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"Tangi" then and now

In the global village with Witi Ihimaera.

Te Taura Tangata - the Rope of Man - stretches from the beginning of the universe to the universe's end: it is DNA, genealogy, whakapapa, combining Maori and Pakeha in its strands. In Witi Ihimaera's fiction everyone is accounted for, everyone is here - though individual characters are less important than individual novels, and individual novels are less important than the overall structure of magnanimous Maoritanga.

Ihimaera the author is just an agent, he says, part of a matrix, part of the Maori nexus, telling stories for his iwi through the idiom of the tribe, with a simultaneous translation by Ihimaera - the power-broker - into English, the common currency. (Ihimaera, by the way, is a transliteration of Ishmael, the name taken by Witi's great-grandfather when the first missionaries arrived.)

So he's the author as conviction politician, as big-tent revivalist, as educator, leading us through things Maori from the inside - an inside that in The Rope of Man spirals outwards from the East Cape and then back again with the sway and stamp of a kapa haka action song.

The Rope of Man is made up of a sequence of two novels: Tangi, which is about the protocols of the tribal village Waituhi; and The Return, which is about the protocols of the global village, as seen by the media. The narrative is retailed by Tama Mahana, a figure almost as allegorical as Christian in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, as he overcomes adversity to rise steadily to the status of 21st-century global media star.

The Rope of Man is slick, wilful and infectiously exuberant. If it turns a little self-congratulatory towards the end, with Ihimaera too obviously a smiling puppeteer pulling the strings of his creations towards a predetermined finale, we indulge the author willingly, borne up by assorted ceremonial set pieces that brim with an extraordinary confidence and vitality as if testifying that we might all be born-again Maori, or at least identify with that emotional landscape.

In Tangi, set in 1973, Tama, the 20-year-old son of Rongo and Huia Mahana is a reporter on the Evening Post newspaper in Wellington who gets a call from his sister Ripeka to tell him their father is dead and asking him to return immediately to Waituhi. Rongo's death aged "56 or 58 (was) from hard living and hard drinking", we're told, though later we learn it was mostly from hard work. The tangi for Rongo, with its sacramental rites, its drawing together of people, is the big set piece around which other events - flashbacks and flashforwards - take place.

This first half is a reworking of Ihimaera's first novel, Tangi, published in 1974, which was worked up from several versions of a short story. Ihimaera, rather like a traditional Maori storyteller, has always been an obsessive reviser and rearranger of his own narratives, getting them to serve a larger purpose. If the original novel, with its quietly brooding tensions, seems truer to the inhibitions of the early 70s, to the race and class frictions, in its dialogue and events - when Tama picks up his ticket for Gisborne at Wellington airport, for instance, he is all but invisible to the desk clerk - this new Tangi throbs with an incantatory power. At Wellington airport people flash quick smiles at Tama, and Pakeha are no longer remote, forbidding figures. Indeed the new Tangi, with its expanded characterisation, revisits Pakeha of the 70s as a bit forlorn and anxious: Tama's employer from the Evening Post, Mr Ralston, giving him a lift to the airport confides tearfully that he never knew his own father, who was killed in action during World War I.

But the Mahana family have their own grief - and grievances - to deal with. Their tribal lands were confiscated as punishment for supporting Te Kooti during the land wars and they've had to work as labourers for the new owners. Tama's father was a shearer who became a butcher at the freezing works before he was able to farm his own land. Yet Tangi isn't a chronicle of hardship - rather it's a kind of working-class opera, epic, lyric and tragic by turns.

And laid over Tama's memories is a sinuous weave of myth, proverbs and chants. If Tama's parents are solid proletarian figures who might be out of John Steinbeck, they are also stand-ins for Maori cosmology: "My mother was the Earth. My father was the Sky. They were Ranginui and Papatuanuku, the first parents." They represent, then, ancient instinctual wisdom in all its warmth. (Mahana means "warmth".)

The Rope of Man is holistic and folklorist, and everywhere affirmative, with Waituhi the well-spring of affirmation, where even the "so-called no-hopers of the village with their tats and prison records" are redeemed, making themselves useful and finding their place.

Waituhi is "big family with big heart", with its meeting house Rongopai depicted as a kind of holy of holies, "a bright illuminated forest" that holds "the millennial dreams of the iwi". The Maori worldview of Tama's telling offers everything heightened. This is landscape as psycho-geography with animism lurking behind every rock and tree. It's most alive at night, when stars wheel "like fish trying to escape a net", and Gisborne's lights "leap up as if this is the entrance to ... the domain of Hinenuitepo".

Gisborne presents a cultural faultline: the place where the Mahana family negotiate with the Pakeha world. The local high school at first refuses to enrol Tama, but his father won't back down, and his resistance launches Tama up out of the servitude of the dispossessed towards a glittering career in the course of which he symbolically wrests sovereignty back from the colonial masters.

Yet Waituhi remains the sanctuary, invoked witness to Tama's credo wherever he goes. In The Return, Tama - now Tom and married to a Pakeha - is transformed into a kind of Maui superhero, jumping from Wellington to Sydney to work in television, reporting on the fall of Saigon from Vietnam in 1975, and going on to become a globetrotter in search of hotspots and flashpoints.

By 2005 he's in London, the internationally famous anchorperson for top-rating current affairs show Spaceship Earth. Mahana returns to Waituhi to be with his ailing mother and help her find a resolution to a traumatic event come back to haunt her, before racing to Auckland - where broadcaster John Campbell in a walk-on role hovers hopefully as replacement - to host a special episode of Spaceship Earth that honours a contemporary assortment of New Zealand matriarchs.

Swooping on Gisborne like a hawk and soaring across the ocean like an albatross, the shape-shifting powers of Ihimaera hymn the Maori diaspora from Vladivostok to Tierra del Fuego, and challenge the rootless nowheresville of corporate globalisation, its empty orchestrations of signs, with the prophetic notion of turangawaewae: a place to stand and there move the earth.

THE ROPE OF MAN, by Witi Ihimaera (Reed, $34.99).