities the official is promising. He sees this land as a legacy he is bound to bequeath to the like of George, when he is long dead. While the government sees the land in a holistic manner, he sees it as primarily for housing . According to him, ‘People had to have houses.’ All he wants in his request is, to get it divided up so they can have a small piece each to build on…
The sub-theme of complexity of development is also implied in the story. The old man appears not to be able to grasp the complexity of modern development. He could not understand for example, while a government plan on paper could not just be altered.-‘That is only a piece of paper and it can be changed. You can change it’. He could also not understand why his family members could not just settle on their ancestral land and live as a unit, each person having his own land.
While the government sees the land as a mere economic tool to be exploited and manipulated, the old man sees land as an enduring family legacy with spiritual connection to the people. This is even shown in the manner the land is treated by the two sides. The old man could not fathom how the government could make so much deep excavations on the land- ‘Yet other times they go on as though land is just a nothing…Funny people these pakehas, had to chop up everything couldn’t talk to a hill or a tree these people, couldn’t give the trees or the hills a name and make them special and leave them.’ The old man’s deep spiritual connection to the land is further shown when he expresses his wish to be buried on his own ancestral land and if this is not possible, he would rather be cremated. That is his submission at the end of the story to his family members.
Past and present-The old man is symbolic of the gap between the past and the present. His dilemma as a character is that he does not want to be grouped into any. Though he appears to represent the past, he doesn’t want to be referred as an old person and he struggles to prove this.-He couldn’t stand these old people. However, for the present too, he seems to have much disdain for it. Most times, while being awed by the enormity of the advancement of the present, he pretends that things are relatively the same. His ‘journey’ in the story, where the story’s title is taken is symbolic of a journey from the present to the past.
Modernity-The old man lives in the countryside and his so-called journey to the city to have a meeting with the government official called Paul, is a kind of eye-opener for him on how much development has taken place. He is mostly awed by the fast-paced development in all areas, but more especially in the area of infrastructure. Instead of being excited by these developments, he disdains them as being destructive. There is always a sense of envy in his voice. However ,there are times when he could not but commend the positive side of modern development.-that is when you really had to hand it to the pakeha.
One unmistakable tone of the protagonist in the story is his cynicism for modern development and even the town people. – Funny people those town people. His attacks range from disdain for the burrowing through the hills, to the government development plans for the residential areas.
Change-The protagonist is confronted with change and it has become so fast-paced that he could not cope with it and because of this, instead of adjusting, he is irritated by it. Due to his personal pride, he refuses to adjust and puts on an attitude of dislike for any new thing. In his meeting with the government land official, he remains insistent that his own plan of having the lands demarcated into sizeable parts for each family member is the best option and when even Paul reels out how change is desirable, he remains stuck to the past and the status quo.
The Old man
He is the protagonist that makes the ‘journey’ to the city in the story to see how he could convince the government officials to leave him and his family on their land and allow them to divide it among themselves as they deem fit.
One obvious trait of the old man is his dislike for the manner his family members treat him because they assume he is very old and needs some pampering. They treat him more or less like a child, such as buttoning up his coat and giving him money. This treatment robs him of his manliness and virility being a proud person himself.
Though he does not like anybody being fussy about him, he could not but be nosey about other people. His mind throughout the journey is more concerned about trivial details of other people’s business ,especially what they are doing that are not right.Ironically,one would expect him to have some bond with old people like himself, but he could still not stand them-he couldn’t stand these old-age people.
It is with this attitude of pride that he takes into most things. He could not see anything good in any of the developments around him and he becomes suspicious of everybody. As a result, becomes disgruntled and grumpy, always complaining and never satisfied with anything. He is a classical cynic, who sees everything in a pessimistic light. While obvious that things, facilities and amenities have changed, he sees things in a prejudicial manner of being the same.-Same old taxi same old stinks.
However, he is one person that upholds family values and traditions. He sees their ancestral land as a legacy that ought to be passed to the coming generation. His failure in securing the land marks a sorrowful experience for him. Despite being a rather difficult old man, he appears to be very fond of George.
The story employs what could be called a rather complex form of multiple narration. The first narrator introduces the story and leaves the rest to the oldman, who is not actually telling his story, but acting it out as the story follows his journey to the town to go meet the government official over his land and his return.
The style mainly employed is stream of consciousness as the thoughts of the old man is presented to the reader in its raw spontaneous state. It could be confusing at times to follow and distinguish the statements of the old man and his thoughts, because there are times when he preempts what another person would say with a reply. Because of this style, the simple rule of punctuation is not observed. Generally, the story itself employs a rather non-linear form of narration (not following a logical form).These styles of writing are modernist.
The language is also rich in imagery. In describing the desecration of the land, the diction depicts use of force-they pushed a hill down over it and shot the railway line across…In describing the harm done to land, it is presented thus: ‘Then the rain‘ll come and the cuts will bleed for miles and the valleys will drown in blood, but the pakeha will find a way of mopping it all to no trouble. The writer portrays the land as a living entity with senses and has been injured and abused by the pakehas.
To capture the sensitivity of the speech of the old man, sentences are often inverted to give emphasis to a particular subject. For example, ‘Subdivision. It’s what we want’. (Subdivision is given more emphasis).
Sentences in the story are mostly cryptic and elliptical. The first statement raises the question, while the following one answers as in, ‘It’s all been carefully mapped out. By experts.’
A lot of sentences are also left unfinished, when the rest of the expressed is already implied. For example, ‘Yes yes I’ll be dead but that’s not…’.The effect of this is to leave a feeling of a lot of thoughts and words that are implied or left unsaid by the speaker.
To capture the sensitivity of culture in the story, a lot of local words are used. The white people for example are derogatively referred to as pakeha. Others local words are whatnaungas, Tamatea, Whakapau.
There is also ample use of colloquial language and slangs which are common trends in a language that is very conversational. The old man mostly resorts to slangs to show that he is not actually old and could hold his own in terms of being contemporary. Language is generally simple and casual, not hampered by strict adherence to the rules of grammar.
There is also ample use of refrains of some statements. There is the prevalent; People had to have houses to ‘it’s what my niece and nephew were trying to explain the last time, and in the letters.’ All these help to accentate the primary concerns of not only the old man, but also the story in general.
The journey of the old man is used to show a transition from a rural setting to an urban area, where there is rapid development. Land issue being a paramount one in the story, most themes are built round it. There is a contrast between a land that has been desecrated due to rapid industrialization and the other one in its natural state, where people could live their normal communal life, with gardens .