This a good book. A really good book. It’s one of those books I’m sure some readers won‘t enjoy, but surely even then people will have to recognise the skill and ambition with which this book is written. Hamish Clayton recently won the NZ Best First Book Award for it. That’s right. This fabulous book is his debut novel.
Ostensibly Wulf is a piece of historical fiction; it tells the story of a group of white traders aboard the Elizabeth in 1830s New Zealand, and the story of Te Rauparaha, the legendary Maori rangatira (chief). Their stories came together when Te Rauparaha paid the Elizabeth’s captain, John Stewart, to transport himself and a group of his warriors to Banks Peninsula, where they slaughtered an estimated 1200 people.
The story is told from the point of view of a sailor who (apologies if I’m wrong) remains unnamed throughout the novel. Te Rauparaha’s history is told to him by Cowell, another historical figure, who travelled with the Elizabeth from Sydney as its translator. Our narrator is captivated by New Zealand, and Clayton gives an excellent sense of New Zealand as seen by this British man’s eyes for the first time. The Wulf of the title mostly refers to Te Rauparaha: a foreign animal used by foreign men as a nickname for this native man.
Telling Te Rauparaha’s story by remove by white men could seem a cop out - a modern author afraid to put himself into a pre-colonial Maori mind. But, actually, this is Clayton’s most ambitious theme in his novel; how can these two white men be a reliable source for Te Rauparaha’s story? Where does fact and the man himself end, where does myth and legend begin? How can these foreigners interpret his actions without an understanding of the culture it came from? Are the scenes of cannibalism fact, or are they an exaggeration - the acts of savages as believed by the white man? How accurate is their account of history when every sailor has a different name for what we now know as Kapiti Island (Kopitee, Cobarty)? This is not so much history as told by the victors, but as told by the passers-by .
Their sunsets were part of our story, just as the arrival of our ships had already become a part of theirs. We were, us and them, part of the same story, different verses woven into the same song.
This is also a tale of when two disparate cultures came together, when modern New Zealand was born. It is a story of the irrevocability of contact; once ships and muskets arrived New Zealand could never be the same. Just as Maori civilisation was changed, so to were the whalers and traders, and eventually the settlers. After all it is not just Maori who have a traditional oral culture.
Had we ever stepped upon those unmarked burial grounds concealing the shafts of ancient war, where fossils of old Angles’ battle lay, and became poetry, slowly petrifying towards a state of lore?
Wulf is also based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, first recorded in the eleventh century, Wulf and Eadwacer. It is a short poem, and appears in two different translations at both the beginning and end of the novel. It is a particularly ambitious poem to base a novel on as no-one appears to be sure what the poem is about. It is generally thought to be a lover’s lament, sung by a woman, but no-one is sure if the Wulf and Eadwacer she sings of are the same person or not, so it could be a love triangle. Alternatively it has been read as a mother’s lament for a child. There are clear features of the poem that are recognisable in Wulf. Certainly the ‘whelp’ at the end of the poem features in Clayton’s novel in a memorable, historically accurate, detail.
Clayton’s novel is complex, I could spend pages dissecting what makes this book so clever, yet it works beautifully as nothing more than a great story. It is hard for me to be sure, but I think that this novel would also be a great read if you knew nothing of New Zealand, its culture and history. It is rare to read a book that lives up to its hype. I’m excited to read what he publishes next.
If you are interested Radio NZ have featured it as their book reading - available online here.