Once Were Warriors
By Alan Duff
University of Queensland Press, 1994. 198 pp., $15.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Peter Riedlinger
It was with some misgivings that I bought a copy of Alan Duff's novel. I'd read an interview he'd given and heard him talk on ABC Radio. His message was not particularly palatable. If Maoris don't get a job because of their colour, they should say to themselves that they ought to become employers instead. The usual right wing illogic: social problems can be viewed, and remedied, in terms of the choices of individuals.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself fascinated by the book. The attraction was not altogether pleasant, but it is indeed an absorbing, if somewhat repellent, story.
Duff's style is the important feature. Though certainly not unique (I'd lay a large bet that he has read a fair bit of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury), the stream of consciousness/interior monologue moves the story at whatever pace the author wants it to shift. The style heightens the impact of the characters' emotions. I had to put the book down for a day before I could pluck up the stamina to go on.
Plot is thin, to the say the least. A Maori family — Jake "Muss" (muscles) Heke, his wife Beth and their five children — live in Pine Block, a housing estate which could exist anywhere: poverty, ignorance and despair fuelled by welfare, alcohol and violence. Jake drinks and fights. He's king at the local pub and also at home, where Beth is the object of his frustration.
The turning point comes when Grace, their teenage daughter, is raped by her father after a drunken party. Grace turns inwards and eventually hangs herself but leaves a suicide note explaining why. Beth finds the note and drives Jake from the house.
The book ends with the funeral of their eldest boy "Nig", a member of the Brown Fists, a Maori gang. Beth, strengthened by discovering her Maori heritage, stands by the grave. Jake, an outcast now living on the streets, watches from the nearby bushes.
The message is not totally bleak. Amidst the squalor, filth, broken teeth, vomit and beer bottles, there are lyrical moments, such as Grace watching the same moon that drunken teenagers huddled out under a blanket are also viewing. However, the moments of beauty are all too short. Perhaps the greatest hope is when Beth witnesses the Maori ceremony at her daughter's funeral and discovers her own strength and that of her people.
Unfortunately, Duff mars some of the book by talking through his characters. The Maori chief at Grace's funeral tells his audience not to blame the pakeha for their troubles but to get up and do something about their situation.
Duff's book is a work of great skill. However, I can't get rid of the nagging feeling that the present New Zealand government would like his message: what's the point of trying to do anything for Maoris (or any other indigenous people for that matter) when "they" are hopeless and have only themselves to blame.
It's a pity that Duff doesn't come to terms with the total picture that accounts for the alienation of people — Maori or anyone else.