Bulibasha was my choice of Maori title for Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers because I had three books by Witi Ihimaera on my TBR, and this one was the earliest one. It won the Montana Book Award for Fiction in 1995.
It’s a coming-of-age novel set in sheep country on the east coast of New Zealand. Simeon is the narrator, looking back at his younger self in conflict with his tyrannical grandfather and the family that was subservient to him.
In those days, if you wanted to get to Waituhi from Gisborne, you had to cross the red suspension bridge over the Waipaoa River just past the Bridge Hotel. The hotel is still there but the bridge was long ago replaced.
Dumped on land now owned by the region’s premier vintner, Matawhero Wines, the bridge is a worrying reminder that things shrink as you get older. I remember it as an imposing superstructure which cast shadows over our Pontiac as we drove across. When the river ranged in winter the swollen silt-laden waters slammed tree trunks against its pontoons. In reality, the bridge was very small and short, redolent of the times before constant flooding of the Gisborne River lowland compelled engineers to slash shortcuts across each S-bend and to open out the river’s width like a gutted stomach. Back then the river had a narrow course – a slender eel threshing toward the delta at the sea.
Something else happened when human engineers simplified that complex landscape of river bends. With every sculpting movement of bulldozer and grader, they stripped the river of its mythology.
The family mythology is controlled by Tamihana, Simeon’s grandfather. He is the leader of the great Mahana clan of sheep-shearers, and his word is law. Drawing together elements of Maori cultural practice and the Mormon religion that he has adopted, he brings the entire family together each Sunday for ritual retellings of the family story: how in 1919 with foresight and hard work Tamihana took advantage of a scheme to help Maori farmers and built a successful business that is rivalled only by the enemy Poata clan with whom the family has a bitter feud.
Rupeni Poata was once Tamihana’s friendly sporting rival but all that changed when they both fell in love with Ramona. Her father decreed that she would marry Rupeni, but Tamihana stole her from him at the steps of the altar ‘like Douglas Fairbanks in a swashbuckling movie’ (p84) and Rupeni went away to war to nurse his grievance. By the time he got back, Tamihana and Ramona were married and from then the rivalry intensified. The clans clash in every sporting and cultural event, they fight for possession of that bridge, and they clash in the Golden Fleece competition to find the greatest shearing gang in New Zealand.
The book is the story of Simeon’s struggle to find a place for himself in this milieu. He has the dry, laconic humour of adolescence, and his scepticism about the tales which sustain Tamihana’s power and his parents’ subservience derives from the fact that he is educated. His parents and grandparents cannot read, and Tamihana is proud of the fact that he has built a business without any need for education. The moment comes when Simeon learns about evolution at school and challenges his grandfather’s world view – and his power in the family:
‘Get me the Bible,’ Grandfather Tamihana said.
‘I know what it says in the Bible,’ I answered.
‘So you know,’ Grandfather continued, ‘that God created Adam and Eve?’
‘I know that is what the Bible says – ‘
‘And is the Bible not the Word of God?’
‘No,’ I answered,’ it’s the Word of Man.’
Mohi started to make strange choking sounds. My aunts were blushing with embarrassment.
‘I think you should leave the room,’ Mum said. She was panicking. Grandfather Tamihana was looking around at everyone.’Why is it?’ I asked, ‘that every time I say something, everybody takes sides so quickly? Doesn’t anyone here, apart from Grandfather and myself, have an opinion?’ My uncles and aunts continued looking at their laps. Ah well, I had tried.
‘I am not descended from a monkey,’ Grandfather said.
His comment would have been humorous, except that he was apoplectic with rage. I crossed my arms and stared at him. ‘Grandfather,’ I said, ‘the greatest Biblical scholars in the world have agreed with you. However, some of the greatest scientists have disagreed. You are right -‘ he nodded – ‘but you are also wrong.’
There was hardly a sound. Dad was on his feet ready to clip me over the ear. Grandmother restrained him.
‘Let us agree to differ.’
As soon as I said the words, I felt a rush of elation. Grandfather wasn’t too sure what I was saying. Was I agreeing with him? Or disagreeing? It was as if I had suddenly discovered a new language, a way of saying things beyond his limited comprehension. In knowledge was power, yes. But the secret was how to articulate the knowledge. (p155-6)
Simeon as an observer growing into an adulthood with different possibilities challenges the hierarchical structures and gender relations which ensure that his father – the last-born of Tamihana’s huge family – owns no property and has to live with the old patriarch and serve his needs. But like the child he still sometimes is, Simeon also wants his father to take his side sometimes, especially when Tamaihana is wrong. His mother has to remind him that calling his father a coward just shows that for all that he is ‘so smart’ he doesn’t understand how things are.
At the same time, Simeon is intensely proud of his family, its reputation and its triumphs over the Poata clan. Episodes describing the excellence of their shearing gang at work, their preparations to trounce the Poatas at the annual cultural competition at the Gisborne Opera House, and bruising competition on the sports field are among the best in the book, with hints at an impending Romeo and Juliet romance to come. The plot twist at the end, however, is completely unexpected …
This is one of my top books for the year so far, and I look forward to reading more by this excellent author. I have The Uncle’s Story and The Dream Swimmer on my TBR but there are others to look out for, including his latest title The Parihaka Woman, and the classic Pounamu, Pounamu (Popular Penguins).
Author: Witi Ihimaera
Title: Bulibasha, King of the Gypsies
Publisher: Penguin (New Zealand), 1994 (First edition, in paperback)
Source: Personal library, purchased 2nd-hand from Diversity Books Mentone, $8.00