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Genesis in New Zealand; or Man Playing God in Fiona Farrell's Mr Allbones' Ferrets.

The stories of Adam and Eve, of Noah's ark, and several others from Genesis, have inspired many modern rewritings in postcolonial societies. Such rewritings range from Australian poets A.D. Hope's 'Imperial Adam' (1955) and Judith Wright's 'Eve to Her Daughters' (1966), to Canadian novelist Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), and New Zealand children's writer Lynley Dodd's The Other Ark (2004). In Mr Allbones' Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids (2007), New Zealand writer Fiona Farrell too uses biblical stories to reflect, in a satirical neo-Victorian novel, on the changes that the colonisation of New Zealand has entailed, both in human society and for the native flora and fauna. Her reflection on species finds a particular echo, and the revisited biblical stories renewed meaning, in the contemporary context of the discussion about the introduction of genetically modified organisms in New Zealand. (1)

Farrell's novel may be read through the double prism of postcolonialism and postmodernism, two approaches, as Linda Hutcheon argues, the concerns of which overlap, notably in terms of narrative form, theme, and strategy. (2) In Mr Allbones' Ferrets, the narrative form is romance, the theme, the ecological impact of colonisation, and the narrative strategy, satire. As a postcolonial text, it is 'informed by the imperial vision' (3) but also 'possesses a strong political motivation that is intrinsic to its oppositionality'. (4) As a postmodern text, it is 'both self-reflexive (about its technique and material) and yet grounded in historical and political actuality'. (5) Yet one may wonder: while the discussions on postmodernism and its links with postcolonialism became lively from the mid-1980s, why would Farrell go back to that familiar mode in the first decade of the twenty-first century? (6) One answer may be that, at a time when history runs the risk of repeating itself, she deemed it worthwhile to return to a playful but political approach to literature. While the ecology and society of New Zealand were transformed by colonisation in the nineteenth century, a comparable process seems to be at stake in our times with the possible introduction of genetically modified organisms. Satire, 'a kind of protest, a sublimation and refinement of anger and indignation', (7) aims at political objection by way of reliance on humour. Through the Swiftian mode of satire, Farrell inscribes the politics of her novel not only in the established postmodern / postcolonial frame of reception, but doubles up the reading frame by creating a metafictional level in the narrative that looks back at the past satirically while having its eye on the future. This enables her, while speaking from a postcolonial context and acknowledging the historical inheritance of ecological transformation that characterises New Zealand, to alert her readers to the risks of letting a comparable revolution happen again, one that would entail a more in-depth biological alteration of the natural world, with unfathomable long-term consequences. By using the Bible as intertext and master narrative, Farrell taps into shared cultural heritage. The Bible plays a dual role in the politics of the novel: it is a reminder of the power that is attached to discourse, and it provides stories to which alternative narratives can be written.

The Bible and Other Master Narratives

Mr Allbones' Ferrets is firmly set in the context of Charles Darwin's theories and their interaction with a receding but still prevalent religious discourse. The epigraph to the novel, taken from Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859), as well as quotations and data at the beginning of each of the nine chapters--lists and accounts of expenses from historical archives, excerpts from books on ornithology, along with quotations from Genesis, Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), and Darwin again--all provide a glimpse into the historical and ideological contexts while the main narrative is focused on the romance between Allbones and Eugenia, the two discursive threads being complementary. As Farrell points out in the closing 'Historical Note', 'Those that arrived in New Zealand brought with them religious notions of human supremacy over nature, a fierce determination to reshape the land to fit it for participation in new forms of global trade, and a dispassionate curiosity shaped by that European mode of enquiry called natural science'. (8)

The excerpt from Genesis in chapter 6, God's address to Noah ordering him to 'Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth' (p. 134), alludes to Allbones' endeavour to transport mustelids to the New Zealand colony, following the plan of Pitford, the English gentleman who employs him. This casts the whole colonial project in the framework of the ideology of conquest that a certain interpretation of the Bible supported. The story of Noah is also echoed in the plot itself, as a deluge floods England before Allbones leaves--a downpour like 'the rain that had caused them to build the ark in the Bible' (p. 17). The aim of the passengers of this ark is not to rescue English species from the flood, however, but to regulate the rabbit population in the colony of New Zealand. If the New World is cast as a possible new beginning, it is one of a scientific nature, where biological experiment is called for, according to Pitford.

But for Allbones, the attraction of the New World is about romance, and additionally, the promise of a better life. He agrees to leave England when he finds out that Eugenia, Pitford's granddaughter, with whom he is in love, is going to New Zealand with her grandfather. The voyage also promises to be lucrative for Allbones, who in England struggles to support his younger siblings. The name of the clipper, the Adam and Eve, anticipates that promise of a New Eden. Pitford's view of the story of Adam and Eve is different: he associates it with the pair of rabbits that were introduced in the islands of Majorca and Minorca from Spain, 'this single Lagomorphic Adam and Eve', then leading on to a plague of rabbits that had to be gotten rid of. Only the 'wild cats from Africa', that is to say ferrets, could reduce the rabbit population (pp. 59-60). Inspired by this historical example recounted by the geographer Strabo, Pitford believes that ferrets and other mustelids are also the solution to New Zealand's rabbit problem. Talking to Allbones from behind the cloud of smoke coming out of his pipe, he stands as a god-like figure, recalling 'the picture of God seated among the cherubim above the chancel arch in St Peter's Ledney' (p. 60). To Pitford, man can play God in the scheme of nature.

The biblical story of creation and the emerging scientific vision of the world are at odds. Pitford has a passion for science: like many of his contemporaries, he believes in Darwin's theory of natural selection and 'the production of higher animals' (p. 212). He dissects and classifies, has rows of cabinets in his house, and is obsessed with accountability, lists and figures. His scientific legacy will be a catalogue of the birds of New Zealand. Eugenia, who follows her grandfather's teachings, parrots his words and mimics his lecturing manner, also believes in evolution. In her vision of the world, science reigns supreme. She rejects the notions of beauty and emotions--even though she is deeply attached to the song of nightingales, her grandfather has convinced her that beauty and emotions have no place in the real world, and as far as books go, he 'prefers for her to read reality and not the romances so often preferred by young women' (p. 138-9). Eugenia mocks Allbones for not knowing about Darwin, and for having a simplistic vision of the natural world. What he knows is from first-hand experience; he lives in organic symbiosis with his environment, and is viscerally attached to the countryside. His view of this pastoral, unchanging seasonal world echoes the terms of the priest at Ledney Church: to Allbones, spring 'is the Eden time', and 'he is the first man in the New World' (p. 21).

The scientific, rational worldview embodied by Eugenia is the one that displaced the traditional biblical narrative of creation, and which Allbones has absorbed in a non-religious version. In Jean-Francois Lyotard's terms in The Postmodern Condition, scientific discourse wins over narrative discourse. Allbones' speech is linked to a narrative tradition that, as Lyotard explains it, identifies with 'a threefold competence--"know-how," "knowing how to speak," and "knowing how to hear"--through which the community's relationship to itself and its environment is played out. What is transmitted through these narratives is the set of pragmatic rules that constitutes the social bond'. (9) Allbones' discourse is a particular kind of narrative: he is alert, and hears and smells everything, 'the tiny canals in his pink ears flaring' (p. 22); he is skilled, and Pitford sees in him someone 'with a strong practical knowledge' of the country' (p. 56); but he is no great speaker--'words made no sense, spelled every which way' (p. 61). Yet, when he can finally tell Eugenia that he loves her, after the birth of her child, words come to him easily. He now has a narrative of his own to offer.

The scientific pose adopted by Pitford, and Eugenia imitating him, is one of knowledge and social power. And yet, as Lyotard famously observed, in the postmodern era and with the 'end of metanarratives', scientific discourse is one among many, and its legitimacy cannot be taken for granted, despite its operativity: 'Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside? The operativity criterion is technological; it has no relevance for judging what is true or just'. (10) By satirising god-like Pitford and Eugenia, Farrell reminds us that scientific discourse is subject to a question of legitimacy, undermining indirectly the legitimacy of twenty-first century scientific discourses and their claim at controlling the natural world, often with little regard for long-term consequences. A significant irony about Eugenia, and about Pitford as her tutor, is that for all her knowledge about natural science, the girl does not 'know what's what' (p. 196) about reproduction, and does not realise that she is pregnant. Eugenia is involuntarily comical as she claims that 'We were observing the badgers' (p. 25) when Allbones mistakes her and Pitford for lovers, and when she tells Metcalfe, after he surprises her and Allbones in their burrow on the deck, 'We were observing the stars' (p. 186). In the first case, her words are taken for euphemisms implying love making, of which there was none on the premises, but sexual intercourse had taken place before, without her realising, as we later find out. In the second instance, she is less innocent. In both cases, scientific observation is a justification for illicit forms of intimacy.

Apart from the powerful but not insoluble clash between Allbones' narrative discourse and Pitford's scientific discourse, two other stories are conflated in the novel. The story of Adam and Eve and the story of Noah's ark are merged, even though they are quite different. Adam and Eve are associated with Eden (and the loss of it), while Noah's ark is a story of punishment and then rescue. The clipper sailing to New Zealand simultaneously figures Noah's ark (it leaves after the flood in England) and is named the Adam and Eve, in an allusion to the new beginnings that the future settlers were hoping for. Which narrative eventually predominates: the optimistic one of new beginnings, or the darker one of punishment and hardship? Farrell suggests that both good and bad came out of the colonial experiment: substantial good for human society, the class structure of which is discreetly reconfigured in the process of emigration, opening up possibilities for the future; and some sad losses for the animal world, as the natural order is upset by human intervention through the deliberate introduction of foreign species.

The Satirical Victorian Romance of a New Eden

Mr Allbones' Ferrets presents many elements of the Victorian romance adopted by the late nineteenth-century New Zealand and Australian women writers that Elizabeth Webby and Lydia Wevers describe: it is a story 'of courtship and society, love and money, class and honour'. At the time, 'women writers conform to a gender-based definition of their interests and influences that has little to do with their geographical locations as writers'. Yet some of these women also 'work with, and subvert, characters and settings established by male writers'. (11) Farrell, too, playfully revisits and subverts the genre.

The Victorian society in which Allbones lives is structured by class, and is peopled by staple characters: William Allbones is the genuine (but resourceful) country lad; Fowler Metcalfe the nasty (and rather naive) bully; Eugenia the (seemingly) pure (yet tainted) maiden. Pitford is the authoritarian (but also incestuous) patriarch, whose face has 'thick whiskers framing heavy jowls' (p. 27), suggesting power and authority; the visionary (and pompous) scientist who loves lecturing. Mary-Anne (Allbones' sister) is the angel of the house; the woman who helps Eugenia after the birth, the benevolent country woman. With emigration, the established order of this cast of characters is due to undergo some subtle but profound changes.

When visiting Pitford for the first time, Allbones sees their relationship as one that is structured in the same way the animal world is: Allbones himself belongs to one species, 'a small species favouring the undergrowth, like moles or frogs or little disregarded birds', while Pitford belongs to a species of 'bigger animals whose scent is laid over wider territories' (p. 28). By and large, the narrative presents numerous parallels and similes between animals and men, and vice-versa, that remind us that we too, as humans, are part of the animal species, and that animals are fully part of our world. One such parallel is the way both small children and ferrets the during the crossing, as they suffer from a comparable kind of disease, to which they are equally vulnerable. Another is when Fowler Metcalfe lusts after Lizzie, a fellow passenger, at the same time as the mustelids are in heat, after the clipper crosses the equator and the seasons change. Both humans and animals are subject to implacable biological laws.

As a type, Eugenia is the epitome of femininity and delicacy: her lips are like roses, her hair is like a halo, she smells of violets (though she has no sense of smell), her petticoats signal femininity (as well as potential sexuality). Her skin is 'like eggshell' (p. 63), with blue veins showing on the surface--a sign of her superior breeding. In nineteenth-century English society, breeding, or reproduction, was linked to class and acted as a powerful social factor. In the natural world, breeding influences the species, as Allbones knows from having obtained the best white ferrets, 'bred pale, fast and lethal over years of careful selection' (p. 57). But among human beings, love at first sight does not know blue blood: when Allbones first sees Eugenia on Pitford's property, 'it was as though blood and breath had ceased' (p. 64). The change in Eugenia's complexion during the voyage, from delicate white to rosy cheeks, is a sign of her being less sheltered, but also of her being pregnant (which nonetheless goes unnoticed until the birth). Socially, this pregnancy out of wedlock exposes her to scandal. But Eugenia and Allbones marry and scandal is avoided, as this development of the plot dismisses the suspicions of Pitford's paternity of Eugenia's child. The narrator ironically confirms the paternity of the child later on though, through an oblique comment on sturdy baby Walter and another comparison between the human and the animal worlds: 'For as anyone conversant with the scientific breeding of livestock will tell you, the strongest progeny are those fathered by the grandsire' (p. 213). Family honour and the family as institution are saved through marriage, featuring the happy ending of a pastoral romance--and the secret of incestuous breeding is kept. Yet the plot certainly challenges some of the rules of human society. And it adds a variation to the established plot of romance, 'a reaffirmation of life's great pattern ending at the church door', (12) as the marriage here has to be performed on board, for the social order to be preserved before landing.

The social structure of the English countryside is reproduced on the boat, with the poop deck for first-class passengers, and the other decks for the bulk of the emigrants. Yet, by the end of the voyage, Allbones has gained confidence, as he has power in his transactions with Pitford, both concerning the animals, and concerning Eugenia. Social mobility is possible in the new world that lies ahead of him. New stories can be written, based on lies (the child's paternity), but also truth (the true love between Allbones and Eugenia), because 'anyone might be anyone here. [...] Any story might do' (p. 193). Marriage between Allbones and Eugenia is made possible because Eugenia cannot go back to England, for fear of scandal. Furthermore, this happy ending will be topped off by a future family reunion, with Mary-Anne and Allbones' other siblings coming to New Zealand to live. Allbones will turn into a patriarch himself, yet a more congenial one than Pitford. In another parallel between the human and animal worlds, the rivalry over power between them is prefigured in the badger scene at the beginning of the novel, in which a young boar fights against an old one and ends up taking his sows. Altogether, the plot shows early signs of what will lead to 'not the abolition, but the reconfiguration of earlier forms of domination'; (13) in this case, social domination by the class of the likes of Pitford. This process is heralded in the reconfiguration of the stars that Allbones and Eugenia observe from the ship: 'Whole constellations had shifted while they had been travelling. They had moved aside, sunk out of sight, tipped upside down, swung to new configurations' (p. 185).

In this process, the influence of religion and the Bible remains strong. After the rumour spreads that Allbones and a woman 'been goin' at it like a pair of rabbits' (p. 183) in their makeshift burrow on the deck, Metcalfe finds Allbones and Eugenia in their burrow of straw, and sarcastically quotes from the biblical Proverbs to suggest adultery: 'The lip of a strange woman drops as an honeycomb and her mouth is smoother 'n oil' (p. 186). (14) Allbones knows that some sort of punishment is bound to happen. Not long before this event, the Bible is put to another kind of use, when the aspiring minister who wants to charm one of the female passengers quotes selected passages during a study group: '[the pretty young blonde] gazed up at the Scotsman adoringly from beneath a pert little bonnet as he quoted long and lovingly from Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians or some such sweet talk' (p. 184). The Bible remains essential literature when it comes to inspiring romance or justifying punishment.

Fowler Metcalfe, Allbones' rival but also his forced partner in the enterprise of shipping mustelids, embodies a different type of colonial project from Pitford's, one based on prejudice about race and sex. At a country fair in England Metcalfe went to a peepshow and saw a 'girl on an island' undressing so she was 'as Adam saw her' (p. 117-8); ever since then, he has been willing to go to these islands. His view of the 'dusky maiden', the native woman as sexual object, makes him part of the 'colonial desiring machine' described by Robert Young. It rests on the idea that non-white races have 'uncontrollable sexual drive [...] and [...] limitless fertility', and is fuelled by a 'voyeuristic tableau of frenzied, interminable copulation, of couplings, fusing, coalescence, between races'. Through Metcalfe, colonialism thus appears as a mode of 'commerce' that comprises 'the exchange both of merchandise and of bodies in sexual intercourse'.15 But that commerce fails to happen: when Metcalfe realises that he stinks of ferrets so no woman wants to be approached by him, and that the sunny islands are a 'frozen wasteland' (p. 175), he enters into a rage. The final, parodic page of the novel suggests that he goes home on the first possible boat, having pocketed the benefits of the ferret business. Young underlines the parallel between 'economic and sexual exchange' in the colonial context (the economic exchange of the trade for mustelids between Pitford and Allbones and Metcalfe; the imagined sexual exchange with a native woman that Metcalfe envisions but that does not happen) and 'that paradigm of respectability, marriage' (16) (in which Eugenia's hand, and in fact her whole body, is granted to Allbones by Pitford). In both cases, bodies are considered as goods--here, as often, the exchange is organised or envisioned by and for men.

The fact that Metcalfe's smell alienates him is not simply anecdotal and comic: as Elizabeth Webby and Lydia Wevers point out, 'the sights--and smells--of the long sea voyage from Europe to the Pacific [were a common experience and] an inevitable part of being a colonist'. (17) In contrast with Metcalfe who fails to notice his own odour, Allbones has a fine sense of smell, which makes him alert to his surroundings. When he travels in the cattle wagon of the train that takes the group to the ship, 'Nose pressed to the vent, Allbones smelled his way away from home' (p. 135). Like many animals, he is using his senses and instincts to make his way in the world. Eugenia, on the other hand, declares that she has 'no sense of smell' (p. 156), and that is probably Allbones' luck, because if she had, she may well not have liked his company as much. Plotwise, these evolutionary differences contribute to making possible both the intimacy between Eugenia and Allbones and Allbones' social mobility.

Farrell's own origins--as a 'descendant of Irish famine refugees and dispossessed Highland crofters' (18)--and the history of Irish emigration to New Zealand as a land of opportunity are reflected in her take on the benefits of the colony as a place where social mobility and a better life are possible. Her parodic use of the Victorian romance in the story of Allbones and Eugenia also implies that this society has ways to preserve order, and cannot be seen as a mere Utopian New Eden. Her tone is less playful and optimistic when it comes to the animal world though, the developments observed over the course of the story foreshadowing the damage that was done to the islands.

Paradise Lost?

Pitford's vision of the natural world is a colonialist one. He imports rare birds and plants from New Zealand to his property in England, and has predators, mustelids that will become pests, exported to New Zealand to diminish the rabbit population. England acts as a shrine for desirable and valuable species, while New Zealand plays the role of a 'perfect laboratory' (p. 94) where to test Darwin's theories. There is an ambivalence in this attitude, one that is also found in Walter Buller, the notorious ornithologist, as Jennifer Hay explains: Buller, 'a firm believer in the Darwinian theory of natural selection, regarded the demise of New Zealand's flora, fauna and indigenous peoples as foreordained, so why not gather and sell these specimens while he could?' Although Buller officially supported conservation, he nonetheless sent 'shipments of birds--kiwi, kakapo, whekau (laughing owl), huia, piopio--to England as "tributes from the provinces'", helping 'drive some to extinction, notably the huia'. (19) Through the character of Pitford, Farrell emphasises not so much the collector's greed, as the contagious obsession with science and Darwin's theory of evolution at the time, and its disastrous consequences. The quotations from ornithologists at the beginning of chapters 2 (on how to stifle a bird) and 5 (from Walter Buller's 1873 History of the Birds of New Zealand) echo this ambivalence consisting in accepting the disappearance of some species as unavoidable--in the same way as the Maori were deemed bound to disappear--while wanting to preserve a record of the species by killing some specimens.

In this colonial vision of an evolving natural world, boundaries play a key role, in the same way as they are essential to the structuring of English society. The wall that separates Pitford's property from the outside world marks his territory, which Allbones trespasses in order to capture rabbits in Pitford's woods. The gate to the property 'is a whimsical medley of cast-iron foliage and fleur de lis, but each little bud doubles as a dagger, each tendril is a prison bar. Allbones, however, knows his way about this cunning jungle' (p. 22). When Allbones is summoned inside Pitford's house after their first nocturnal encounter, similar jungle images surround him, that make him feel caught: 'Allbones found himself marooned on a crimson carpet woven with flowers and tendrils of leaf in a long, rectangular room' (p. 50). When Allbones is asked to Pitford's cabin on the ship, a similar setup is found, intended to recreate the same power relations: 'It was almost as it had been in Ledney: Pitford sat at his desk writing among a scatter of papers and books. Allbones took his place on a Turkish rug' (p. 205). But Allbones calls Pitford's bluff with assurance when he states clearly that he cannot possibly be the child's father, his first encounter with Eugenia going back to only eight months earlier. Allbones now has the upper hand and does not let Pitford dominate him or box him in.

Bill Ashcroft explains the centrality of the notion of boundary and property to the colonial project, and its historical links to enclosure in English history, to Western political philosophy, and to the Bible:

John Locke's discussion of property in the Second Treatise of Government (Book II Chapter 5) outlines the rationale for the expropriation of lands by the 'advanced' agrarian communities from hunter-gatherer societies. For Locke, the very mark of property is the enclosure: the defining, or bounding of a place that signals its settlement or cultivation, and, consequently, marks the frontier between the savage and the civilized. Although nobody has an exclusive dominion over nature, says Locke, since the 'Fruits' of the Earth and the 'Beasts' were given for the use of men, there must be a way to appropriate them before they can be of any use to a particular man. Such usefulness is achieved and regulated by enclosure (Locke 1690: 330). (20)

This filiation between boundaries, property, class and colonisation is omnipresent in Mr Allbones' Ferrets. Around Pitford's property, the landscape bears signs of the times before the movement for enclosure consolidated property, like 'the old road, overgrown since it was cut by the wall when the land was taken into the big house's holding back some time' (p. 20). The narrator comments on the 'common land, a shrunken remnant of the forest that once sustained a village, where anyone might gather acorns to fatten a pig, or collect wood for their fires' (p. 23), suggesting that class is not so much about natural abilities as it is about inherited property and power. Allbones is always aware of the risks he takes by crossing the boundary that marks property and the limit between classes. The structure inside Pitford's property also reflects his participation in the great colonial enterprise. The contiguity between the wall delimiting the property and the cages that are being made for the animals to be shipped--'Behind the wall lay an enclosure lined with cages in various stages of completion' (p. 64)--suggests that these structures are part of one and the same enterprise, which is the conquest and control of power. The ship itself replicates this order: it is organised into a series of separate spaces--a pen houses a bull, goats are tethered to a makeshift manger--and carries many cages and crates. Arrangements for humans from the lower classes are quite similar: 'Narrow berths had been knocked up running fore and aft, two deep and eighteen inches wide, for the reception of their consignment of statute adults as calculated long since by the exporters of slaves and convicts' (p. 143). For humans and beasts alike, the structuring of space is dictated by trade and the will to control.

Despite the hardships of the voyage, a reasonable proportion of the mustelids makes it to the colony, leading on to what Pinky, Allbones' favourite ferret, anticipates with great excitement: the depletion of native birds. On arrival, 'She smells feathers and flesh and warm blood. She hears thousands upon thousands of birds singing songs new to her: korimako and tui. Piopio, miromito, matata, hihi, kakariki, kaka and unsuspecting huia' (p. 213). Like the rabbit that Pinky catches back in England in the opening chapter, which 'is shrieking as if tonight were Armageddon, which in a way it is, from the rabbits' point of view' (p. 12), the native birds will be forced into a biblical battle with the mustelids, a fight between good and evil which the mustelids will win. As the ecologist Geoff Park observes, 'weasels and stoats [speedily] switched off each district's dawn chorus', turning New Zealand into 'a vanishing paradise for birds'. (21)

To Eugenia, the predominance of the English species makes full sense. Thus for the native birds: 'these birds are encountering the blackbirds and starlings of the English countryside, transported for the pleasure of their song or their utility by emigrants. It is a law of nature that competition for resources is fiercest between those creatures that most resemble one another, and in this battle the indigenous species are destined to tail' (p. 93). And yet, as the narrator suggests at the end of the novel, 'Nature's laws are all-powerful. Her clever monkeys cannot anticipate how new organisms will conduct themselves once released into a strange environment' (p. 214). Eugenia's nightingales are a case in point; to her, these birds make 'the most romantic music on earth' (p. 214), and she takes them with her to romanticise the colony, to make it more like 'home'. Her project is part of a much larger one initiated in the 1870s, that aimed at creating a 'Britain of the South' in New Zealand. (22) But Eugenia's nightingales are not suited for their new environment, and when 'seeking in the wide and empty reaches of the Pacific the warm breeding grounds of Africa' (p. 214), they fly to a certain death. In contrast, the imported birds that thrive--blackbirds, thrushes, house sparrows--turn into pests that must be poisoned. When man plays God and interferes with the natural order, things do not always go according to plan and dramatic changes happen, leading only to more human intervention. Colonists thus partly failed at transforming New Zealand into a little England, despite 'the Edenic propaganda of the New Zealand Company' aimed at emigrants. (23)

The question of human intervention in nature, which Darwin's theories broached on an unprecedented scale, has been amplified in recent years with the advances of genetic engineering. The philosopher Jacques Derrida, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, comments on the evolution ushered in by science, distinguishing between knowledge and technique: 'It is all too evident that in the course of the last two centuries [the] traditional forms of treatment of the animal have been turned upside down by the joint developments of zoological, ethological, biological, and genetic forms of knowledge, which remain inseparable from techniques of intervention into their objects, from the transformation of the actual object, and from the milieu and world of their object, namely, the living animal.' (24) Farrell reminds us that the postmodern question of the validity of scientific discourse is as relevant as ever. The fact that the technology to intervene on the natural world is available must be balanced out against the enduring hazards this may entail.

Following Darwin's discoveries, New Zealand colonists were eager to experiment with ecology (a term that did not then exist; one talked of natural science instead) in a part of the world that had remained relatively untouched by external influence. The rest is history: many native bird species disappeared, and the landscape was totally transformed, as imported species, both of fauna and flora, largely took over native ones. Genetic engineering, which is regulated by the Ministry for the Environment / Manatu Mo te Taiao through strict laws, presents new scientific and moral challenges. (25) Farrell's novel is a warning, in light of past experience, about the extent of the damage that further, more sophisticated human intervention could do to forms of life. Related postcolonial and postmodern political concerns continue to be relevant, in ways that have become more complex in the global, hyper-technical world of the early twenty-first century. Science may easily lead to lack of wisdom and absurd imitations of life, as shown in the cabinet at Pitford's that displays 'a large green parrot that hung upside down from the wire netting, making its own observations of humanity with its black button eyes before the image of snow-topped mountains' (p. 112).


(1) See Fiona Farrell, 'Fiction and Factions: The Political Novel in New Zealand', The University of Auckland Free Public Lecture, Auckland Writers Festival, 2018, p. 7. (accessed 1 June 2018).

(2) Linda Hutcheon, '"Circling the Downspout of Empire": Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism', ARIEL 20.4 (1989), p 151. See also Bill Ashcroft, 'Post-Colonial Transformation and Global Culture', Postmodernism and Postcolonialism, ed. by Silvia Albertazzi and Donatella Possamai (Padova: Il Poligrafo, 2002), p. 18: 'the major project of postmodernism--the deconstruction of the centralized, logocentric master narratives of European culture--is very similar to the post-colonial project of dismantling the Centre/Margin binarism of imperial discourse'.

(3) Helen Tiffin, 'Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History', journal of Commonwealth Literature 23.1 (1988), p. 172; quoted in Hutcheon, 'Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism', p. 150.

(4) Hutcheon, 'Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism', p. 150.

(5) Hutcheon, 'Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism', p. 150.

(6) The early discussion on postmodernism and postcolonialism includes a 1985 article by Simon During announcing: 'Let me suggest that if one is to think seriously about New Zealand culture, art or writing today one must, if only provisionally, use the terms 'postcolonial' and 'postmodern'. [...] We shall see that [postcolonialism] has an essential function to play in describing New Zealand today'. Simon During, 'Postmodernism or Postcolonialism?' Landfall 39.3 (1985): 366. In Canada, in 1989, Linda Hutcheon published the seminal article that is quoted above, '"Circling the Downspout of Empire": Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism'.

(7) J.A. Cuddon, 'Satire', The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd ed. (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 828.

(8) Fiona Farrell, Mr. Allbones' Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids (Auckland: Vintage, 2007), p. 217. All subsequent quotations from the novel will be followed by the page number in parentheses in the text.

(9) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Know/edge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), translation by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi of La condition postmoderne : rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979), p. 21.

(10) Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. XXTV-XXV.

(11) Elizabeth Webby and Lydia Wevers, Introduction, Happy Endings: Stories by Australian and New Zealand Women, 1850s-1930s, ed. by Elizabeth Webby and Lydia Wevers (Wellington: Allen & Unwin / Port Nicholson Press, 1987), pp. VIII, IX, XV.

(12) Elizabeth Webby and Lydia Wevers, Introduction, Goodbye to Romance: Stories by Australian and New Zealand Women, 1930s-1980s, ed. by Elizabeth Webby and Lydia Wevers (Wellington: Allen & Unwin / Port Nicholson Press, 1989), p. 1. Warmest thanks to Jean Anderson for sending me the two introductions by Webby and Wevers.

(13) Arif Dirlik, 'The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism', Critical Inquiry 20:2 (Winter 1994), p. 331.

(14) The corresponding passage in the King James' Bible reads: 'For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil' (Proverbs 5:3). (accessed 14 July 2018).

(15) Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Rare (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 181.

(16) Young, Colonial Desire, pp. 181-2.

(17) Webby and Wevers, Introduction, Happy Endings, p. XV.

(18) See Farrell, 'Fiction and Factions: The Political Novel in New Zealand', p. 1. On Farrell's relation to the Bible and to religion, see Fiona Farrell, 'Mixed Marriage', The Source of the Song: New Zealand Writers on Catholicism, ed. Mark Williams (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995), pp. 40-45.

(19) Jennifer Hay, 'Jingle Jangle Morning', jingle jangle Morning, Bill Hammond (Christchurch: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, 2007), p. 26. Hay's essay was published in a catalogue of New Zealand artist Bill Hammond's work. His Butler series of paintings, which he started in the 1990s, harks back to the bird paradise that New Zealand was prior to colonisation and refers to the bird depletion by the likes of Buller. Hammond's canvases offer powerful haunting images of the song that must have been omnipresent in the islands, while his anthropomorphic birds also embody the 'humanity lost' (Hay, 'Jingle Jangle Morning', p. 17) in the process of settlement.

(20) Bill Ashcroft, Post-Colonial Transformation (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 163.

(21) Geoff Park, Nga Uruora (The Groves of Life): Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995), p. 310.

(22) Park, Nga Uruora, p. 305.

(23) Park, Nga Uruora, p. 324.

(24) Jacques Derrida,' The Animal That Therefore I Am (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), translation by David Wills of L'Animalque donc je suis (Paris: Galilee, 2006), p. 25.

(25) See (accessed 11 June 2018).
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Author:Lorre-Johnston, Christine
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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