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May 28, 2007

Book Reviews: July 07 issue

In association with The Nile

Mailer’s Magnum Opus

Michael Morrissey enthuses about the possession of Hitler


THE CASTLE IN THE FOREST by Norman Mailer, Little Brown, $36.99

What on earth (or indeed - highly pertinent in Norman's case - Heaven and and Hell) are we to make of Norman Mailer? That one of America's leading novelists should produce a work of considerable, even enviable, vitality at 84 is an occasion for wonder and admiration. While earlier giants such as Faulkner had accelerated their early demise by alcohol or blown their brains out (Hemingway), the nuggety little Brooklyn battler has shown us that he is not down for the count, no way. He is alive and kicking God and the Devil's shins. And from the way Norman writes, he is often not entirely sure whether he is knocking the Divine patella or Satanic tibia. Who knows? - perhaps Norman will become the world's oldest novelist and still be tackling the Big One (ie Novel) at age 100. It's always possible that he might succeed in writing that great novel that has so far eluded his creative grasp.

The question is how great a novel is The Castle in the Forest? In its research - in the form of a large bibliography – it is impressive. In order to write about Adolf or Adi (as he is cutely dubbed) the child, Mailer has read all the great biographical classics on Hitler, the adult – from Bullock to Kershaw to Trevor-Roper with main titles asterisked – a list that curiously omits Mein Kampf but does include Milton and Heidegger. The question must be asked - is Mailer merely trying to impress us for little of this massive research material is in evidence in the text of the novel.

The novel unfashionably supposes that Hitler's monumental evil is the result of devilish influence. Dieter (D.T. for short) who works in the SS under Heinrich Himmler is actually a devil assigned to guide young Adolf along the pathway of evil. I warned you it wasn't a fashionable view. A more conventional view might be located in (say) a somewhat vitriolic review of Mailer's novel in the New Republic which concludes that “the Nazis were neither gods nor demons but finally all too human”. Mailer opts for the view that the vileness of the Third Reich had its origins in demonic influence. We are not talking about rolling eyeballs, levitating beds, projectile vomiting, swiveling heads or crucifixes burning flesh, but subtle and undetected intrusions of the human psyche by a diabolic mind. Mailer's Dieter, a minion of the Maestro (Satan), enters young Adolf's consciousness via dreams, thoughts, wishes, fears. In other words, the Devil's influence is psychological though real nonetheless. Mailer's description and analysis of this subtle control is almost spooky in its accuracy. The problem from a literary point of view is that this often acute analysis is not dramatically integrated into the book. It's all from the sideline. So while the book is brilliant in patches, its brilliance is “added on” as it were.

No one can accuse Mailer of not tackling the Big Issues of our time. His record is extensive as it is bold. World War Two in The Naked and the Dead; Communism in Barbary Shore; President Kennedy and nuclear war in The Presidential Papers; Vietnam in Why are we in Vietnam?; the 1968 Chicago riots in Miami and the Siege of Chicago; the moon landing in Of a Fire on the Moon. In the 1000 page plus The Executioner's Song, he examined what makes a murderer tick; in Ancient Evenings he explored the 18th dynasty of Egypt. In Harlot's Ghost, he took on the CIA with a massive 1300 plus pages. This was followed by 700 pages on Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's assassin, and more recently The Gospel According to the Son which dealt with a topic already examined by George Bernard Shaw – are voices in the head of the saintly merely the mind talking to itself or divine directives? All of these weighty themes in which evil or God is so often at the centre of the enterprise might entitle Mailer to be dubbed the American Dostoyevsky, but for one important fatal flaw. In nearly all of Mailer's work save for The Naked and the Dead and An American Dream, the essayist wins over the novelist and the trenchant analyst triumphs over the dramatist. We get raw slabs of ideas admittedly couched in richly turned phrases but devoid of novelist's drama and interaction. This is why Dostoyevsky is the greatest novelist of all time and Mailer, his struggling bastard son, tries hard but never quite achieves the title he so sorely craves – the greatest writer of his time, the literary Champ, the Muhammad Ali of the contemporary novel.

Thus The Castle in the Forest is a heroic failure of sorts. While rich in wit and insight, it is dramatically and novelistically impoverished despite having Adolf Hitler as its subject matter. The focus is often more on beekeeper Father Alois and his grubby colleague Der Alte than young Adolf himself. Adolf, more often than not, is viewed via the diabolic lens of Dieter's subtle influences.

Nevertheless, it must be presumed that Mailer, like so many, feels that there is a “mystery” to Hitler – how did this humbly-born fellow come to nearly conquer the world? How did he manage to “secretly” bring about the death of six million Jews? I myself have come to believe or accept that there is no particular mystery. That Adolf was not mad but “merely” like so many would-be world conquerors before – Stalin, Mao, Napoleon, Tamburlane, Alexander the Great – evilly ambitious on a grand scale. Or as Mailer has fictionally explored, Satanically influenced. Hitler was a powerful orator (whereas Stalin and Mao were not) and used radio more fully as a propaganda device than before; also he used the aeroplane to move rapidly around the country and therefore appear omniscient, a media god. Prior to this time (1930s), these devices had not been used to the degree that Hitler used them - but again, where's the mystery? He had the new technology, he used it to be powerful. Is there any mystery in that?

Hitler irrationally hated the Jews and used them as a scapegoat but there have been plenty of other examples of genocide both before and since - horribly in Rwanda in 1994 when a million Hutus were slaughtered at a faster rate than the Jews were killed under Hitler's regime - and in like manner the world did nothing.

If there is a mystery, it is in Hitler's numerous bad military decisions - Dunkirk, attacking Russia, delaying the assault on Moscow, failing to use the new jet fighter in adequate numbers and so forth. However, if you accept German historian Joachim Fest's persuasive argument, that there is something in the German psyche that is attracted to a great doomed tragedy, and here we may find an explanation of the “mystery:” We have plenty of evidence for Hitler's fascination with the Ragnorak, the twilight of the gods – the ultimate destruction of civilisation, in this case brought about by a doomed war. Mailer too, believes there is a mystery - “the most mysterious human of being of the century” says Devil Dieter, prominent narrator of Hitler. If there is mystery (which I am inclined to doubt), then why not examine the childhood of the tyrannical monster? Perhaps it is here the “mystery” of his enormous evil will be revealed? Thus is Mailer's fictional strategy.

Nonetheless, I found it is, alas, hard to care about the wicked Alois and the would-be wicked Adolf – and this, after all, is the acid test for a book – do we care? The details of beekeeping might have been fascinating in their own right if rendered by an Updike or a Roth but here they seem like Mailer is away on an unfruitful tangent until the text mentions the bees are gassed to death. Alelluia, the reader might cry understandably thinking that here is where Adolf got his genocidal ideas from. The text undermines its own metaphor by asserting, “...I would warn the reader not to make too much of the gassing ...” Is Norman embarrassed by the straightforwardness of his own metaphor? The denial seems either coy or forced. Mailer is always second-guessing and contra-qualifying his own text.

Dieter, talking about the methods of Satanic usurpation, is more interesting than Alois holding forth on bees but again Mailer fails to make this potentially riveting material dramatically interesting as Dostoyevsky always does. The bees, one is compelled to suppose, are a metaphor for the German people but one that palls. In fact - and regrettably - you can learn a lot more about the complex intertwining of good and evil from the superb Sopranos than by reading The Castle in the Forest. Thus this grand attempt at a portrait of Hitlerian evil is a missed opportunity and no amount of essayist's glad phrasing will make for an adequate substitute. Norman should shut up and let the characters speak for themselves - that's what novel writing is all about. When they do speak, they only monologue about bees.

Nevertheless, in an age of increasingly misguided liberalism and confused values, veteran author Norman Mailer has the moral courage to believe that in the fight between God and Satan (who at times reminds me of a naughty child that needs a good smack or two on his red behind), God “needs” human help. In other words, even though God was, is and for all eternity been destined to win over the Devil, our job as human beings is to join in on His side as freely, gracefully and powerfully as we can - each and every one of us – all six billion plus of us - and thereby create a happy pure life on this wonderful Spaceship Earth created for our enjoyment providing we also love God and each other. With Faith and Hope added in, it may not be difficult as people think. God throws a knock out punch and Satan goes down for the count – permanently! His red eyes close, his brain is damaged beyond repair and it's all over – he dies in the ring and the crowd goes wild with joy! A big fat prayer recited to God in a humble spirit can do wonders.

Alas, from time to time, evil men like Hitler distract us with false gods sated with lust for power. This novel – flawed though still powerful in parts - portrays the early life of Hitler as told by one of Satan's lesser devils and shows the boy being tutored in the ways of evil. If the very idea that is the central motor behind this, by turns, brilliant and laboured work - a tome of astonishing vitality for an author for 84 – seems far-fetched - “merely a work of fictional invention”, readers might like to consider this astonishing passage from The Dictators by leading English war historian Richard Overy:

“Two British generals at a Hitler rally in Berlin in 1934, seated in the stadium just feet behind him, watched him captivate his listeners with the familiar rising passion and jarring voice. “Then an amazing thing happened,' continued the account: ' (we) both saw a blue flash of lightning come out of Hitler's back ...We were surprised that those of us close behind Hitler had not all been struck dead.” The two men afterwards discussed whether Hitler was actually possessed at certain moments by the Devil:' We came to the conclusion that he was”.

This passage – and it is to be noted that this account is from England's leading military historian and not some “hollyroller” fruitcake - is quoted from a book entitled True Account by F.W Tennant p. 182-183. Thus we may reflect, as per the old saying - Is Truth Stranger than Fiction? I have come to accept that Satan can enter people without their knowing but perhaps in the more dramatic cases of visible evil, the host is a willing collaborator. Thus is raised the spectre of the Faustian pact, a situation hinted at in the passage quoted above. In The Castle in the Forest, it is Dieter, a minor devil acting on behalf of the Maestro (Satan), who does the tempting and Adolf who is successfully tempted.

Some historians consider that Hitler was insane though that is a minority view. His main medical problems were physical not mental. It is more accurate to consider him as a man who chose evil. Any dictator who orders up the cold-blooded murder of six million Jews and caused the death of additional countless millions must be considered evil, not mad. In the case of Hitler, madness is a glib excuse. Alternatively, such a view suggests that evil - i.e. mad - people are not responsible for their actions. Let us remember that Hitler chose evil and he paid the price – his thousand-year Reich crumbled in 12 years.

Modern psychiatry increasingly continues to tell us that morality or free will has no place and that the quick fix for such disturbances is a pill. To this degree, psychiatrists are often of the Devil's party without realising it. Major mental disturbances such as paranoid schizophrenia and manic-depression (politically correct term: bipolar disorder) are most likely coded messages from God – patterns of inner wisdom in code. Episodes of “Mania” are like the giant fifty-foot high waves of Hawaii (where surfing began) – if you can learn to surf you get the terrific thrill of defying death and if you do it accurately you don't get injured. Or injure anyone else.

So Mania (which has of course “afflicted” little battler Norman and let us not forget Stormin' Norman) is really a misunderstood gift from God which one day may enable humanity to spread out to the stars and realise that glorious future that God was planned for us. As Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) says in Contact, if the colossus of the universe is noting but stars, gas rocks and the odd planet than it's an “awful waste of space.”

Mailer can never be accused of tackling lightweight subjects – for as already noted, one of his earlier books was entitled The Gospel According to the Son which considered the important question asked by Jesus - Is God speaking to me? Or am I hearing voices? It would seem that Mailer though Jewish – has moved closer to the Christian view in his latest work - perhaps the old slugger will convert one day? Imagine - Norman, a veteran of six marriages, turned celibate priest! Nonetheless, Mailer's view is more Manichean or Zoroastarian than Christian – God is not all powerful but struggles to perfect His creations as well as struggling with Demons and evil influences. To some extent, the sense of this metaphysically asserted struggle provides the missing novelist's drama. If the Mailerian view of God as less than all powerful being is unacceptable to Christians, it is evident he does take Satan and evil seriously – very seriously indeed.

Mailer may just turn out to be America's most important novelist in the heady realms of Ideas. Though often ignored by local reviewers who unfortunately have fallen under the influence of femminazism and the rigid-minded doctrines of the politically correct who seek to reduce art's richness to barren formulae, Mailer's vitality of intelligence offers a rewarding though novelistically marred reading experience. No other major writer has changed his tonal voice so many times making a thesis on his work a formidable task indeed.. The way in which he has been largely ignored here is a matter of cultural shame. Unfortunately, The Castle in the Forest is a heavily flawed book though still worthy of our attention - as is much of Mailer's locally neglected work which for several decades has continued to assault the heady realms of theodicy, eschatology, ontology and metaphysics.

When I met Mailer in late 1985, in a boxing gym in New York (where he was giving a poetry recital), I was struck by his mystical blue eyes. Hitler too, apparently had mesmeric pale blue eyes. However, Mailer's seemed – almost cerulean, a Heavenly blue – a sign that paradise is to come? Only God knows. And though at first it seems unlikely, compared to Hitler, Norman must surely be on the side of the angels (or Cudgels as Dieter calls them) - as well as, of course, fallible humans.

Stop press: my old friend Michael O'Donogue, long time sub-editor at the Herald tells me – source New York Review of Books - that The Castle in the Forest is is only the first part of an intended trilogy. Norman, this is your big chance for a literary TKO at age 90.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:26 PM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2007

Book Reviews: May 07 issue

In association with The Nile

What Males A Woman Tick...

And other stories...Michael Morrissey’s autumn discoveries


THE FEMALE BRAIN by Louann Brizendine, Bantam Press, $37.99
This book is strongly reminiscent in design to an earlier book entitled Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. It has crystal-clear almost baby talk language text much in the style you might read in women's magazines, but at the back of the book is an encyclopaedic follow up in the form of almost line by line references and a bibliography of mammoth proportions. As much of the references are very recent, it seems childish or stubborn to occasionally resist their conclusions, though it is well to remember that however up to date the research is now, it will be revised in the future.

The former book had a distinctly patronisingly anti-male tone while The Female Brain deals principally with the female perspective, so has a cast-iron excuse for any seeming “bias”. In the main, both books tend to reinforce a lot of the time-honoured perceptions about the differences between men and women and militate strongly against the view which peaked in the 1970s that the principal differences between men and women were all socially and environmentally produced. The Blank Slate approach is gone and the Previously Coloured Slate is back. Actually, it's not that simple because the current view - which makes perfect sense to the reviewer, is “that the fundamentally misconceived nature versus nurture debate should be abandoned: child development is inextricably both”.

One of the important areas that Brizendine clarifies is why fewer women succeed in the sciences - it is not due to lack of mathematical ability but because at the crucial stage of adolescence, estrogen floods the girl's body compelling her to focus on emotions and communication whereas boys find it easier to withdraw and be alone. Curiously, I still find myself at odds with the characterisation of the reluctant-to-talk male either in adolescence or in adulthood. I was a non-stop talker throughout and all the truly marathon talkers I know are male. Maybe there is a special geek/intellectual hormone as yet undetected?

The general impression gained from Brizendine's writing is that we are as hormone-driven as surely as a motor car is driven by fuel. On page 55 it is admitted, “a hormone alone does not cause a behaviour”. Nonetheless, it is the former rather than the latter view that comes through most strongly. Thus, for women, talking or telephoning brings up pleasure-reinforcing amounts of dopamine and oxytocin – the latter being especially stimulated by intimacy. Men on the other hand seek independence rather than intimacy. Though she doesn't say so, I would assume what is labeled bonding is often more important to men – bonding with each other. I also find it hard to square off the assertion that women will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid conflict against the sassy feminists and women I know.

Despite my resistance to some of its points, this book is crammed with revelation and affirmation of traditional gender different perceptions. Chapter three informs us that only 5 per cent of mammals are monogamous – and so you must be wondering are humans (and in particular males) part of that five per cent? The answer seems to be kind of. From observations of prairie and montane voles, the critical factor (so we are told) is the length of one's vasopressin receptor. The prairie voles with the longer version are more faithful. So in future women may be in quest of mates with long vasopressin receptors. This is of course if men are like voles.

My general take on this book is that everyone should read it - for it rings a lot of bells at the biological level. And yet curiously I find some of its assertions contradicted by my own experiences. Also, if all its views are accepted as stated, it seems to deny human beings the capacity to make decisions contrary to their hormonal promptings - in other words it denies us free will. Which one of my hormones, I wonder, prompted that remark?

THINGS I DIDN'T KNOW by Robert Hughes, Knopf, $65

More than a generation ago, I saw a picture of Robert Hughes that aroused deep envy. He was young (relatively), good looking, had a powerful-looking motorcycle and was Time magazine's new art critic - presumably at a princely salary. I was a little published writer mail-sorting in the Sydney Post Office and did not own a motorcycle - and was not earning all that much. Now, some thirty years down the track, I have published a fair amount but still have no motorcycle - and no princely salary. Hughes is moderately famous and I am relatively unknown. Apart from that, what else is in common?

Surprisingly, quite a bit. Irish background, both raised as Catholics, destined for the law (but dropping the bench for more literary pursuits) plus jaffas, Minties, harbour ferries, trams, flying boats, the strap, Dad & Dave and Mandrake the dapper Magician gesturing hypnotically. And both were maturing as young men when our respective countries had scant confidence in local art – when the only way to view the grand masterpieces of European art was to go to Europe and see them - and there was little informed art criticism or art history. But since that time (1950s/1960s), both have developed enormously and large scale exhibitions from overseas are relatively common. Despite having five times the population, Australia had much the same colonial cringe as its smaller younger brother across the Tasman.

Hughes slid rather casually into the role of art critic in a way that is hard to imagine now. “I've just fired the art critic,” announced the Observer's editor Donald Horne, “Anyone know anything about art?” Hughes, the cartoonist, became an overnight art critic. Since that fortuitous beginning, Hughes has done his homework. Over the ensuing decades, it is clear from his richly detailed account that he has made himself at home with western art throughout England, Europe and America - the range of references is impressive. Included among his cultural formative icons are George Orwell, drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Kenneth (“Civilisation”) Clark; heavyweight Australian painters like Sydney Nolan and Arthur Streeton and writer Alan Moorehead.

Reading of Hughes' cultural life – the major part of the book – is in stark contrast to the opening sequences where the unlucky art critic was recently involved in a hellish car crash and wound up having dream-hallucinations that suggested the pins needed to hold the shattered bones of his arm together were a medieval torture device. Born into a rich and privileged family, Hughes has made good use of the flying start his background gave him.

At times, Hughes is in almost in danger of overdoing the litany of great art that has subsequently kissed his privileged eyeballs but what saves his account from any nuance of showing off or the tedium of experiencing unrelenting excellence, is his marvelously rich essayist's style which - despite its arcane vocabulary - remains lucid. Orwell crossed with Ruskin, one might say.

The still sneakingly conservative Hughes has little time for hippies and New Age goofiness,
though he likes the outrageous satirist Robert Crumb whose art he acutely analyses. If one imagines the life of an art critic as an endless browse through art galleries clutching a glass of wine – surely not too distant from the truth - Hughes was fortunate enough (so to speak) to be sent over to capture the great flood of Florence in 1966 which damaged countless works of art. Here Hughes's prose rises to fresh heights of descriptive power and leads him to this startling conclusion: “What the Florence flood drowned in me was a belief in the potency of the avant garde”. I would have thought the destruction wrought would have hammered home the fact that all art is vulnerable. Surprisingly, I find myself increasingly in agreement with him – whether creeping middle-aged conservatism or due respect for the past, I leave readers to decide.


THE SMELL OF POWDER: A History of Dueling in New Zealand by Donald Kerr, Random House New Zealand, $ 29.99

The time is dawn. The place a little visited locale. Two gentlemen stand sideways to each other and fire pistols at one another. Assistants called seconds hover, making sure that everything is run according to the “rules”.

Rules? Believe it or not dueling has rules. Twenty six commandments were drawn up by an interested group of fellows at Clommel, Ireland in 1777. However, in the heat of the moment – though dueling is by nature generally a “cool” practice ie one done after the moment of provocation – sometimes seconds and the rules are forgotten.

Dueling was and is an illegal activity indulged in by “gentlemen” (though one or two women have tried it) who should be of equal social status. Kerr notes that in the forty plus one years of George 111's reign (1760-1801), there were 172 reported duels and 91 deaths. In New Zealand, on the other hand, there were but 31 duels from 1809 to 1935 with only two deaths. Since, prior to reading Kerr's beautifully produced book, I didn't know there had been any, the unexpected number is sufficient to merit the period-charming history that Kerr has compiled.

My surmise is that New Zealand’s “Jack is good as his master” attitude – the desire to create a democratic rather than a tiered society with a small number of “gentlemen” – has helped work against the importation of this practice to Aotearoa. Possibly the rise of boxing as a sport and meeting behind the shed for a punch up as a way of settling differences has also played a part.

Kerr's elegantly written accounts are an intriguing visit to a bygone era. Remarks that seemed provocative back then have lost their sting by now. Dudley Sinclair called Bendigo Mack an “adventurer” resulting in a thrashing with a pickled whip and a challenge to duel which, like several listed here, was called off at the last minute. Another insult that aroused ire was “ranker” i.e. someone who had risen up through the ranks of the army. Another gent was hit by “a rebounding orange”, and demanded satisfaction. Accusations of cheating at cards and impugning a lady's reputation were also prominent among the causes to call for pistols at dawn.

On occasion, swords were the order of the day - such was the case in the last recorded duel in New Zealand in 1935 when an insult launched at King George V by a Russian officer resulted in a stabbing by an outraged loyalist. One can't imagine any sleight upon a royal provoking such a reaction today.

Failure to respond to challenge could result in the passive party being “posted'' - being publicly denounced as a dastardly coward, unprincipled villain, black guard, scoundrel etc. Reading between the lines, I can't help wondering if wounded pride demanded the challenge and speculate there was relief when the injured parties were talked out of it - in one case by their own mothers arriving at the scene of pending combat. If only, one might wish, all occasions of violence were so easily defused, what a peaceful place the world would be.

This is a delightful and elegantly produced book which would make an ideal gift especially for a “gentleman” who presumably now will not “call one out” even for a sleight. And it appears that very soon even the smack across the cheek, that Hollywood has taught us is a prelude to a challenge, will also itself be illegal.

Around NZ.jpg

FROM THE WRITER'S NOTEBOOK by Lydia Monin, Reed Publishing, $29.99

Not so long ago when prominent overseas visitors arrived in New Zealand, they were anxiously approached for their impressions of New Zealand. If the often almost forcibly solicited response was favourable, well and good, and if not – well, that was something to worry and fret about. In other words, we had a bad case of colonial cringe and were eager for approval – especially from the Overseas Expert - an attitude satirised in Allen Curnow's play of the same name.

At this time in our history, such writers as Trollope, Twain, Conan Doyle and Shaw were to some extent world cultural gurus and their visitations to these shores were hugely prominent events. Hence, the terrific attention paid to their observations. Nowadays – thanks to writers' festivals – famous writers have become more commonplace. Besides, in the pre-war and Victorian era - when psychology, sociology and anthropology were infant sciences – writers were expected to have opinions on everything under heaven. In the case of Twain and Shaw, in particular, this was a role in which they appeared to cheerfully revel. Twain had good reason to be publicly loquacious – he was in debt and his world tour was a way of making badly needed cash.

J.B. Priestley, who visited in 1973, was probably the last writer to be feted as a general guru of our culture and society – thereafter, we have haltingly inched our way to a greater sophistication though we have lapses into “Overseasure” and colonial cringe from time to time. Like Kerr's account on dueling, Monin's book is chaptered in accordance with New Zealand geography – from north to south - and the book's inner front and back pages offer a charming map of these noted literary travellers' itineraries.

The scenic reputation which New Zealand justifiably enjoys to this day was in no small measure due to the praise heaped on our Pink and White Terraces (now sadly destroyed), Bay of Island fishing, Waitomo glow worm caves, Rotorua thermal area, Lake Taupo and Milford Sound and walk, by these visiting literary giants. We all appreciate praise and when a tough and sardonic critic like Shaw described the Waitomo glow worm caves as “sufficient to blot out all memories of ordinary scenery”, the whole country must have blushed with pride.

Shaw was to prove a most prescient observer. Whereas Trollope ventured to suggest Auckland might one day rival London (we are still awaiting this eventuality), Shaw accurately predicted that we would one day harness geysers for power. He also suggested that we should found our own film industry to help develop national identity, distribute milk freely, and cut the economic strings with mother England – and all of these ideas came to pass.

Among the past writer-celebrities, Monin has sprinkled a goodly number of more contemporary visiting scribes eg Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Robert Creeley and the sad case of Chinese poet Gu Cheng who murdered his wife on Waiheke Island in 1993, then committed suicide.

For the reader who may not even be aware that such eminences as D.H Lawrence, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, and Noel Coward touched down on our shores however briefly, this book is a goldmine of critical comment, whether for or against. Wellington, Lawrence declared, was “a cold, snobbish, middle-class colony of pretentious nobodies” which makes me wonder if he spent his time in parliament. And the last word - and a surprisingly sweet utterance from so trenchant a critic - quoted by Monin, is from redoubtable old sage Shaw, who said on his departure, “If I showed my true feelings I would cry. It's the best country I've been in.” The carpet laid out before the old cynic must have been very red and very thick indeed. But now, who's being cynical?


WHYKICKAMOOCOW by Nicola McCloy, Random House, $19.99

The title is the English phonetic version of an imaginary Maori language-named town called Waikikamukau. I guess the intended pun is more humorous for English readers than Maori ones.

The interesting thing about this anthology of explanations for the origins of town or location names is how often the obvious notion proves not to be the historically accurate one. Bombay, for instance, just south of Auckland, is not named after the ancient city but the ship Bombay which brought settlers to the area in the 1860s. Interestingly enough the great Indian city has recently returned to its original Hindu name of Mumbai but Bombay, New Zealand, is sticking to its nomenclature. Dagg town is not named after sheep poo or comedian Fred Dagg but Captain Dagg, a whaler who made a massive haul of seal skins from there in the early 1800s. Other towns that have possible naughty nuances to their names such as Waipu and Pigroot are also noted.

Bulls does not come from the district sustaining a plenitude of male bovines, but from James Bull, a woodworker and carver, who funded a store which wound up providing everything from a beer to a bed for the night. The energetic Bull also established a carrying and sawmilling company. Soon locals said they could go to Bull's for anything and everything.
Hence the town became Bulls - apostrophe omitted. Hinds in Canterbury has nothing to with the proliferation of deer farms but is named after Captain Hinds, an ardent Anglican and supporter of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Thankfully humour can sometimes have a place in history. Take Nightcaps, a town so humble that at one stage it was possible to buy a house there for one dollar (plus installation expenses). One can't imagine a committee of civic-minded burghers coming up with such a moniker and such proves the case. A Captain Howell, a retired whaler who had 19 children (two by the first wife, 17 by the second) was gazing at the tops of the Takitimu mountains one typically misty night, and reportedly said, “They have their nightcaps on”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since McCloy's aim in part is to look for humour, quirkiness and oddity, she finds more of these in European names and the book as a whole has a European flavour. However, some. Maori names fit the brief. Taumata is the abbreviation for the longest place name in the world. Kumara in the South Island is not named after the delicious sweet potato and the town was originally called Kohimara. Ngatimoti, in the Motueka district, is misnomer – there is no tribe called Moti. The explanation is that Timoti is Maori translation of Timothy who carved into a tree “Na Timoti” – “belonging to Timoti”.

However, much of the time things are what they might seem – Auckland is named after the Earl of Auckland, Wellington after the Duke of Wellington, and Christchurch after Christ Church at Oxford. The humorous, the quirky and the odd, it seems, tend to gravitate toward the smaller towns. The larger metropoles take themselves more seriously.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

Beautiful Dubrovnik: May 07 issue


Back to the Balkans

Historic Dubrovnik plays to the crowds, as Robert Cross discovers

DUBROVNIK, Croatia - On my first day, thunderstorms exposed the town's true nature.
In good warm weather, Dubrovnik can feel like a museum specimen, filled with visitors eager to experience its beauty and marvel at the intricacy of its historic buildings.

Trouble is, the admirers obscure some vistas and crowd through interiors that otherwise would transport them back through the centuries. All those flip-flops, cruise-ship caps and digital cameras play havoc with the imagination and keep reminding us that the Renaissance has come and gone.

And yet here I am spending more ink on the place, drawing more attention to it. Obviously, this no longer can be considered one of Europe's delicious secrets. But it should be on everyone's must-see list, throngs or no throngs. Ideally, Dubrovnik is absorbed, savored over many days. Still, even a glimpse is better than nothing. No other city on the Continent quite compares.

The frequent whump of seaside thunder and the bouts of heavy rain made umbrellas blossom on the main street - the Stradun, or Placa. Its marble surface turned slippery, while the sudden bath revealed it as a handsome, glistening pedestrian thoroughfare with the famous Onofrio Fountain on its western end and the 15th century Orlando's Column on the east - and a handsome clock tower for punctuation.

Only a few strollers braved the downpour. Clusters of visitors found shelter under the 15th Century portico of the Rector's Palace, where the rector and his staff once reviewed parades. Now the spectators could see fellow visitors running for cover, joining them under the portico or ducking into the baroque embrace of St. Blaise Church.

Dubrovnik is an al fresco sort of town in the warm seasons and during the dry days, so the storm provided an occasion to see the interior of the Gradska Kavana, a cafe where townspeople gather for coffee early in the morning. Most customers choose to sit outside on the terrace facing Luza Square and Orlando's Column, or take a table on the harbor-side veranda, where the armory used to be.

Inside, the cafe boasts two floors of tables surrounded by handsome Art Deco paneling and murals. It's a good place to get one's bearings after a stroll from Pile (PEE la) Gate, the western opening in the massive wall that surrounds the old city, or Stari Grad.

When the weather clears, the wall is a wonderful place to gain an overall impression of Dubrovnik, no matter how thick the crowds on the streets below. Built between the 13th and 15th Centuries to repel enemy sieges, it's a wide and lofty barricade, 80 feet tall and fully intact.

It has all the turrets, forts, towers and casemates with cannons that a Hollywood scenic designer could wish for.

The wall covers slightly more than a mile, uninterrupted, with fine views - sea, harbor, the orange-tiled rooftops of dwellings within the old city and modern Dubrovnik clinging to the foothills just outside the gates.

Strolling the Dubrovnik wall has to be one of the best walks in Europe.

The wall bridges the two most distinct aspects of Stari Grad. Visitors typically come for the wonderfully preserved or restored historic sites, most of them at ground level. That's where the tour guides hold up their umbrellas and explain the palaces, the Franciscan and Dominican monasteries (built for further protection), the churches and the odd artifacts like Orlando's Column. (Sculpted in 1417, its statue of Roland, the legendary medieval knight, is a symbol denoting benevolent powers protecting the city.)

The guides never fail to mention St. Blaise, the city's patron, usually depicted holding a model of Dubrovnik as it looked before the devastating earthquake of 1667.

Up on the wall, down along its base and along the sides of V-shaped Stari Grad, visitors with time can get a look at homes and the villagers who occupy them. They represent only a small percentage of Dubrovnik's 45,000 citizens, but they serve as excellent ambassadors for all the rest. It's fascinating to see children at play and adults going about their daily chores in a place so thoroughly tied to its long history that even the satellite dishes appear ready to grow moss. No wonder the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared the Stari Grad a World Heritage site.

Tourism is the main engine driving the Dalmatian Coast economy these days, so visitors receive welcoming smiles. One morning, a member of the wait staff at the Orlando Cafe had me pegged immediately as an American. She brought me, unbidden, an International Herald Tribune someone had discarded on another table. "Something to read with your cappuccino," she said.

I was trying to build some energy for the climbing required for a walk around the wall followed by more climbing up the residential tiers on either side of the main streets.

When I did reach the wall, I heard somebody remark, "Not a lot of privacy here. I don't think I'd like thousands of people walking above my house." But residents of Stari Grad apparently have learned to humor the visitors, entertain them or make a few kuna - the Croatian dollar - by selling them things.

Atop the wall, strollers find refreshment stands and women selling their crochet work and souvenirs. Down below, pots of flowers decorate scores of front stoops, as if to enhance the enjoyment of anyone peering down at them.

Along the wall's base - which stands on a steep bluff - I saw a wooden sign, in English: "Cold Drinks With The Most Beautiful View." An arrow on the sign pointed toward an opening in the wall. I entered to find a drink stand called Cafe Buza and several tiny umbrella-shaded tables clustered on stone ledges.

The beautiful view took in blue Adriatic Sea, the greenery of Lokrum Island and passing pleasure boats. Italy was out there beyond the horizon, but on a day like that, in a place like this, the boot lost some of its allure.

Frank Sinatra serenaded the Cafe Buza patrons. As I sipped a Coke and listened to Sinatra's rendition of "The Summer Wind," it occurred to me that all over Dubrovnik and neighboring Lapad I had been hearing music from the Cold War America songbook. Sinatra in this charming little cafe, Bob Dylan in a souvenir shop, Frankie Laine at a pizza place, even the McGuire sisters in a resort-area shopping mall.

It appeared as if I'd be listening to these familiar refrains all through my stay. But then, farther along the wall, I heard a beautiful contralto coming from a church school, where someone was rehearsing for a recital or a solo in the choir.

On the Stradun one afternoon, men and women in costume paraded toward Pile Gate. Some of the men played guitars and mandolins - even a full-size bass viol. And everyone sang. The parade drew scores of spectators, of course. They squinted into their digital camera screens and at one point formed a circle around a group of singing women - all in costume.

Not everyone was a tourist. Here and there, I could see lips moving in the crowd and hear the voices of other women, softly joining in.

It wasn't clear to me which period of Dubrovnik's and Croatia's history the marchers represented. Clearly they were dressed as country folk, courtiers and wandering troubadours, not the nobility and traders of the 14th and 15th centuries, when the town still was called Ragusa.

Through the centuries the city endured many shifts in power and allegiance: Romans, Turks, Venetians, the Croatian-Hungarian kingdom, all had their moments. The 1667 earthquake leveled the city-state, which had been an important seat of Renaissance enlightenment. Citizens rebuilt, but trade declined. The artistic treasures and cultural riches were destroyed.

At the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon's forces ruled. Then came the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Croatia tried and failed to break away from its Austrian rulers. In 1867, Hungary ruled Croatia but Dalmatia, including Ragusa, stayed in Austria's grip.

Fast-forward to post World War I when an uneasy bundle of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes were gathered together as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (i.e. southern - yugo - Slav).

Around that time, Ragusa became Dubrovnik, named after the dubrava, the holm oaks, or holly trees, that grew on the hillsides. The area fell under fascist rule during most of World War II. Afterward, it was part of Tito's Yugoslavia and his independent-minded Communist regime. Tito forcefully rejected Croatia's bid for independence, but his break with Stalin in 1948 did allow for more tourism and a slightly freer spirit than in most parts of the Soviet sphere.

When Communism collapsed in the late 1980s, Croatia again declared independence and its leaders removed Serbs from public office. The Yugoslavian army stepped in, beginning in June of 1991. That fall, the city and all of the southern Dalmatian coast fell under attack by the Yugoslav army, navy and Montenegrin militia. On Dec. 6 shells pounded Dubrovnik's old town, killing 19 people and wrecking several buildings.

With the help of a shocked world community, especially the European Union, Croatia did gain its independence and gathered the strength to repair and rebuild after the siege finally ended in 1992.

The work has been done so skillfully and with such an eye for authenticity that it's hard to comprehend how extensive the damage really was.

In the Sponza Palace, which survived both the recent war and the 1667 earthquake, a room on the ground floor is devoted to the events of 1991 and `92. Walls hold photographs of the men who died resisting the attacks. A continuous film shows collapsing rooftops, doorways belching flames, plumes of smoke rising from broken windows, people running for their lives.

"So many of our friends died," a tour guide told a group just outside the door. "There was so much damage 15 years ago."

Sponza Palace once served as a customs house, a bonded warehouse and a bank. Now it holds state archives, including manuscripts dating back centuries. Most visitors prize its exquisitely carved and be-columned Renaissance-era portico and its graceful Gothic and Renaissance windows.

The Rector's Palace - the only other building to survive the earthquake - is equally ornate. Those two structures hint at what an artistic and handsome city Ragusa/Dubrovnik was.

Of course, the artisans and engineers of post-Renaissance years filled the sturdy walls with delights of their own. The exteriors along the Stradun display a sort of baroque uniformity, an eye-pleasing arrangement that's anything but austere. Just past Pile Gate, the domed, 15th century Onofrio Fountain greets visitors with a ring of water-spouting sculpted faces. A few yards away, the Church of the Holy Redeemer is a favorite venue for evening concerts.

A doorway cut into a virtually blank wall leads to the beautiful cloister of the Franciscan monastery, where a small group of monks prayed and lived even during the Communist era. The complex includes a working pharmacy founded in 1317, an apothecary museum, and galleries of religious artifacts and paintings.

There are other churches, a cathedral and a Dominican monastery, which stands near the eastern Ploce Gate. People tour those, too, for the fine ecclesiastical art and that ephemeral thrill of supposing how it was to live in another time.

But it's satisfying just to experience Dubrovnik simply as a community with a design for living. That climb to the tightly condensed neighborhoods on the northern side reveals cozy streets - alleys, really - lined with restaurant tables, little shops selling everyday things and baubles the visitors might like.

A hike up the terraces is rewarded with close looks at tucked-in apartments and the cozy Hotel Stari Grad, one of only two hotels within the walls. The other, the exclusive Pucic Palace, shares a terrace with the morning market, where farmers and artisans sell their goods.

The Ethnographic Museum up in the south side residential sector sits atop a former granary. Mannequins wear clothing similar to those I saw on the paraders. Artfully mounted housewares, tools and farm implements grace the rooms.

I looked out a window at the rooftops of the Stari Grad, a bowl of small wonders, and it hit me that I had scheduled far too little time.

Back down at harbor level, I walked past the Pucic Palace behind a couple taking in the sights. The woman said to the man, "You're in Dubrovnik. Why do you always have to be somewhere else? Be where you are."

When I saw her mild rebuke in my notes, I felt a blush coming on. I do that so often: "This place reminds me of ..." Just the other day, I compared Dubrovnik to a town in Tuscany.

A mistake. Dubrovnik is Dubrovnik, and that's all it needs to be.

A bus is all you really need to get from an outlying hotel to the old city. Within the walls, it's walking or bicycling only; no vehicles allowed. And biking is impractical there because of the crowds. Bus fares are 8 kuna if purchased at a kiosk or newsstand and 10 kuna when paying on the bus. The kuna at this writing is equivalent to about 17 cents U.S.

SLEEPING THERE: Only two hotels operate within the old city. At the small (eight rooms) but charming Hotel Stari Grad (Od Sigurate 4; 00-385-20-322-244; www.hotelstarigrad.com), doubles start at US$238 in summer, including breakfast. The 19-unit Pucic Palace (Ulica Od Puca 1; 00-385-20-326-222; www.thepucicpalace.com) overlooks Gundulic Square and charges for its elegance, comfort and central location with rates that start at more than $550 a night in high season.
Outside the walls, the city and its suburbs offer a wide choice of hotels and resorts. To stay within walking distance, you could book a room at the Hilton Imperial (Marijana Blazica 2; 00-385-20-320320; www.hilton.com), a totally refurbished 1897 landmark just a short walk from Pile Gate. Rates start at about $300.
In Lapad, I stayed at the plain but modern and comfortable Hotel Kompas (Setaliste Kralja Zvonimira 56; 00-385 20 352 000; www.hotel-kompas.hr), one of many resorts in the area with superb Adriatic views. Doubles start at about $240.
Also, it might be worthwhile to consider apartments and rooms rented out by families. Look for signs that say "Sobe," which indicates accommodations are available. Or ask at one of the tourist offices.
Prices quoted are subject to change and do not include tax. Always ask about discounts and specials.

EATING THERE: My personal culinary highlight was a lingering afternoon repast at Proto (00-385-020-323-234; www.esculap-teo.hr) in the heart of the old town. I chose to sit on the terrace upstairs, instead of at a street-level table. It was the perfect tranquil setting for a meal of seafood salad, fresh and lightly seasoned. It went well with the local white wine, Posip. The bill: US$28.
A sister restaurant of Proto, Atlas Club Nautika (00-385-020-442-526; www.esculap-teo.hr) has a fine reputation, but the salad I ordered there couldn't match Proto's. I was told the gourmet treasures are in the dining rooms - rather formal and dressy compared to the seaside terrace. But outside, selecting from a very limited menu, you still get to pay gourmet prices (cash only). With a glass of red wine, my tab came to US$30.
In general, seafood is almost a sure bet anywhere along the Dalmatian Coast. But the beef and pork dishes I tried in Dubrovnik tended to have sauces and gravies laid on with a heavy hand. Italian cooking is widespread - including pizza, of course - and most of it meets the Italian standard.

INFORMATION: The Dubrovnik Tourist Board, www.tzdubrovnik.hr. Republic of Croatia, www.hr/index.en.shtml. www.croatia.hr
Useful guidebooks include Frommer's Croatia by Karen Torme Olson and Sanja Bazulic Olson; Lonely Planet's Croatia by Jeanne Oliver; and the Berlitz Dubrovnik Pocket Guide by Roger Williams.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:59 PM | Comments (0)