Vaughan Rapatahana, Novel, Rangitawa Publishing, 2018. 320 pgs.
Vaughan Rapatahana’s sophomore novel, neatly and appositely entitled Novel, is akin to the “Hair Raiser” roller coaster ride in the “Thrill Mountain” section of Hong Kong’s autochthonous rock-perching and hill-straddling theme park, Ocean Park. It is a rocking and rollicking ripsnorter of a ride that frequently changes locales, characters and milieu and that often delivers gut-punching, stomach-lurching plot twists to its readers.
Steeped as Novel is in the cultural world views of the New Zealand Māori and diverse Asian cultures such as the distinctive Hong Kong Chinese one, not to mention the Filipino Pampangan cultural-linguistic nationality of South-Central Luzon (in itself a subset of the wider Filipino Tagalog-speaking and Tagalog business-conducting nationalities), Novel embraces wider world views and greater multi-ethnic dimensions than many other contemporary works of fiction. This aspect lends this work of fiction a sometimes exhilarating immediacy which keeps the reader on the proverbial knife-edge, greatly desirous of finding out what happens next, in the tradition of the nineteenth century’s serialised fiction, exemplified by Charles Dickens’ use of the “penny dreadful’s” device of the cliff hanger. Mr. Rapatahana unleashes a number of cliff hangers of his own throughout the length and breadth of his sprawling Novel.
This work also has currency due to the topical thematic baggage that it totes. In fact, it carries the freight of the modern preoccupation with “whistle blowing.? The “whistle blowing” alluded to in Novel aims to alert often somnolent, stunned populations to the “clear and present danger” of shadowy, extra-legal, quasi-governmental organisations which seem to operate with impunity throughout our modern world and which frequently grossly impinge upon the rights and perquisites of what ought to be fully sovereign indigenous peoples across the globe.
It could be argued that this is very much a work which invests its sympathies with these, on many occasions, oppressed and marginalised indigenous populations. Novel, furthermore, shows such aboriginal “sons of the soil” reacting to their subjugation with a scarcely concealed righteous rage and a will to exact vengeance on their oppressors.
In the context of the New Zealand Māori, this urge to gain revenge is embodied in the concept of “utu”; a form of reciprocity, which in an almost Biblical sleight of hand, demands “an eye for an eye.” Hence, the eruption of Aotearoa-New Zealand in Chapter 80/1 into a state of insurrection wherein actual Māori Islamic jihadists seize the reins of power in the Urerewa mountains of New Zealand’s North Island.
Rapatahana realises this post-Rua Kenana prophetic “fever dream” in the Tuhoe territory of the Urerewa by means of a literal beheading of the alien Pākehā power as Page 227 expounds:
Several government troops and so-called special agents had vanished into what seemed thin air, except for the couple of headless corpses of unilaterally despised policemen who had first been dispatched to quell the initial skirmish-and dispatched they had literally been. Decapitated latterly by Hemara and by several of his cousins, the latter of who had been strongly fulminating against a Pākehā, rotten, Americanised government for decades …
Such a vision obliquely refers to the nightmare projections of the New Zealand police following the 2007 arrest of the activist, Tame Iti, along with his cohorts. It has great topicality for many New Zealanders, both Māori and Pākehā (white New Zealander).
Nevertheless, the axis of Novel does not simply revolve around concepts, ideologies or theologies; it, rather, spins owing to the autonomous power of its characterisation. This atom-splitting fission occurs because of the no doubt visceral reactions of readers to the frequently Grand Guignol menagerie of characters, who despite all of their all too evident flaws, still manage to engender interest. For instance, for me personally as a reader, the character of Godfrey Woo, the venal Hong Kong Chinese “wannabe” high roller, was a sulphurous revelation. Godfrey is the ex-husband of the sensible lead female character, Ruby, a former domestic helper from Pampanga and current girlfriend of Novel‘s putative hero, Norton. Godfrey appears in the guise of a walking, or better to say, skulking and crawling, metaphorical personification of decay. Rapatahana almost metamorphoses Godfrey into a human form of the disease, leprosy:
Woo had had to vanish from sight, as he had become a pariah even for his own flesh and blood and he by now owed so much money that no one would have believed him even if he had had the stomach to tell them. He lost his family as quickly as his own hair fell out and—soon—his teeth had begun to default too … Now he was a bit of a social disease who really had run out of places to flee …
Towards the very end of Novel, Godfrey Woo, in a deft piece of plotting by Rapatahana, re-emerges as a deus ex machina, an unlikely source of salvation for his ex-wife and her New Zealand Māori action man beau, Norton. The Dickensian coincidences surrounding this plot denouement allow for the redemption of this literally rotten supporting character. Godfrey Woo is typical of the vast array of lively if frequently repulsive characters who populate the pages of Novel. On occasion, these characters generate their own grim brand of humour such as when Woo muses on his tangled personal and professional life on page 115:
Woo was loathe to go [to Mainland China] for fear of running into further enemies—such as his Shenzhen mistress and her triad relatives, who were threatening to cut off all of his—Woo’s—fingers and toes. And anything else that dangled in between …
Earthy, whiplash bon mots, such as these, underscore the impression that in many ways, Novel functions as a gargantuan graphic novel. There are even manga style illustrations, such as on Page 221, which depicts the once again au courant and sinister image of young Hong Kong protesters trying to protect themselves with umbrellas against a barrage of pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets launched by an increasingly paramilitary style of police force. In keeping with the graphic novel style of writing, Rapatahana employs an active, rat-a-tat prose form. The character, Godfrey Woo’s, brush with murderous goons-for-hire from Hong Kong’s triad societies is conveyed in an exciting, almost cartoon like, rapid fire manner on Page 117:
He felt the chopper glance off his left shoulder and the cleaver pain jolt through him, knowing that he hurt bad. He slumped a little, but conversely, also picked up his pace into a slow loping run … Up around the corner, under the nullah overpass and in the shadows… Woo was wiping away a thin trickle of fresh wound blood …
Aside from the interminable action, though, there is also literary ambition given the use of ironic metaphors such as Page 117’s “character assassination in the flesh,” where Woo’s body is described as being “steadily dismantled—the complete opposite to a paint-by-numbers portrait built-up.” Rapatahana also uses evocative metaphorical phrasing for the heroine, Ruby’s, actions. For instance, on Page 122, “it was Ruby who had had to use her eyes as a semaphore grid.” This felicitous phrase conveys the intimate signalling that is inherent to lovers.
Vaughan Rapatahana, at times, also evinces a practically Keri Hulme-style delight in richly allusive word play, for instance, juxtaposing the adjectives “accused” and “accursed,” then connecting them with a slash to form the compound—”the accused/accursed outsider figure” from Page 123 when describing the protagonist, Norton’s, interactions in the town of Pampanga with the above allusive pun. This is a technique that has only rarely been used since Hulme’s own seminal novel the bone people which was first published in New Zealand in 1983. This is a valuable vein of both playing with and exploring words’ semantic meanings that could be exploited by other contemporary novelists to great effect.
Echoes from Booker Prize-winning novels aside, Novel shows an authentic feel for daily life in the Philippines. The district of Pampanga in South-Central Luzon is brought to humid life under the writer’s loving hands. On Page 124, an omniscient narrative technique, for instance, allows the reader to enter into Norton’s mind and share his thoughts on his new home with Ruby in the Philippines, “But Norton wasn’t going to let any of these Philippine people know any of this money stuff” and then strengthens the technique by the use of an arresting simile to plumb the depths of Norton’s psyche, “To try and balance out all the emotions shooting through him like fireworks at Chinese New Year, would be a bonus for him right then.”
It is this type of liveliness and pace that takes the edge off heavier elements such as the mysterious U.S-led and Chinese/Russian-supported geopolitical conspiracy. In the world view advanced by Novel, the eviction of the Chagos islanders from their Indian Ocean archipelago centred upon the island of Diego Garcia in 1967 is no accident, but part of a hegemonic bid for total global control. On Page 126, Rapatahana writes thus:
The clichéd alarm bells were sounding in the dusty corridors of not only the New York stock exchange and the sweaty Washington D.C. senate locker rooms, but also more penetratingly in Langley, Virginia, where the CIA and innumerable as yet undiscovered secret clan-destinies met and fomented frequently in a sort of sibling rivalry.
There is also an uncanny foretelling and anatomisation of the current political crisis in Hong Kong which has been triggered by its political administration’s proposal of the extradition law. It is “devoutly to be wished,” though, that Rapatahana’s nightmare vision from Page 219 does not prove to be literally prophetic:
[Woo saw] PLA troops in thick marching order, coming straight down the centre of the same road without any vestige of them altering their route. Woo was amazed for he had never seen so many P.R. China troops in his life before—at least not in the flesh, so to speak, and certainly never in these rain-speckled streets of suburban Hong Kong, at 5.00 in the morning.
However, these dire political warnings are cannily fleshed out in flesh and blood characters such as Ruby’s nephew, Rustico Tuazon, a Filipino student who is “a politics major at Atenao University in Manila, drafting his PhD thesis on the American presence in Luzon,” as Page 134 informs us. Whatever conceptual views of the Pax Americana as a smokescreen for the American Imperium that are presented in Novel, and that the character Rustico ardently believes to be true, Rapatahana subordinates them to an all out action sequence. This prepares the ground for the single most exciting series of active paragraphs in Novel, namely where Monaghan, Norton’s erstwhile nemesis from Aotearoa-New Zealand, attempts to assassinate Ruby’s nephew in the back street markets of Pampanga for the benefit of his shadowy foreign paymasters.
How Norton “turns the tables” on Monaghan in order to preserve his lover’s nephew’s life in Chapter 54/3 will keep readers on the proverbial “edge of their seats” between Pages 170 and 172. There is an almost filmic quality to the tense prose that is employed here, such as on Page 171:
He [Rustico] hadn’t seen the tall white man, wearing shades and bearing arms, was almost directly behind him and that he was raising quite high in the air what must have been a slim pistol.
And lest we forget, there is a similar filmic quality to the denouement of Novel featuring our old zombie-like acquaintance, Godfrey Woo, in his deus ex machina incarnation. There is an admirable jerky energy to Chapter 105/2’s writing, for example, in the following sentence from Page 290, “Without any conscious awareness, Woo found himself steering the still throbbing van straight at the …” To resolve these final tangled threads of Novel‘s hectic plot into the coherent ending that this work presents, readers will simply have to devour Novel for themselves.
Perry Bayer is the Native English-speaking Teacher (NET) at CCC Ming Kei College in Tai Kok Tsui, Kowloon, a position that he has held since September 2006. He has, in fact, served as a NET since September 1998, having arrived in the inaugural cohort of NETs who commenced their duties in the 1998-1999 academic year. Therefore, he could enjoy the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the NET Scheme hosted by the Education Bureau at the Queen’s College Campus in Causeway Bay in July 2018. Having been an English Teacher at secondary schools in New Zealand, Japan and Hong Kong, Dr Bayer maintains his abiding interest in English Literature and remains a firm believer in the power of Literature to affect students’ lives for the better.