Reading The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke was a sensory pleasure from the very beginning. The paperback sat easily in my hands; the cover, as you can see, is a visual feast; the binding is firm yet soft, so that the pages fall open easily; and the layout of the type on the page makes the reading easy and pleasurable. All this told me a story before I had read the first sentence, a story that filled me with anticipation. Anticipation which thrilled at that first, commanding sentence: “Listen, miracle of the future.” (p9)
With those five words I was captured. The narrator was speaking to me. I am that miracle of the future. What a thought.
James Pōneke’s mother and sister are killed when he is still a toddler. It’s the 1830s. The musket has arrived in New Zealand and tribal warfare has become more lethal. While James is in the care of missionaries his father, a chief, is killed. Grief stricken James lashes out at the missionaries who have been raising him and, although still a child, runs away. This book is his story, a fictional memoir of a boy who saw the chance to make his own way and seized it.
But it is no simple lost-little-boy-makes-good story. Tina Makereti tells a much wiser, more nuanced story than that.
James encounters people who use him for their own ends, those who presume to know what is best for him, and then those who listen and accept him for himself. And he experiments with who he might be:
Wanderer, freak, sailor, philosopher. Native boy in English costume, English boy in native costume. Exhibitionist, lover, clown, Maori boy. (P289)
James goes to London, under the patronage of The Artist. In exchange for his keep and education James appears as a live exhibit in an exhibition depicting the artist’s travels through Australia and New Zealand. James spends his days being observed and objectified. He, too, is observing and quickly has the measure of a people who poke and prod, provoke, and in the end pronounce upon James and his way of life as if only they can know what is correct. As if he is nothing more than some sort of specimen.
Whereas at the start I had forgiven their actions as curiosity or ignorance of my people, I now interpreted the way they stood back or talked about me in my presence as arrogance. They made announcements to each other about my people and my land without ever having been there, as if gazing at even a hundred of the Artist’s pictures could tell them what it is really like to be me. Only the boldest asked me questions directly, but those questions seemed posed not necessarily to hear my answer but to observe the novelty of my reply. It was all so curious to me, even though it was I who was considered the curiosity. (P132)
James eventually meets Billy Neptune and through him experiences a different London. The Artist would say a less desirable London. But James is entranced by the night life and by Billy.
Following on from novels that have taken me to Australia, Thailand, Idaho, and Baghdad, reading The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke was like coming home. It’s in the landscape, in the history, the characters, the impact of colonialism and cultural imperialism, the way the narrator addressed me the reader, the way that he drew me in and likely you, too, should you read this book.
This may be a piece of historical fiction but it’s also a cautionary tale for our times. Afterall, now, in this technological age we are all rendered both the observed and the observer—that’s the stuff Facebook and Instagram and Twitter thrive on.
“Listen, miracle of the future,” James says in that very first sentence. Yes, listen. That way lies a chance at James’ dreamed of future, where civilisation might at last be realised. And if it’s not, well James has something to say about that, too.
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti (2018) Penguin Random House
Listen to a review by Louise O’Brien on Radio New Zealand here
Longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2019
Categories: On Books