Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'An Amateur Self-Deceiving Job': M.K. Joseph's A Soldier's Tale and the Gothic Tradition in New Zealand Literature

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'An Amateur Self-Deceiving Job': M.K. Joseph's A Soldier's Tale and the Gothic Tradition in New Zealand Literature

Article excerpt

There is no potted definition of the New Zealand Gothic. Lydia Wevers has, in fact, argued that in New Zealand we 'don't have a popular literature. We have no thrillers, almost no detective fiction and no adventure fiction. There are no romances to speak of, [...] very little comic writing, and almost no Gothic.'1 This is, on the face of it, an odd claim to make. A Gothic seam runs through New Zealand literature; and yet, it is, as Jennifer Lawn argues, a diffuse one.2 Perhaps Wever's claim can be best understood as meaning that there is no Gothic tradition in New Zealand literature, only repeated Gothic elements. But there has been little discussion of where such Gothic elements might come from, if they are not indigenous. To what extent should we consider the New Zealand Gothic a Gothic partially in imitation of foreign models, as, for example Tim Jones does in discussing the influence of Poe upon the Gothic elements in Sargeson.3

This essay argues that the Gothic elements of M.K. Joseph's N Soldier's Tale - its doublings and triplings, violence and aroma of death - come not from an indigenous Gothic tradition but use the model of William Blake to import Gothic elements. Here I follow William J. Schafer's argument understanding the Gothic as a way to gain a past: 'if you feel raw, young, unformed, lacking in historical status, a way to gain stature is to acquire suitably ancient ghosts.'4 Using Blake allowed Joseph to escape the confines of New Zealand's realist literary tradition when, as Jack Ross argues, he found that 'Whatever straight experience-based realism had done for him previously was no longer working.'5 However, criticism of the novel has so far been unable to engage with its Gothic elements; either, as Allen Curnow famously did, it rejects the novel as alien to New Zealand literature by virtue of its Gothic savagery, treating it only as 'popular literature'; or those elements are diminished and elided to fit the novel into a literary tradition that does not recognise the Gothic. This essay attempts also to track why this might have been.

The reader of A Soldier's Tale is given at second-hand the intimate details of a wartime murder and the events which led to it. Our narrator, addressed only as 'Bom', was - like Joseph - a bombardier in the British army. Thirty years after the events he describes, with many caveats as to his reliability, he tells us the story he heard from a fellow soldier named Saul Scourby during the Normandy campaign. Scourby's oral narrative, mediated and expanded upon by Bom, tells of how he found a woman named Belle in an isolated cottage. Three men of the Resistance wait outside to kill her as a collaborator while he spends a weekend with her, explores some opportunities for saving her, finds none sufficient, and murders her for reasons he does not quite make explicit, but which, echoing the climax of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, have something to do with mercy. Both Saul and Belle, then, commit seemingly unjustifiable acts - murder and betrayal - but in both cases, justifications are presented. In the gaps between the events of the primary narrative, both Saul and Belle talk about their pasts. These include, for Belle, affairs with German soldiers and the circumstances in which she betrayed a Resistance group; for Saul, a soldier he knew who derived a sexual thrill from killing his first love.

The novel's narrative structure is unusual, placing not one but three unreliable narrators between us and the heart of the matter. Beginning with Joseph's tale, the printed text, we move on to Bom's written narrative, 'no doubt more falsehood than truth.'6 That tale occludes Saul's oral narrative, revealing his actions but suppressing his thoughts in favour of what Bom believes to have been the case. All that we know of Belle's tale, meanwhile, has been filtered first through Scourby's account of it, and then through Bom's account of Scourby. It is no wonder that lacunae and oddities spread throughout the text, leading to divergent critical approaches. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.