Road Markings by Michael Jackson review

by Nicholas Reid / 03 March, 2012
At nearly 70, anthropologist and poet Michael Jackson returns to New Zealand in search of his roots.
Anthropologist and poet Michael Jackson was born, raised and educated in New Zealand but is a long-time resident of the US. He is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religions at the Harvard School of Divinity. At the age of nearly 70, he returns to New Zealand in search of his roots. He hires a car and drives north from Canterbury, glancing though Wellington, lingering in the Taranaki he knows best from his childhood and reaching the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, before heading off to Australia.

En route, he catches up with old friends and worries about his past, his ancestry, his turangawaewae, the local “characters” of his youth and what New Zealand means to him. How trite this brief synopsis makes Jackson’s book sound, like an old man’s nostalgic ramble.

Road Markings is no ramble and Jackson has much bigger fish to fry than nostalgic recall. In fact, he has a fish about the size of Maui’s, for much of Road Markings is yet another drilling into the abscess of New Zealand Pakeha identity.

Conversing with old Les Cleveland or Vincent O’Sullivan or Brigid Lowry, Jackson is always on the lookout for indications of their New Zealandness, their connectedness with this country, and how much he can validate his hunch, fed by philosopher Paul Ricoeur, that a beginning (his one in New Zealand) is not the same as an origin (the birth of a sense of self). New Zealand literary ghosts haunt him, with reflections on Samuel Butler, Bill Pearson, John Mulgan and JK Baxter.

The fate of the petty criminal Joseph Pawelka (about whom he’s written before) also haunts him. After 290 pages of text, over 20 pages of end-notes and references make plain how much Jackson draws on a broad (and international) literary tradition. The landscape is always a paysage moralisé, for Jackson reads human character into our relationship with land. In New Zealand, he reads a story of Pakeha ill-adjusted to Maori priority.

Although this is a book of much mature wisdom, one feature deflates some passages. When Jackson reports conversations with his friends, their words sound impossibly stiff, academic, and sententious and quite unlike any real dialogue. It might have been wiser to report his friends in indirect speech rather than allowing them to come across like characters in a bad play. That said, Road Markings is often provocative and always a little unsettling in what it says about New Zealanders. As it should be.

ROAD MARKINGS: AN ANTHROPOLOGIST IN THE ANTIPODES, by Michael Jackson (Rosa Mira e-book, US$11, available

Nicholas Reid is a writer and historian, and author of the recently released poetry collection The Little Enemy.
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