The novel Toa is a new initiative for the expatriate New Zealand poet Vaughan Rapatahana, although it’s sardonic, dark and earthy ambiance reflects the tone of his poetic works, too. Toa (Maori for ‘warrior’ or ‘hero’) is a road novel in which the antihero, Mahon, roams the back blocks of ‘the skinny country’, clearly New Zealand, although the name is never mentioned. Few places are mentioned during the trip. Instead, most are small rural towns ‘spread out along the highway like sheep droppings’. Those that are mentioned have generic names like ‘Dirty City’, ‘Blank Junction’ and ‘Nirvana’, which features ‘The Piesteak Bar’ and its abominable country music.
The places Mahon visits reveal a nightmarish alienated society, a land of absence, towns of eerie silence, like Western towns before a gunfight. Surveillance towers and helicopters. Towns with uncut grass, stray sheep, rusted car bodies, all littered with milk crates and newspapers. Mahon enters dark pubs where there are apparently no bartenders and no patrons, motels where there are no guests, meets and has sex with random women in empty rooms.
Although Mahon meets with many people during this trip to redefine himself, his most constant companions are his black ‘behemoth’, a Ford Zephyr Mark IV, and Molly, his gun. The middle-aged Asian war veteran and one-time postmodern philosophy lecturer Mahon is in ‘a very bad way’. He exists on junk food, cigarettes and beer and appears, at times, unhinged: ‘His brain was reverting into a mélange of what seemed like loose turds.’ The solution for this is, of course, more beer and pies. And music – a hit parade of classic rock songs blares out in the Zephyr and the bars: the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Iggy Stooge singing I just wanna be your dog).
Mahon turned on the radio. The Doors music of the last day – or was it the day before? – had made him want to listen to something else from that era, when life seemed fresher and simpler.
Mahon sees himself as a failure, unlike the ‘trim-bearded’, successful but dissolute ‘fat prick’, ex-colleague, David Graham. Mahon hopes his journey will allow him to ‘break through to the other side’, as Jim Morrison said.
So, things can’t get worse? Oh yes, they can. The ‘skinny country’ has become a police state in which a cabal of informers, undercover agents and secret police rounds up dissenters and sends them to Te Punanga (‘The Refuge’), a prison where it seems torture is the norm. The dissenters are mostly ‘Indigenes’, and the government, which is itself controlled by foreign interests, is white. The ‘skinny country’ is facing a possible guerilla war via an an Indigenous uprising.
Mahon is himself Indigenous, an ‘Asian War’ veteran and sympathetic to the cause. But he’s too preoccupied with his own demons and hatred to take an active part in an uprising, unlike the militant marijuana dealer Carlos Te Neke (The Snake). One senses that Mahon would rather live like the old hermit Tamati, whom he meets in an early chapter and in whose company he finds peace.
The theme of the novel is a serious one and the ambiance is overall rather bleak. However, and this is what makes the novel a highly enjoyable read, both the style and the pace of the narrative are boisterous, unrestrained and rowdy. Think of Sartre writing The Paths of Liberty with Rabelais as his co-author. Basic bodily functions proliferate. On a diet of pies and beer, Mahon farts continually, he farts ‘vociferously’, ‘unduly’, ‘copiously’, ‘loudly’ and ‘quietly’ (the last out of deference to the company). He belches, he has ‘Herculean’ urinations, and his body reflects his state of mind: ‘His penis groaned. His tongue felt about ten sizes too big for his shrivelled mouth.’ And Mahon expresses his existential anguish by vomiting ‘furiously’ out the window of the Zephyr: ‘His inner being came out through his puking mouth.’ There is a distanciation between mind and body – Mahon’s alienated state of mind is such that his body parts are enemies, they don’t do what he wants them to:
he had stared at his hands as if they were something hostile and foreign. Disembodied objects. And he wondered if one day they would rear up and throttle him without warning. He wondered what they did when he wasn’t looking.
This is reminiscent of Sartre’s first novel La Nausée, where the main character looks at his hand on a bar and imagines that it is a crab lying upside down.
Rapatahana’s imagery is even more striking when dealing with mundane things like the Zephyr which ‘prowled down the coast road’ and ‘performed effortlessly as if replenished from its slumber’. Even a large dead fish is seen ‘reclining under a dead tree’. The few muttering, scowling people in places like Blank Junction are ‘like barnacles on the sides of rotting hulks’.
Another stylistic device in the novel is the use of lists, again reminiscent of Rabelais. Walking along a beach strewn with old newspapers, Mahon notices a headline about a football team but is unable to read the names of the players. He imagines that the team is made up of French philosophers, mainly postmodern or existentialist: Baudrillard, Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Lacan etc. in the forward pack, and Sartre, Camus, Rousseau, Bourdieu etc. in the backline.
Toa is clearly a postmodern text although neither this tradition, nor existentialism, nor rock music escape Rapatahana’s barbed humour. It’s an ‘edge-of-the-seat’ novel in that you never know what he’s going to come up with next.
At one point Rapatahana describes Mahon’s love of sleep as an escape from his demons. Then an ‘I’ character intervenes, the author, who informs us that ‘I also feel like a little snooze right now’. He then supplies us with a list of all the characters who are having a snooze too, including the Zephyr. The passage ends with the ‘I’ character saying ‘See you in the morning’ and supplying the reader with a couple of pictures to look at while he’s asleep. The text is peppered with these unexpected surprises: a blurred photograph which might or might not be Mahon, a tabulated list of the similarities between Mahon and his lover Lucy, a blank rectangle to illustrate Mahon’s state of mind at a turning point in the novel. There are also a couple of Appendices and an ‘Affidavit to the Royal Commission on Social Deviance’ written about Mahon by his former wife Sue. And almost at the end of the novel, a prologue.
The bizarre images, the uncertainties, the puns and the boisterous happenings in the novel do not disguise the fact that it has multiple layers of meaning. The ‘I’ narrator is an old friend of Mahon’s and, it seems, an inmate in Te Punanga. On the other hand, he is a narrator of the traditional ‘omnipotent’ variety since he weaves passages about a number of other characters into the main Mahon story. Most of these are known to Mahon or have crossed his path, for example his old army comrade Sid Mc Williams. And Lucy, one of the women he meets on the road, is an ex-student (Mahon taught her ‘Primeval Metaphysics 101’) and a former partner of Bobby Riley, a militant lesbian whom Mahon is determined to kill out of revenge.
Toa is a complex novel but a highly entertaining read, full of little puns and ‘in’ jokes for the alert reader – among the characters are Harold Holt, Frances Xavier and Dr Manhire. Sartre is mentioned on several occasions and it is interesting that the character Mahon is very similar to that of Mathieu, the antihero of Sartre’s The Paths of Liberty – both middle-aged former philosophy lecturers living aimless lives in a society about to be plunged into war. The Paths of Liberty is of course a trilogy and as we have seen, Toa ends with a Prologue. So, is Mahon’s journey ‘to be continued?’ Or is the novel, as Dr. Manhire writes, like a brain probe, ‘a story that leads on and back and around and through and into other stories’? Only Mahon knows.