By Ray Sawhill
The action in “Monday’s Warriors” (Godine), Maurice Shadbolt’s new novel, has a roughriding excitement, and the language is sharp — there are no ominous premonitions or nameless dreads. This crackling Conradian adventure yarn is based on a true story. Kimball Bent, an American conscript in the British Army in New Zealand, deserts, and talks the Maori who find him into sparing his life. It’s the late 1800s, and the British have mounted a military campaign to wipe out what remains of Maori resistance. Bent gradually realizes that he hasn’t entered an inchoate, savage world — he’s entered a culture in disarray. The Maori are at odds with each other over how to deal with the whites.
When the English, determined to teach the Maori a lesson, crush one of their peaceful villages, Titoko, the village elder, who has been a spokesman for peace, consults the ancient war gods and talks several tribes into reinstating the old customs and going on the attack. The body of the novel concerns this war, one of the last Maori uprisings against their invaders. As Titoko wins battles, more and more Maori join up, and he grows close to Bent, whose realistic yet detached viewpoint he values. The Maori use the Anglos’ fearfulness against them; essentially, Titoko suckers the English into defeating themselves.
Is Titoko having a lucky streak, or has he really summoned the ancestral magic? Or is he just futilely acting out what history demands? Bent, the American, provides the reader with an opening onto a world of Maori ambivalence. Whipped and out-smarted, the settlers demonize Bent, convinced the Maori couldn’t outfight and outthink Her Majesty’s troops without some kind of Caucasian help.
Maurice Shadbolt is almost entirely unknown in America, although he has written over a dozen books. “Monday’s Warriors” is his first to be published in this country since the defiant, supercharged 1987 “Season of the Jew,” one of the least-noticed, least-discussed major novels in recent years; still available in paperback, it, too, concerns the Army and the Maori in the 19th century. The two novels are each complete, self-contained works, yet are also fine companion pieces.
They’re also very funny. Is there something about the Maori — their mocking humor and ferocity, perhaps, and their apparent invulnerability to sentimentality — that leads to treatment of their tragedy as black comedy? In both of these daring epics, the conversations and faceoffs have the rapidfire wit and formality of a high level karate match — and Shadbolt never tries to glamorize his terseness or style. The scenes of slaughter, and the evocation of the New Zealand landscape, have an Elizabethan unruliness and splendor; the author suggests a mystical component without dragging the stories down. If we’re drawn to marvel at the senseless trouble people cause themselves and each other, Shadbolt leaves us on our own to do it. He sets us down in the mistrust and beauty and keeps the dramatic tension keyed way up. Readers may feel that at its best Shadbolt’s work outdoes Hemingway.
- Buy a copy of “Season of the Jew.”
- Buy a copy of “Monday’s Warriors.”
- Learn something about Maurice Shadbolt. More.
© 1992 by Ray Sawhill.