WHEN I first went to New Zealand, in 1986, the Rainbow Warrior had just been blown up by French spies, with murderous loss of life. The prime minister, David Lange, was standing up to the world’s nuclear authority and saying NO in thunder: NO to nuclear weaponry, NO to nuclear power and NO to nuclear-powered ships arriving in any New Zealand ports. America was repulsed.

I visited Auckland and walked down to the harbour and saw the Greenpeace ship, tilting, moored, brought up from the depths into which it had been sunk, before it was taken out to be immersed once again and become a safe haven for marine wildlife.

New Zealand was the centre of the world. This was the focus. And it was frightening. Some evenings, the horizon in the north would be a beautiful glow of reds and pinks and orange hues. “Yes,” one of my colleagues bitterly and wryly remarked, “that’ll be the 0 testing their bombs at Moruroa …”

The consequences of those “tests” are still being experienced. Babies are born with flippers instead of arms. Let that sink in.

One of the first things I was invited to do when I arrived in NZ was to review a novel that had just been published. That book has stayed in my mind ever since and it resurfaced when I visited New Zealand last Christmas. I’d like to recommend it to you here and now. It has never seemed more pertinent.

The National: John Cleves SymmesJohn Cleves Symmes

Symmes Hole, by Ian Wedde, is a feast of inversion. Remember our old pal Freddy Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil: “Objections, non-sequiturs, cheerful distrust, joyous mockery – all are signs of health. Everything absolute belongs to the realm of pathology.”

We live in world that is overwhelmed by absolutists. They are all pathological. Where do we start to make sense of it? Try this.

When Edgar Allan Poe was on his deathbed in Washington College Hospital in Baltimore on a Saturday night in 1849, according to the resident physician, he fell into “a violent delirium,” and “commenced calling for one ‘Reynolds,’ which he did through the night until three on Sunday morning … At this time … he became quiet … then gently moving his head, he said, ‘Lord help my poor soul!’ and expired ...”

Who was Reynolds? Wedde calls him “a shadowy millionaire and crank”. In 1836, Jeremiah N Reynolds urged Congress in the House of Representatives to endorse the exploration of the South Seas. Poe knew the speech and perhaps had met the man: he certainly seems to have understood the pathological absolutism of his desire.

Reynolds had an imperial dream of extending the American frontier to the ends of the earth. He “must have had some vision of corporate structures bestriding the Pacific,” Wedde muses, but he notes that Reynolds believed also in Symmes Hole.

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So who was Symmes? In 1818, John Cleves Symmes, a former infantry captain living in St Louis, dramatically addressed to “all the world” a printed manifesto which began: “I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within … that it is open at the poles.”

That’s the proposition, pilgrims. It’s not nearly as absurd as Jacob Rees-Mogg. Let it sink in.

It’s a theory that seems to have been elaborately derived from hints and remarks in mariners’ literature of the time and Symmes went on a lecturing tour in the company of Reynolds in 1825, expounding these visionary speculations. He also urged Congress to test his theory with a naval expedition …

“Jeremiah Reynolds wanted to get inside,” Wedde writes, “and his descendants did: nuclear submarines and fast food. It may be that Wilkes and Reynolds had a metaphorical understanding.”

Which brings us back to Faslane, nuclear fall-out zones, the infestation of the imagination – getting INSIDE. Hold on though. “Wilkes and Reynolds”… Who was Wilkes?

The Oxford History of the American People (1965) mentions him as the commander of three warships and three auxiliaries, “with surveyors, botanists, geologists, and other scientists. In a cruise lasting four years, (1838-42) the Wilkes expedition sailed as far north as Alaska and as far south as Antarctica (where Wilkes Land records the visit), made charts of Polynesia and Micronesia (which we used when invading Tarawa in 1943 [sic]), and prepared other data of inestimable value to commerce and science.”

The National: THE HOLLOW     EARTH

But Wilkes, the mad genius commander of the squadron Reynolds had urged back in 1836 to go into the South Seas to find Symmes’s Great Antarctic Hole, was also a model for Herman Melville’s mad captain in Moby-Dick, that bad commander, Ahab.

So what’s the roll call? Poe, Reynolds, Wilkes, Symmes, Herman Melville, and we’ll come to his cousin Gansevoort Melville, and John Troy Doctor Long Ghost, Captain Ahab, and the Ngapuhi Maori Hone Heke and Benbo Byrne ... Wait on, wait on …

These characters make up a shifting gallery of half-lit fantastics from the undergut of Pacific history who orbit the two main characters in Ian Wedde’s novel. The main characters, by contrast, are recognisably mundane, as large, only, as life makes them. They are James Heberley, a seaman, a whaler, in the 1820s (a contemporary, then, of Symmes and Reynolds); and a nameless Researcher, in the 1980s, a contemporary of mine, arriving in New Zealand, a blow-in, in 1986. They are isolatos, alienated from any sense of community with their family or society.

Wedde’s novel gives us the sense impressions and intellectual preoccupations of these characters, as they circumscribe their lives. These sense impressions are so clotted and dense in the novel that it seems the limits they are inside cannot be broken past. Wedde’s writing pays attention to all the senses, the tactile, sapid and olfactory as well as the visual and aural, so the reader also can “get inside” these two. But in slightly different ways.

Heberley’s story depends upon his Journal, an actual manuscript in the Turnbull Library in Wellington, and he emerges as a vivid and vulnerable man in his own right. The Researcher’s story is part of a retrospective meditation upon Herman Melville, the Pacific, the White Whale, the idea of “home, wife and family”, New Zealand and the world’s end, where wonders cease. It is also a series of traumatic misadventures and finally, an exhausting journey of surrender and discovery.

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His obsessions are largely what the book is about – but this doesn’t make him a mere cypher, since the number of details by which he is seen to relate to Heberley both distance and delimit him.

Heberley’s tragic discoveries of his own limitations are echoed by the Researcher’s often farcical discoveries of his. But there remains a stubborn and resourceful humanity in both. An emphasis is evenly and firmly placed upon the fact that New Zealand is where they both come to have their feet on the ground.

After his exploits in Part One, the Researcher has to walk back to his “home, wife and family” and finally arrives with his feet bare, bleeding and torn. And Heberley arrives on New Zealand soil noticing the ground’s rocking, but he’s used to that on the first couple of days ashore (and besides, he’s tipsy).

He goes looking for his promised house but finds “one of those huts on poles” and climbs up into it, sleeping his first night in ignorance of what it is he’s sleeping in, off the ground. But he’s awoken by a “shaft of sunlight on his feet.”

The novel is carefully and clearly structured to keep this balance in play. There are three parts: Part One, “Unfinished Episodes” has nine sections, alternating between the Researcher and Heberley; Part Two, “Ghost Writing” has two sections, devoting one to each; and Part Three, “Fast History” develops the Researcher’s contemporary quest through a “loneliness that runs falling over itself / coast after coast”, through sexual satiety towards the conventional goal of a formerly absent fullness of being.

What he finds, though, is no trite explanation, but a resilient reticence among the remains of the “new people”, the marginalised people, failures and sea-borderers. And a black but cheerful humour.

The two sections of Part Two parallel each other towards memorable conclusions, where finally both men fail to realise a dream-ideal of simply eating a meal with one’s family. The meal in the Researcher’s case is “tarakihi … mashed, spud … greens, broccoli” and in Heberley’s case, “fish and potatoes and some greens”.

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In an absurdly comic fall, the Researcher comes through the ceiling of his house into the family dinner. Heberley is left just as far away from a realised communal act, on shipboard, famished and painfully aware of his solitude.

A determined personal focus attaches to each of these men: they are both victims, or at least, subjects, of their economic worlds. Their individual status, which their worlds endorse, precludes their active participation in the alteration of their conditions until they begin to understand how myth, history, geography, society, race and sex begin to interweave. That makes their individual stories closely pertinent to our own, today.

The “new people” Heberley comes to be part of are the “failures” the Researcher rediscovers in his quest. And their perennial, axiomatic threat, to establishment and to authority, is explained in a marvellously lyrical apocryphal exposition delivered by another character, Doctor Long Ghost, who has come back from Herman Melville’s earlier novel Omoo.

There, his previous history is “enveloped in the profoundest obscurity” and although he was discovered to have been based on a man named John Troy, little more is known of the actual historical figure.

Who else? Benbo Byrne, the villainous Maori harpooner in Omoo, is last mentioned in that book being carried to sea in irons and Melville wrote: “What eventually became of him, we never heard.”

But Doctor Troy, John Troy, the Long Ghost, reveals Benbo’s part in the destruction of what (if you read the map today) was to be named Russell. And not only Benbo Byrne, but more significantly, Hone Heke.

Russell is a small coastal town in the north of the North Island of New Zealand. It was once known as Kororareka, a Maori word meaning “sweet penguin” since the meat of the bird was understood to be tasty. It was the capital city of New Zealand at one time. But it was also the proverbial “den of iniquity”, famous for its brothels and drinking dens, a haven for sealers, whalers and seamen of many varieties, native peoples and travellers, blow-ins, drifters.

It was a violent place where passions, perversions, exploitations, villainies and all the horrors of alcoholic humanity and testosterone dominance had free rein. And it all came to a very ungodly end.

In Wedde’s novel, John Troy, Doctor Long Ghost, tells us about this:

“‘... the uprising as such was of no great moment …what was of value in the long view, was the spectre, the phantom of that revolt: the undying doubt with which it would thenceforth trouble authority …’.”

And this is the crux of the whole matter, and I’m going to quote the whole passage because to my reading it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. Here we go:

“Benbo was an assassin … his aim was terror – as was his pleasure. It was Hone Heke that one spoke to: his intelligence would have an historical satisfaction, or none. One arranged, in return for a safe passage to California in the same ship as the ruined American merchants and, in return also for a necessary supply of pharmaceuticals, to expedite the transfer from the tariff-harried Americans to the vengeful Maori of a large quantity of arms, powder, mines and fuses, not to mention incendiary tubes and rockets.”

“Great Scott!”

“My boy, when Kororareka went, ’twas a truly religious sight. We left by night, in the Yankee whaler Edward Carey, without paying harbour dues, whilst authority was preoccupied with the blazing town and the rockets and the mines and all the rest of it. One could have wished the same sight upon many a Pacific port that one has known.

“The fire’s flicker followed us far out to sea. One leaned against the taffrail, a passenger at last, in the company of one’s co-conspirators the merchants, and one toasted the glow of Kororareka as it sank astern.

“One lifted one’s snifter to brave Hone Heke and even to that rapscallion Benbo Byrne. One drank off a best French cognac to the Spectre of Revolt! One saluted that infant nation, and wished trouble and wakefulness upon it – wished upon it the native wit of the whaler who hears Leviathan grinding in the deep; and wished restless nights and the fear of fire upon those keepers of shops of regulation and parcelled-out ideas and human feelings cramped as though in the foolish fashion of haberdashery – we saluted the Spectre of Revolt and all men who dive …”

The first week I spent in New Zealand in 1986, I was walking down by the riverside of the Waikato, in Hamilton, where I was working at the university. On the cement wall in an underpass, under a bridge across the river, there was an enormous written graffito, as you’ll see in the photo here (left). “HONE LIVES” it said. This is the heart of the book’s great darkness. But we haven’t got to the depth of the thing yet. I’ll come back to it.