50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Albert Wendt

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.

 


      

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Leaves of the Banyan Tree by Albert Wendt (Penguin) | Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards 1979

 

Albert Wendt writes:

I started writing Leaves of the Banyan Tree while I was still a student at Victoria University. At the time I loved William Faulkner’s writing, especially his novels. I took the large manuscript to Samoa when I finished my university studies and started teaching at Samoa College.

I was also working on three other manuscripts. Because Leaves was very ambitious, I finished the other manuscripts first, and then continued working on Leaves. Because it took me such a long time of much agonising and revising it taught me a lot about writing novels and creating fictional communities. I was over the moon when the novel won the Award.

 


 

Extract from Leaves of the Banyan Tree (Penguin) 

 

Book Three: Funerals and Heirs

Funeral Fit for a King

 

Tauilopepe returned from the hospital and went into the sitting room of his Apia house. Two chromium-topped tables glittered in the centre of the room; on one of them stood a vase filled with plastic flowers; gaudy-coloured armchairs lined the far wall which was covered with framed photographs of his aiga; the floor was a shimmering expanse of red and yellow linoleum; a door led off to the dining room on the left; near the door stood a large glass cabinet filled with expensive glassware and bottles of whisky; on the right, two large French windows opened on to a wide veranda; louvre windows lined the other two walls.

Tauilopepe sighed heavily and sat down in an armchair under the louvre windows. The breeze from the windows cooled his neck and back. Across the room near the liquor cabinet was a long three-shelved bookcase nearly filled with leather-bound encyclopaedias which he hadn’t read because of his very limited English. (Whenever he had the time he browsed through the volumes, reading aloud the words he recognised.)

He heard someone in the kitchen. ‘Get me a drink,’ he called. Teuila, his wife, entered with a jug of ice. ‘He refused to see me,’ Tauilopepe said. Teuila opened the liquor cabinet, took out a half-empty bottle of whisky and a glass, put some ice in the glass, half-filled it with whisky and then poured water into it. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’ Tauilopepe said. She nodded and handed him his drink. ‘Well?’ She sat down and faced him from across the room. He drained his whisky. She got him another. This time she put the bottle and jug of ice on the table in front of him. He sipped his second whisky and stared at the bookcase.

‘Are the aiga in Sapepe well?’ she asked. (He had spent the week in Sapepe.) He didn’t answer. They remained silent, with her gazing softly at him for a long time.

Teuila’s marriage to Tauilopepe had been arranged by Taulua, her mother, and Masina a year after she graduated from Vaiuta College, a residential school owned by the LMS, where girls where trained to be suitable wives for pastors. Filipo, her father, who was ready to retire from his position as pastor of Sapepe, had happily agreed to Taulua’s plans.

The first night Tauilopepe came to court Teuila they didn’t speak to each other. Her parents and Tauilopepe talked while she just sat, as was expected of her, and studied him from the corner of her eye. She couldn’t believe it—Tauilopepe had always been for her a man to be admired as one would admire a great hero in the Bible, a man you never dreamt you would really know, let alone marry. However, as she watched him, and felt him watching her, her feeling of wondering disbelief diminished. But they did not speak to each other until the day they were married in the Sapepe church. That day Teuila immediately felt an inexplicable yet compellingly attractive fear. Before their marriage she had never been allowed to get close to any man; she had been chaperoned almost everywhere. Even when she had learnt from some of her friends that their relationships with men were not confined to innocent wooing she had never once felt an urge to do likewise. To her, no moral issues were involved in preserving her purity until her marriage night, and if fulfilment had come outside marriage she would have accepted it without feelings of guilt.

Teuila’s first night with Tauilopepe was not terrifying as her mother had predicted. She accepted and enjoyed the pain, thus transforming the experience into the beginnings of love for the man who that night ceased to be legend and became, for her, human flesh with all its sorrows and joys and hopes. As time passed she accepted Tauilopepe as he was; and thus he could not destroy her by being who and what he was. She came to realise that what he called love was not a giving of himself but a taking and shaping in his own image of everything within his reach. This was the main reason, she came to believe, why an honest and admirable son like Pepe had devoted his whole short life to rebelling against Tauilopepe and what he represented.

Now, as she watched Tauilopepe, the father of the man who was dying in the hospital, she realised that the two men were so alike yet so very far apart.

She would tell Tauilopepe now. … ‘Pepe said to me yesterday that he is going to… to be dead by tomorrow night.’

‘Only God possesses the power to end human life,’ Tauilopepe said. ‘It is just another one of Pepe’s jokes.’ He held out his empty glass. She refilled it. ‘He is bad, isn’t he?’ She said nothing. ‘There was… is… no love in him.’ He looked at her. ‘You have taken his side like all the others, haven’t you? His mother and his sisters and Toasa—they all took his side.’

‘You want him to ask for your forgiveness. But you know he won’t do that. Like you, he is too proud,’ she said. He shook his head. ‘Have you ever told him you loved him?’

‘It’s too late. He was evil. That’s it—he was evil!’

‘You always speak of evil and goodness as if you alone are the judge of such things!’ she said. It was the first time she had ever criticised him openly. Before he could refute her, Pepe’s son, Lalolagi, ran into the room and hurled himself into his arms.

‘I’ve come, Papa!’ the boy said, burying his face in Tauilopepe’s chest.

‘Perhaps he has come back,’ Teuila said, as she got up and went to the dining room.

‘Yes,’ Tauilopepe whispered into the boy’s hair. ‘Yes, my son’s come back.’ Lalolagi couldn’t understand why his grandfather was crying.

Tauilopepe returned to Sapepe in the afternoon. That night passed without sleep, and the next day dragged by in an emptiness of neat account books. The second night passed in prayer for a miracle to stop Pepe’s fearful prediction of his own death from coming true.

No miracle.

Taifau brought Tauilopepe the news. He locked himself in his study and wept, cursing Pepe for having turned against him. Drank himself to sleep finally. He woke early in the morning, summoned his whole aiga, and instructed them not to spare any expense for Pepe’s funeral.

 

Tauilopepe hurried into the hospital corridor. The red-haired papalagi doctor and three Samoan doctors greeted him respectfully. He only nodded.

‘I am very sorry. …’ the papalagi doctor started to say.

‘Where are he?’ Tauilopepe asked in English.

The papalagi doctor pointed to the door at the end of the corridor.

Tauilopepe walked slowly towards it. The doctors followed him, and one of them pushed the door open. Tauilopepe stepped into the room, startling a youngnurse who was sitting next to a black coffin lying on a bed in the middle of the room. On the other bed lay Susana, asleep. She stirred, jumped to her feet when she saw Tauilopepe, and started to weep. Tauilopepe told one of the doctors to take her out of the room.

‘We took the liberty of providing your son with this,’ one of the Samoan doctors said in Samoan, placing a hand on the coffin.

‘Where my son’s things?’ Tauilopepe asked in English. The Samoan doctors looked at their papalagi colleague who in turn looked at the frightened nurse.

‘He come with nothing,’ the nurse said in English.

‘It seems, sir, your son came here with very little,’ one of the Samoan doctors said in English.

‘Where are the clothes he came in with?’ Tauilopepe asked in Samoan. The Samoan doctors looked at their papalagi colleague who in turn looked puzzled for he didn’t understand Samoan.

‘We burn them,’ the nurse replied in English.

‘Thanking to you,’ Tauilopepe said in English.

‘Do you want to take him home now?’ one of the Samoan doctors asked in Samoan.

‘No, leave us,’ Tauilopepe replied in Samoan.

The doctors and nurse started to leave the room. ‘Tell my son’s wife to go home. I don’t want to see her when I come out!’ Tauilopepe called to the nurse in Samoan.

Alone in the room which smelt faintly of decaying frangipani and disinfectant, Tauilopepe couldn’t take his eyes off the coffin, as if his own body was locked within that black box, the focus of all superstitions surrounding death. Maggots squirming, burrowing into his flesh. He dug his finger-nails into his arm. He had never been able fully to accept the truth that everyone had to die.

He had to do it. He shut his eyes tightly and shuffled up to the coffin. His sweat tasted bitter in his mouth as his hand touched the black velvet covering. Nothing happened. God was his invincible armour. Opened his eyes but refused to look down. Something glittered on the low cupboard across the room. He went to it. It was a rosary. His fingers caressed the crucifix which hung from it, then he dropped it into his pocket. He opened the cupboard. It was completely bare. He slammed it shut. Pepe was dead. Now he would never know what his son had really been like.

He turned to the coffin. Advanced. Stopped. Looked down through the small glass window at Pepe’s face. Jumped back. Stifled a scream. He would never know anything about Pepe. Nothing. The black face with the mocking smile, preserved especially for him, told him so. Another death-mask clogged his head—Toasa, the same mocking grin. He took out the rosary and flung it at the coffin. It broke, the beads scattering across the floor. He fled from the room.

No, they weren’t going to win.

They were dead.

 

He sat in his car which was parked in the shade of a tamaligi tree in front of the hospital dispensary, smoking cigarette after cigarette. His clothes were drenched with sweat. A group of people were weeping in front of the surgery only a short distance away. An old man, legs thick with filariasis, watched them from the office veranda. A white dog ambled up and sniffed at the old man’s legs. The old man whacked it across the back. Yelping loudly the dog disappeared under the office building while the old man scratched his balloon-like legs. Nothing that Tauilopepe knew about Pepe seemed real now; only the death-mask, the mockery, were left to haunt him.

The truck, with Faitoaga and other men of his aiga, arrived from Sapepe. From the car Tauilopepe ordered them to go into the hospital and bring out the coffin. A few minutes later the men emerged carrying it on their shoulders. The group in front of the surgery made way for them. The old man on the veranda stood up and watched. As the men were lifting the coffin on to the truck which was decorated with black cloth and flowers, the old man shuffled down from the veranda and stood behind them. Tauilopepe saw that Faitoaga was weeping freely. He could not understand why Faitoaga and most other Sapepe people had had so much affection for Pepe even after he rejected everything they believed in. He, Tauilopepe, had given Sapepe wealth, a better way of life, yet they were afraid of him and loved this worthless son.

As he drove behind the truck towards the hospital gates he glanced back. The old man was still standing there, his swollen legs anchoring him to the ground, gazing after them, hands shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare. The dog lay near his feet. Just as he turned into the main road he saw the old man kick the dog viciously.

 

 

© Albert Wendt, 1978, published in Leaves of the Banyan Tree, Penguin.

'...poetry makes intimate everything that it touches.' - Michael Harlow

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