Page 7, 27th March 1987

27th March 1987
Page 7
Page 7, 27th March 1987 — Making use of a windfall from a foreign culture
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Organisations: University of Warwick

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Making use of a windfall from a foreign culture

The Windeater: Te Kaihau by Ken i Hulme (Hodder & Stoughton, £10.95).

MOST times the words of my book review fly from the typewriter onto the page, and before I know what's happened I've said it, or at least, I've said enough. After putting down his brilliant, luminous book of short stories by the New Zealand writer Ken i Hulme, I know now that I won't ever have said enough, and that feeling is partly associated with not wanting to say anything. Very few books have ever had this effect — only the novels of Marguerite Duras and, a long time ago, Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

There — I have anchored my reaction to Ken i Hulme to the experience of reading two other women writers almost unconsciously. But perhaps this is not as personal or incidental as all that. Hulme's work emerges as highly complex, but one conspicuous strand of her writing is femininity.

Without wishing to unravel the famous "female sentence" posited by Woolf, I do think that one can tease out of this collection a peculiarly feminine attitude to established forms of writing. These are not short stories like those of Graham Greene or Hemingway, but closer to prose poems, dialogues, jottings from a fictional log book, the inner monologue of a character fragmented, elliptical and proceeding by allusion or suggestion rather than by statement. For instance the lines on someone's face "contain" the story, and relate it in a flash more poignant and more persuasive than many lines of print on the page could do.

The feminine is equally a prominent theme in the stories, occasionally thrown into relief by the worst kind of male stereotype (Ken i Hulme is rarely heavy-handed in this way, however).

Characters are usually nameless and faceless (hardly ever described from the outside),

but share in a frustrated sense of being imprisoned in their

relationships with men, balanced by violent sexual longing and a kind of inexorable admiration. Pregnancy is often explored as a fearful and as a joyful "unknown"; also children and childhood, though not in conventional terms of lost innocence and purity.

The cruelty and unreason of the child as a young animal echo the sense in which the woman bearing a child is joined with one mammalian and visceral body, like the pregnant she-whale or any other creature. The sea is another obsessive theme in these stories — like all water it represents the Feminine Element (the waters of the womb, the sea as a great receptacle).

In Ken i Hulme's work the sea is also an echo of the otherness, and therefore the excitement,

even the arousing nature of nonmammalian life-forms — the phosphorescent fish, the red "krill" which float on the surf and die in their millions on the shore. Gutting and cooking fish are associated with eroticism.

Encountering this writer has been for me an encounter also with a New World, an unEuropean world if one can put this negatively with its own mythologies, landscapes, flowers, birds and fishes. The Maori element in Hulme's writing is something also quite, quite new to a European readership, and even an uneducated hunch about the importance of this particular aspect of her work is that it is not merely present there to provide "local colour".

Te Kaihau is a Maori word — "The Windeater" — a nonsense word in English, a hybrid word, like a cross between a windegg (an unfertilised egg, a useless egg) and a windfall (something you get for free, a piece of luck).

The Windeater — a good-fornothing word and a word which promises us a something we never asked for. Ken i Hulme's book offers both the windegg and the windfall, and the wind, which is angry and empty, but also the breath (spiritus) which keeps us alive.

Lucy-Jean Lloyd

The reviewer is researching the French novel in the 20th century at the University of Warwick.




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