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The crossover man

With his first novel in nearly 15 years, James McNeish is back blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction.

A new novel by James McNeish? My eyebrows went up when I heard. He is 78, after all, and although advancing age should be no bar to writing fiction, his last novel came out nearly 15 years ago and his two major books since then have both been historical/biographical: Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung and The Sixth Man: The Extraordinary Life of Paddy Costello.

But then McNeish is perhaps unique among New Zealand writers in the facility with which he has moved back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. In that regard, you might call him our Thomas Keneally. He'd hardly published one of his best-known novels, Mackenzie, before coming out with The Mackenzie Affair, a non-fiction treatment of the same subject. Certainly, no one else in this country has been so doubly prolific; the novels have regularly alternated with memoir, biography, history and even polemic (The Mask of Sanity: The Bain Murders argues the case for David Bain's guilt).

Nor has any other writer seemed to come and go so much from New Zealand. McNeish has travelled regularly since he was 25, and lived for spells overseas - Italy, Israel, England, Germany. Even when he's here, he gives the impression of not being here; he has always stood at a slight angle from his native land, observing and commenting on it as a foreigner would.

Fittingly then - perhaps - this interview finds him in Berlin. Nearly 30 years ago, he researched and wrote his greatest novel, Lovelock, living in what was then West Berlin. Now, as the current beneficiary of Creative New Zealand's residency, he is there again with wife Helen, only this time living in the Friedrichshain district of what used to be East Berlin.

"The Berlin Wall is almost in our back yard," he says, referring to the last big section of it left (for decorative purposes only: there's so much art on it people call it the East Side Gallery).

We could talk about Berlin. We do. Its cake shops, its wide streets, its cheap rents, its terrific energy ("It's become very much the young capital of Europe"). We even talk about Britain's National Health Service, which has just helped McNeish recover from pneumonia. But a baby's calling - a late baby, this novel, The Crime of Huey Dunstan - and there's a tale behind its gestation.

"I heard of an incident many years ago in the South Island," says McNeish in that distinctively precise, word-weighing voice of his, "and I carried it around with me for a long time, not knowing what to do with it. And a couple of years ago I found it was still with me.

"I happened to go up to the Ureweras not long after the police raids and spent a couple of days there walking around, sleeping out and getting to know the area. As a result of that trip - nothing to do with the police business - something tripped and fell into place, and I found a way to approach the story. And wrote it as I have done."

Moral: never give up on a good idea. The first writer McNeish ever met was Nevil Shute, in the 1950s, "and I remember him saying that he always carried an idea around with him for seven months, and if at the end of seven months it was still with him he had to do something about it."

Huey Dunstan is not, by McNeish's own admission, a major book, but it teases out ideas on themes close to the writer's heart: the nature of justice, the quest for truth, race relations, prison rehabilitation, the reliability of memory.

The story is told by a blind psychologist who gets involved in Huey's case. McNeish knew nothing about blindness when he got the idea from his wife, but having settled on it, he discovered how uncommon it is in novels.

"If you look at English-spoken fiction, you will search high and low for somebody who's blind. The halt and the lame and the handicapped and the mad, they're all there - but except for one or two creamy crime novels where blind people make an appearance as either background or caricature figures, the blind do not exist. The only serious work I know of is Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark"

By the end of the interview, I've thought of another one - Maurice Gee's Blindsight, of course - and it also emerges that, according to McNeish, the protagonist of Lloyd Jones' next novel is by coincidence blind, too.

Naturally, reading Huey, it's hard to resist the grand conclusion that the blindness is a metaphor for the writer's inability to ever really see the truth of something; but no. It never occurred to McNeish - he says.

What might be a motif for the novel, though, especially given the way it explores the buried or repressed memory syndrome, is what he calls the "borderland area between fact and fiction". As the narrator says at one point, "I had discovered that even the literature of fiction and fantasy, for all its polly-wolly-steeplejack words that needed a ladder to be negotiated, could be a source of conjecture and enlightenment about human behaviour."

The Crime of Huey Dunstan turns out to be, essentially, a series of meditations on the way the past impacts on the present, but it could just as well have been a non-fiction book or an extended journalistic feature. Life imitates art imitates life. McNeish is still crossing over, going back and forth, as he has done throughout his career.

Not for nothing has critic and literary historian Lawrence Jones - with some exasperation, one feels - described McNeish as "unpredictable and relatively unplaced" in the pantheon of New Zealand novelists. He eludes pinning down, pigeonholing, even perhaps himself in the final analysis. Which is probably not a bad way for a writer to be.

It looks as though he won't even write about his own life without blurring the boundaries. "What I've been working on in Berlin," he says, "is a memoir ... a maverick kind of memoir, [telling] my own stories through the eyes of five or six other people who've mattered to me in my life. It's a kind of novel grounded in reality. That's the way I look at it anyway."

Fair enough. "It's not for me to say whether I fit into a category or not," he adds, when pressed on the point. "All I would say is that I think perhaps in the New Zealand canon I'm on the outside. But on the other hand it's a very good place to be - because living in a small society it's very hard to be both a writer and a critic. And you have to remain a critic in order to ... well, I find I have to, anyway. But I've no idea about place."

In the meantime, there's unfinished business from his 1980s Lovelock research in Berlin: he has in mind a novella about a contemporary of Jack Lovelock's, the only German Olympic athlete to take part in the resistance against Hitler.

"That's one of those bonuses of being back in Berlin," says McNeish. "We didn't come because of that but it's sort of fallen into place while we've been here."

THE CRIME OF HUEY DUNSTAN, by James McNeish (Vintage, $36.99).