The Carpathians by Janet Frame [A Review]

The Carpathians, the last novel by Janet Frame published in her lifetime, is an insightful evocation of 1980s New Zealand and its relationship with the outside world, through the eyes of a visiting New Yorker. Mysterious and beautifully written, it won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature in 1989.

Mattina Brecon has become very unhappy in life. Born into wealth she has always struggled to find her purpose in life. Though she has worked, she never really had a career. She has tried to benefit others with her wealth and support artists, particularly her writer husband, but is not quite what you would call a philanthropist. Though a New Yorker, she was never much of a socialite either but now her friends are all leaving the city for retirement elsewhere.

But she has always been curious about how other people live and when she reads about a small town in New Zealand called Puamahara and its legend of the Memory Flower, in a travel brochure, she decides to leave New York and rent a house in the town for a short time. On arriving at the small, old, wooden house, where the previous occupant apparently did not drink coffee, kept no bourbon for her afternoon Old Fashioned, Mattina asks herself what on Earth she is doing there. It is all a little strange. Rubbish deposited not in metal trashcans but in plastic bags by the curb. Fresh milk delivered daily in glass bottles by the letterbox. Street noise and traffic replaced by eerie silence at night.

There is a legend of Maharawhenua or Memory Land with its town of Puamahara or Memory Flower. A young woman, chosen by the gods as collector of the memory of her land, journeys to a region between the mountains and the sea to search for the memory;

[…] The legend describes how the young woman released the memory of the land when she picked and tasted the ripe fruit of a tree growing in the bush: where Eve tasted her and Adam’s tomorrow, the woman of Maharawhenua tasted the yesterday within the tomorrow, and realising that her search was over, she called together the people of the land. For many years with no human function but that of a story-teller, she recounted the memory, and one day when the listeners returned, they found the memory-collector had vanished and in her place a tree grew with one blossom named, then, the Memory Flower from which, it is said, fruit invisible to most eyes from time to time may grow.

Under the guise of researching for a possible book, Mattina makes an effort to meet her neighbours. There are some elderly widows and veterans and some younger families. Most are not from Puamahara but have found themselves there by some way or other. The older residents are passing time until the inevitable, and a lonely widow was murdered on the street just before Mattina arrived, while the younger ones are eager to leave for city life. Few are happy. There’s also the eccentric Dinny Wheatstone, an artist and writer who calls herself an ‘official imposter’ and who places a draft of her unpublished novel in Mattina’s mailbox. But Mattina’s ‘research’ is a little forced; again and again she asks herself what she is doing there. Is she here to escape or is she searching for something? What drives this wish to know others that she can barely find the effort to pursue?

The first thing that needs to be said about The Carpathians is that it is beautifully written. It is poetic, full of metaphor and elusive meaning. It surprised me to find that Janet Frame published only one collection of poetry in her lifetime, The Pocket Mirror, over twenty years before The Carpathians, which was the last of her novels published in her lifetime. It reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, though it has been a long time since I read it. Reading The Carpathians I felt it needed to be a short novel. It needs to be read slowly and savoured. As sumptuous as its style is, perhaps it would become tiresome over a long novel.

It’s another story of the town of the Memory Flower, of the Gravity Star, the prospect of the sudden annihilation of the usual perception of distance and closeness, the bursting of the iron bands that once made rigid the container of knowledge, the trickling away of the perception of time and space, although at first the shape persists as if still bound, yet if you examine it you see the widening crevices in what was believed always to be the foundation of perception. Near and far, then and now, here and there, the homely words of the language of space and time appear useless, heaps of rubble.

The smallest words have lifted the weight of centuries of knowing and carried it out of our reach.

How far away you have been, and now your death is near; I hold in my hand the most distant star; the dead of yesterday dine with me at my table.

There are two faces to this novel. One I understand and the other, admittedly, I do not.

The face I understand is due to the fact that I have spent most of my life in New Zealand. New Zealand is undoubtedly a member of the family of nations and cultures we usually term the ‘West’. But, because New Zealand is smaller, younger, less wealthy and, especially, because it is very geographically isolated, it occupies a somewhat unique position in this family. For someone from elsewhere in the West, a trip to New Zealand may feel like a journey into some sort of tangential past. The cars, the houses, the clothes people wear would probably seem a little dated to someone from outside. Frame uses the gravitational lensing effect, a distortion of distance and time caused by the effect of gravity, as a metaphor. Technology has closed a lot of gaps but the New Zealand of the 1980’s described in this novel feels very familiar to me. Cultural issues subtly hinted at in the novel include foreign ownership, conflicting views on the value of overseas opinions and a risk of extinction of Maori language and culture.

Because of this unique position in the Western family, New Zealanders hold a deep-seated desire, like that of a younger sibling, to be known, understood, respected and loved by the big brothers, particularly England and America. It is clearly evident by following the New Zealand media where every mention of New Zealand by a foreign celebrity, positive or negative, is sure to be noticed. With the story of an American visiting small-town New Zealand to see how they live, The Carpathians fully indulges this peculiarly New Zealand fantasy.

The novel explores the different aspects to this fantasy. Tempering this desire for attention from the bigger siblings is an inferiority complex that such attention may not be deserved. There is also an equally strong aversion to being belittled, talked down to, misunderstood or disrespected.

‘It’s hard, you know. Sometimes it seems as if everyone in the world is trying to change the ordinary New Zealander. We’re fair game for every jumped-up expert.’

Mattina was polite. ‘Oh,’ she said. She was tired of hearing about experts, New Zealand lamb. And scenery.

That leaves a lot of this novel that I did not understand. There are unsettling mysteries that permeate the novel, symbols and metaphors that I could not interpret. You feel uncertain about the identity of the narrator and how reliable they are. The Dinny Wheatstone character seems to be more than just eccentric, maybe a little mad. Her theories about reality and ‘imposters’ is a little troubling. I am tempted to say that some of this concerns a theme of the diminishing power of words, how they are being misused and ultimately forgotten, and that this is reflected in the fate of the elderly characters who are also misused and their life stories ultimately forgotten, but I have little confidence in that analysis.

As the novel goes on, this second face comes to dominate. Towards the end The Carpathians goes full-on magic-realist. How you feel about this will depend on you as the reader. The novel certainly leads you off a cliff and whether you feel you are now walking on air or tumbling down a ravine is up to you!

Despite being from New Zealand, I have not read much New Zealand literature. Some of this is due to that inferiority complex I mentioned earlier, some is due to an antipathy for the familiar – cultural cringe. But The Carpathians showed me the folly of that. The parts of the novel I understood also understood New Zealand with a canny introspection that I could not help but admire. The New Zealand Literature Wikipedia page is somewhat meagre but since I have not read much there is plenty for me to explore. Including more Janet Frame, possibly New Zealand’s most admired literary writer, deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize by some.

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