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Redeeming the Redeemer: Representations of an Indigenous Christ in James K. Baxter's 'The Maori Jesus', Patricia Grace's Potiki and Moetai Brotherson's Le Roi absent.

In one of his best-known poems, 'The Maori Jesus', (1) James K. Baxter recounts the misadventures of the eponymous Christ figure in and around Wellington city. Although he walks on water and is clearly possessed of supernatural powers such as the ability to make the sun shine or the ground shake, (2) he is also very much a social outsider and a victim of the forces of order. His twelve disciples are equally marginalised, drawn from the fringes of society and / or specifically represented as likely to be in conflict with organised religion: among them is a cleaner of toilets, joined by an unsuccessful call-girl 'who turned it up for nothing', a 'sad old quean', an alcoholic priest 'going slowly mad' and a housewife 'who had forgotten the Pill'.

While the ethnicity of these followers is not specified, that of Jesus is clear not merely from the title but also from various other attributes: his breath smells of mussels and paraoa, and he is 'charged with being a Maori' on the third day of his descent toward being lobotomised. The biblical echoes in the narration of his life as seven days are evidently not accidental: on the eighth day (post-lobotomy), however, God does not rest and look favourably upon His creation. Instead, the poem tells us that the sun no longer rises, and 'The darkness of the Void, / Mountainous, mile-deep, civilised darkness / Sat on the earth from then till now.' In other words, Baxter reverses the story of creation to show that the suppression of the redeemer does not redeem anyone. The sacrifice of the Maori Jesus instead leads to the affirmation of darkness and the installation of the Void. Civilisation--implicitly, the pakeha version--is not enlightenment and progress, but rather emptiness.

Those familiar with Baxter's following of Maori ways in the later stages of his life can readily assimilate this poem to his adherence to and defence of Indigenous culture (3) and his rejection of mainstream social values in 1960s New Zealand. In the present study, we broaden the scope of our analysis of the sacrificial social victim to include two texts by Indigenous writers of the Pacific region: Potiki (1986) (4) by Patricia Grace of New Zealand, and The Missing King (2012) (5) by Tahitian writer Moetai Brotherson. Both texts also feature marginalised characters who to some degree play the role of the scapegoat as described by Rene Girard, in that they become sacrificial targets, their downfall being seen as a means to eliminate a problematic situation. I argue here that this sacrifice enables a resurrection, not so much of the scapegoat but of his community and culture; in other words, a reversal of Baxter's story of 'de-creation', but with the same positive emphasis on the Indigenous. Importantly, the two works also share a focus on the role of stories in shaping or reshaping Indigenous lives and the renewal and continuity of Indigenous culture.

Christ as the Ultimate Powerful Outsider

Literary critic and philosopher Rene Girard (1923-2015) is well-known for his work on the 'scapegoat mechanism', whereby sacrifice is seen as the foundation of human culture. Acknowledging but disagreeing with Sir J.G. Frazer's work on the killing of the divine king, (6) Girard focuses on the singling out of Christ as the leading representative of his community. In a text tided 'That Only One Man Should Die', he cites John 11:47-53, where the high priest Caiaphas argues for the crucifixion of Jesus by pointing out that 'it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed'. (7) Girard notes here that the underlying reason for the persecution and / or execution of a singled-out figure is that she or (predominantly) he in fact possesses great power--the power to lead the masses. While Baxter's Jesus has only a handful of disciples, the implication is that he is capable of reaching a much greater number and must therefore be suppressed. In addition, the injuries inflicted upon him by an ostracising social system have massively damaging consequences, an extreme reaction which can be seen as further confirming the authorities' fear of his potential power. As is the case of the Girardian scapegoat Christ, the perceived threat in 'The Maori Jesus' emanates from a single, outlier figure capable of creating an alternative community around him.

In Baxter's version, the act of repression of an Indigenous Christ figure backfires, and the nation, perhaps even the human universe, is destroyed, not in spite of the sacrifice of the scapegoat but because of it. Given Baxter's explicit labelling of Jesus as Maori, an extended reading is clearly invited: in persecuting the Indigene, settler society's leaders not only disregard the fundamental values of Maori, (8) but run the risk of extinguishing life itself.

Potiki between Cultures: Jesus or Maui?

In Grace's novel, an entire Maori community is persecuted, not by the forces of order, but by developers greedy to acquire their ancestral land. This land and the foreshore and sea beside it are essential to the community's survival: when the local freezing works closes down, home-grown produce and kai moana become the only available means of subsistence. The move into alternative housing provided by the state in past instances where land was forcibly acquired (for the war effort) having proved to be a poverty trap (pp. 71-73), the residents are reluctant to be separated from their iwi heritage.

Faced with community resistance, the developers resort to dirty tactics, damming a creek with rubble so that the gardens flood, and setting fire to the wharenui, an act which amounts to the destruction of the ancestors who inhabit the building. The community's families react positively to each catastrophe, and are assisted by other iwi to rebuild and redevelop after each attack. As the book closes just after the death of Tokowaru-i-te-Marama, otherwise known as Toko or Podki, the youngest child of his family, the affirmation is made that this destructive ending is in fact a new beginning. Renewal through death or destruction and rebirth and rebuilding are key thematic elements of the book, as is clear from this comment by Toko regarding the rescue of the carved 'loving man' from the ashes of the wharenui:
   The poupou found in the dust by my first mother Mary
   was the link from old to new, that's what everyone said.
   It was the piece that showed that there had been no real
   death, or showed perhaps that death is a coiled spring,
   (p. 154)

The final words of the book also underline continuity: 'Ka huri' means both 'The end', and 'Over to you'. (9)

Toko was born in unusual circumstances, nearly drowned in the sea by his mother. A number of critics have noted the resemblances between Toko and the legendary Maui, dwelling in particular on his birth. This parallel is acknowledged as a deliberate choice by the author herself: 'I decided to make him a modern Maui Potiki'. (10) The Maui of tradition was born prematurely and his mother Taranga threw him into the sea where he almost drowned, a sequence of events also found in Potiki. Among Maui's many exploits as he grew older is the catching of a huge fish: Toko-Potiki also catches a huge fish, despite his family's assertion that such large eels rarely venture into the lagoon under normal circumstances (pp. 48-53).

However there is another allusion linked to this character that warrants our attention: Toko's birth mother is Mary, a young woman whose attachment to what she calls 'loving-man', one of the carved poupou in the wharenui, is represented as leading to physical closeness: 'they put their arms round each other holding each other closely, listening to the beating and the throbbing and the quiet of their hearts' (p. 22). When Toko's birth is registered, his father is said to be one Joseph Williams, a semi-vagrant, even though the text underlines the fact that this is more than doubtful. (11) With his 'two-coloured eyes', Toko resembles the poupou, whose eyes are also of different colours, one paua, one stone (pp. 22, 42-43).

Alongside his Maui role, then, Toko has attributes of the Christ figure at his birth: he is said to be the child of Mary and Joseph. (12) His mother cannot name the father, who, the text indicates, is non-human in the traditional (Pakeha) sense. Toko's death, caught in a second fire in the wharenui, leads to a further consolidation of his family's community. He can therefore be seen to epitomise sacrifice and redemption, in the sense of renewal and continuity. He stands outside the norm, as is implied by what Roimata, his adoptive mother, calls the gift of his 'special knowing' (p. 46), and what he himself refers to as 'eversight' (p. 183). 'It is a before, and a now, and an after knowing, and not like the knowing that other people have. It is a now knowing as if everything is now' (p. 52). (13) He is thus strongly associated with a major theme of the book, the melding together of past, present and future. His continued role after his death in the fire as one of the book's two main narrators is evidence of a kind of resurrection which links closely, through his survival in the form of a newly-carved poupou, to Maori belief in the afterlife of ancestors represented in the wharenui.

In Potiki, then, Grace draws upon spiritual beliefs of both Maori and Pakeha. The book also closes, in its penultimate chapter 'The Stories' (pp. 178-81), on the importance of stories in ensuring the continuity of communities. As Roimata explains, the family has decided to educate the children at home because the school system, according to another character, 'puts us wrong' (p. 75):
   We could not afford books so we made our own. In this
   way we were able to find ourselves in books. It is rare for
   us to find ourselves in books, but in our books we were
   able to find and define our own lives.

      But our main book was the wharenui which is itself a
   story, a history, a gallery, a study, a design structure and a
   taonga. And we are part of that book along with family
   past and family yet to come. (p. 104)

The destruction of the wharenui is mitigated by its resurrection, which includes the completion of the half-finished poupou with which Potiki opens. The descendant of 'loving-man', Toko, can now be carved into his rightful place, below his father. His image includes his deformities, but also 'the talking, storytelling tongue whirling out and down to where the heart began' (p. 172). In this reborn figure are combined the sacrificed victim and the storyteller, both of whom ensure continuity.

Moanam: Rewriting (Hi)Stories by Reversal

Moetai Brotherson's remarkable (although largely unremarked) novel The Missing King is a 375-page multi-layered, multi-storied epic romp of a work that divides neatly into two parts. (14) The first is focused on the character of Moanam (also known as Vaki), whose grandmother regularly gives him special, traditional massage treatments which send him into hallucinatory trances and make him hear drums and voices reciting genealogies and bemoaning the absence of the 'missing king'. (15) A selective mute with a very high IQ, (16) Vaki has difficulty fitting in at school: his innocence makes him an easy victim for bullies, while at the same time leading him into many humorous situations. He solves the Rubik's cube with ease, excels at chess, and goes on to complete his education in France (17) before obtaining a position as an aircraft engineer back in Tahiti. Just as he reaches the apogee of European-style success, he is accused of murdering his fiancee and thrown into gaol, where he is treated by a French psychiatrist, Philippe. During the three years he spends in prison before the real murderers confess and he is set free, Vaki suffers numerous indignities and injuries. He chooses to isolate himself from other inmates, refusing to maintain personal hygiene in ways reminiscent of the Christian ascetics, but also allowing himself to be covered in tattoos by a learner inmate. (18)
   The youngest detainees seemed to see me as some sort of
   supernatural wise man I soon learned that I was a high
   priest of the Mamaia (19) and the story of the murder [of my
   fiancee] was a cover-up for an occult ceremony, to the
   glory of the god 'Oro. (p. 197)

Vaki is initially cynical about such affirmations of traditional culture, doubting the authenticity of his tattoo designs and noting the gullibility of his fellow inmates. On his release, however, he withdraws from society to take up a hermit-like existence. This return to the land is accompanied by a heightened awareness of traditional cultural practices:
   I couldn't see. Not far away, the swarm of bees gorged on
   honey, tucked away in the hollow of a mape trunk. The
   big prawns were there, beneath the pebbles in the river.
   The fat parrotfish threaded their way between my feet, out
   on the fringing reef. I didn't see them.

      I couldn't smell. The scent of the miri, whose leaves are
   used to soothe toothache. The perfume of wild lemons,
   roots tucked into the rock, a dozen or so metres above
   my cave. The invigorating tang of the re'a, native ginger,
   you can crush to give a reviving juice. I didn't smell them,
   (p. 215)

The text works its way through the deficiencies of the other senses too: senses which are re-established over time as Vaki becomes more sensitised to his surroundings. In that sense, we might argue that the renewal of these survival mechanisms, linking humans to land and sea and their bounty, constitutes a cultural resurrection. (20) When civilisation intrudes on Vaki's solitary existence in the form of preparations for building a boy scout camp, he decides to return to the Marquesas, where he was born, in the heartland of the group of archipelagoes known collectively as French Polynesia. On his way there, however, he is critically injured in the anti-nuclear demonstrations in Papeete. (21) Accused once again of murder, this time of a victim of the riots, he flees to a quiet valley, associated with both writer Pierre Loti and an important battle of the Franco-Tahitian war in 1846. (22)

It is here that Vaki dies, leaving a book manuscript of his life story to Philippe, who then takes over the narrative to tell the story of visiting a potential publisher in New Bedford (Herman Melville's point of departure on his journey to the South Seas) and of his encounters with the Amerindian tribe from which the missing king is descended. On Philippe's return to Tahiti, an apparently resurrected Yaki reappears, luring the psychiatrist away to Fatu Huku, a tiny, uninhabited island in the heart of the Marquesas.

Sacrifice and Renewal

As will be clear from this attempt to summarise a highly elaborate and multi-stranded narrative, The Missing King is a very different work from Potiki. There are, however, a number of parallels which are striking. Both place a strong emphasis on cultural revival and / or continuity, with a particular focus on genealogy; both speak on behalf of the Indigenous population; and both make much of the importance of stories and of being able to find oneself through these. Both also lead to a sacrificial death negated to some degree by the assertion of both heritage and an afterlife.

The question of ancestry and continuity is fundamentally more complex in Brotherson's work, although if Maori emigrated from Rai'atea in the Society Islands of what is now French Polynesia, (23) there is no reason why Vaki's and Philippe's exploration of some of the theories of the origins of Polynesian peoples should not be relevant to Maori as well. The Missing King ranges far and wide, covering the Pacific and the Pacific Rim in its search for ancestral roots, whereas Potiki finds answers closer to hand in the wharenui and the oral traditions that tell those stories.

Despite these obvious differences, the structures underpinning the two books show similarities. While the main Indigenous characters are not perhaps overtly Christ-like in their behaviour, Toko has powers of prophecy, the 'now knowing' that collapses past, present and future into one; and Vaki's childhood trances take him into various periods of distant history to learn about his ancestry. His educational and social achievements make him admired within his extended family: 'It was like a procession passing in front of some holy man to whom the children were presented for the laying on of hands' (p. 159). Much later in the book, after Vaki's death, Philippe reflects on the downfall of 'the man who represented their collective success [of the Indigenous community]' (p. 285). Both protagonists have a special status that makes them stand out, at the same time as it turns diem into potential scapegoats and sacrificial victims. In neither case, however, does their demise bring about the dark chaos imposed upon the world after the persecution of Baxter's lobotomised Christ. Instead, Potiki will contribute to the iwi's stories, thus ensuing continuity and connecting back to ancestral times. Vaki, on the other hand, draws Philippe away from the more Europeanised culture of Tahiti and into the distant Ma'ohi heartland. In addition, despite his death at the end of the first part of the book, Vaki continues to dominate the second part of the narrative as Philippe is drawn into the quest for origins. He is also 'resurrected', both in his reported presence at the hospital where Philippe's wife collects their adopted (Tahitian) son, and in the naming of that son, also Vaki.

Text and Subtext

As Robert Nicole makes clear in The Word', the Ten and the Pistol-4 islands of the Pacific have long been subject to Orientalist visions and overlaid with stories which exoticise their Indigenous peoples. From the early 'discoverers' to contemporary travellers, accounts abound in images of lush nature and seductively dancing young men and (especially) women. James Michener, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rupert Brooke, and on the French side, Pierre Loti and Paul Gauguin, following on from Cook and Bougainville to name but a few, have contributed to the master narrative of an island paradise inhabited by a gentle, graceful and sensual people. (25) Where Grace takes aim at stories 'which put us wrong', and insists, as we have seen, on the need for telling 'our own stories', Tahitian writers have an even greater task before them: there are few models to follow if they are to escape the multiple exotic representations already in existence. This accounts for Brotherson's acknowledgement in his novel, through Philippe, of Titaua Peu's Mutismes as an alternative narrative, in which there is a strong insistence on realities that differ from the postcard version of Tahiti. Philippe, under the influence of Vaki, admires the young author's 'desire to decide things for herself, without being constantly defined by other people's observations' (p. 312). (26) In other words, it is time to throw off the cloak of exoticising fiction which focuses on the notion of the Tahitian island paradise.

The Indigenous Scapegoat

What then is the role of the sacrificial scapegoat in reaching for these more realistic stories? If we look at the narrative structure of all three texts, despite their very different lengths, we note that they are all subversive of the Christian story. In Baxter's brief but telling exposition, eliminating the Maori Jesus leads to everlasting darkness rather than eternal life. Grace's novel demonstrates the successful overwriting of that same story by new ones that are more meaningful to Maori because they incorporate traditional beliefs and genealogies. Brotherson's book explores the multitude of pre-existing stories of Ma'ohi (Tahitian) origins, bringing the sacrificed Vaki back to life as just one more strand in a series of conflicting possible theories and exotic tales.

What is the function of the redeemer in these three texts, and how does each author reshape the story of sacrifice to serve an Indigenous, rather than a Christian telos? In other words, how is the Christian narrative of redemption, that instrument of religious colonisation, itself redeemed into serving another purpose? Baxter's message of doom is clear: to wipe out the memory of the Indigenous Christ is to bring about the end of the world. Grace uses a hybridising strategy to superimpose Indigenous story-telling over the Christian narrative of resurrection, alongside the end-beginning of Maui-Toko-Christ, to signal a community redemption. While Brotherson's complex narrative resists a schematic reading, we should note that Vaki's first redeeming transformation is from the central figure of a Euro-mimic success story into a follower of traditional cultural values and practices. His physical death, at a culturally-significant site after involvement in anti-nuclear protests, is followed by an apparent resurrection into a trickster figure in some ways evocative of Maui in his continued interactions with Philippe at the end of the book.

At the same time as they subvert the master narrative, however, these three versions also affirm the power of the sacrificial figure, not merely to shape the story in which he figures, but also to draw the reader into an alternative understanding of the submerged cultures and their values.


(1) First published in 1966 in Eikon 2 (December 1966), p. 18. See also Selected Poems, ed. by J.E. Weir (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 87. Neither Baxter's nor Grace's text has macrons: these will therefore not be used in any quotations.

(2) In this he is given attributes of several Maori gods, for example Ruaumoko (earthquakes), Uru-te-ngangana (light), with a more indirect allusion perhaps to Tangaroa (the sea).

(3) See for example his 1967 essay, 'The Maori View of Life and Death', or the 1972 discussion of 'Maori Education', both at (accessed 12 April 2018).

(4) Patricia Grace, Potiki (Auckland: Penguin, 1986). Page references to this work will be given in brackets in the text.

(5) Moetai Brotherson, Le Roi absent (Pirae: Au vent des iles, 2007). English translation by Jean Anderson, The Missing King (Auckland: Little Island Press, 2012). Page references to this work will be given in brackets in the text.

(6) See J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London and New York: Macmillan, 1890) and Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (London: The Athlone Press, 1987), pp. 53, 58.

(7) Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, translated by Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1989), pp. 112-24.

(8) Values which are of course close to the supposedly Christian ones of inclusivity.

(9) (accessed 18 July 2018).

(10) 'Influences on Writing. Patricia Grace', Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics and Identity in the New Pacific, ed. by Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), pp. 65-74, p. 69.

(11) 'They'd named the old bloke as father anyway, whether he was responsible or not. Joseph Williams', p. 67.

(12) As has been pointed out, readers (including translators) overly focused on the Indigenous elements of the story can miss these references to a Christ figure. See Irmengard Wohlfahrt, Maui-Jesus--Potiki? Patricia Grace's Potiki. Culture Twice Translated: Maori / English-German. What do Readers Miss? (Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag Dr Muller, 2010).

(13) This resembles the gift of prophecy, another Christ-like trait (see for example Luke 21:20-22, the destruction of Jerusalem foreseen).

(14) As a brief indication of both the text's erudition and its reach into popular culture, it contains references to Pacific genealogies, to the muppets (a chapter titled 'Pigs in Space') and to Pascal's wager, alongside a discussion of Rapa Nui's rongorongo boustrophedon ...

(15) Within Girard's system, the absence of a foundational, sacrificial king must equate to cultural death: it is only with the revelation of Vaki's genealogy and the realisation that he is the missing king that the survival (or indeed the resurrection) of Indigenous culture becomes possible.

(16) Brotherson has mentioned on numerous occasions that he found it 'interesting' to represent his traditionally oral culture with a mute character (see RFO, Page apres page, 'Titaua Peu et Moetai Brotherson', 2008, (accessed 20 April 2018). It is of course possible to read this as symbolic of the silencing that is experienced by colonised peoples.

(17) It was and still is common practice for young Tahitians to attend French tertiary institutions, far removed from their traditional environment.

(18) The cultural practice of tattooing was forbidden by missionaries in Tahiti in the early nineteenth century and has been revived only from the mid-twentieth century. See Juniper Ellis, 'Marked Ethics: Erasing and Restoring the Tattoo' in Tattooing the World: Pacific Designs in Print and Skin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp. 96-132. 14368.10.pdf (accessed 12 May 2018).

(19) A religious movement of short duration (1826-1841), strongest on the island of Tahiti, that predicted Christ's return and combined elements of the new missionary teachings with aspects of local culture.

(20) The similarities here with Potiki's iwi attachment to and respect for the land as provider are striking.

(21) These were triggered in 1995 by the French government's renewal of nuclear testing on Moruroa atoll, although any connection was strongly denied by the authorities. See Philip Shenon, 'Tahiti's Antinuclear Protests Turn Violent', New York Times, 8 September 1995. (accessed 12 April 2018).

(22) These associations are far from random, but underline both the exoticisation of Tahiti by writers, a point to which we will return, and the long history of resistance to colonisation.

(23) Based on the assumption that Rai'atea is the Hawaiiki of legend (see Te Ara--The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 May 2018).

(24) Robert Nicole, The Word, the Pen and the Pistol (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000).

(25) Rupert Brooke's 'Tiare Tahiti' refers to a land 'Out of time, beyond the sun' where 'All are one in Paradise' (see (accessed 10 May 2018).

(26) The reference is to Titaua Peu, Mutisms (Papeete: Editions Haere Po, 2003). Her second novel, Pina (Papeete: Au vent des iles, 2017), decries the division of Polynesian society into two separate spheres and the covering up of the abject misery of many.
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Author:Anderson, Jean
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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