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The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke maps modern concerns onto early Aotearoa

Two worlds: Tina Makereti. Photo/Lisa Gardiner

Tina Makereti's novel of a Māori in Victorian London is a compelling tale of colonial contact that speaks to the past and the present.

“You only have one life in your possession, James. Why not make it of your most magnificent imagining?” And so, in 1846, young James Pōneke begins what he considers to be his true journey – to follow the Englishman known only as “the Artist from New Zealand” to London in order to be “enlightened”. Tina Makereti’s new novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, is presented as a letter from James to his imagined descendants. The epistolary novel begins, “Listen, miracle of the future. You strange possibility, my descendant … hear me. I’ve seen so many miracles in my short life, things I never dared imagine possible, and just as much pain … I am nothing but what I can conceive, what I can imagine.”

James, or Hemi as he’s known in Aotearoa, like Dickens’s Pip, recounts his life as an orphan, explaining how, through a series of chance encounters, he makes his way in the world, for better and for worse.

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After arriving in England, the Artist intends to display treasured Māori possessions in London’s Egyptian Hall. He proposes to make James a living exhibit in his cabinet of curiosities: “A chief’s son – my drawings made real! … My countrymen and women will find a specimen of the native people of New Zealand fascinating, I’m sure … What a crowd we will draw!”

James finds himself in the troubling position of being a “professional spectacle”; he represents the native New Zealander to every dandy and gentlewoman who passes through. Londoners gape at him, while James gawks at them in turn. On display, James realises that his past means more to him than he can express, while the idealised vision he had of London myopically glossed over the savagery, alongside the nobility, of that world.

Makereti, an award-winning writer of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi and Pākehā descent whose work explores race, history, belonging and representation, has in this, her second novel, breathed new life into the story of colonial contact. She takes historical accounts and assumptions and overlays them with our modern sensibilities to create compelling present-day fiction.

There are moments when James’s voice takes on an anachronistic, confessional quality, but this is not a failing of the plot. Rather, Makereti seems to be intentionally mapping our current concerns onto this earlier period. This is the appeal of historical fiction – it can be fluid in this way. The plot speaks to us now as it also wrestles with the constraints of the era it’s set in. This is a story of two worlds, 2018 and 1846, just as James is of two worlds, Aotearoa and England.

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is many things: part unsparing colonial reckoning; part fraught coming-of-age memoir; part PT Barnum-inflected tale of spectacle, showmanship and the picaresque. James leaves New Zealand and arrives in London naively hoping for enlightenment. He learns that there is more to his past and his present than meets the eye. And his future will surely defy imagination.

THE IMAGINARY LIVES OF JAMES PŌNEKE, by Tina Makereti (Vintage, $38)

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.