by Jane McRae
Most New Zealanders will be familiar with certain names, incidents or texts from Māori oral tradition: migration stories, or the exploits of Māui, for instance. These are from a tradition of huge variety and depth, much of it transcribed during the nineteenth century either directly by Māori, or through collections assembled by interested Pākehā.
This book offers a way of looking at those traditions, dividing them into categories according to their structure and purpose. So we have genealogies (whakapapa), sayings and proverbs (whakataukī), narratives, histories, stories and myths (kōrero), and songs and chants (waiata)
Illustrative examples in Maori, with English translations, are given throughout. Even those with little knowledge of Māori language will find it rewarding to read aloud the Māori versions, in order to hear the rhythms and imagine the dramatic pauses and emphases – those things that are lost in translation and, to some extent, simply by being put into writing.
Language both affects the way the world is viewed and, in turn, is heavily influenced by that world view. In considering Māori oral traditions, the author demonstrates how particular words and phrases, or particular names, were used to prompt the recollection of incidents or other people or stories associated with them. Thus what might seem to a reader of the transcripts to be overly brief or incomplete narratives would have been, to the listeners on the marae, oral performances rich in meaning.
Throughout the book, there is commentary on and illustration of the way the traditions reflect the inner life of Māori in the old world – the deep significance of immediate family and of wider social groupings, of ties to land, of key ancestral figures, of reciprocities, the satisfaction of victories and the pain of defeats. There is drama. There is poetry. It is a literature unique to this country, yet it is an important part, too, of universal oral traditions, and thus of world literature. Furthermore, as the author points out, these oral traditions continue to be “a real and influential part of the Māori world.”
The author says: “Knowledge in the oral society…did not come from one kind of text alone…” Indeed not; and the same could be said of the ‘literary’ world. A reading of the novels from, say, Victorian England, will provide a deeper, more intuitive knowledge of what it was like to have been a part of life there, in that time, than could any history book. We understand the past best when we experience it through the literature, oral or written, of those who lived it.
It is impossible in a brief review to pay sufficient tribute to the accessible style in which this book is written, and to the many significant issues that are raised in it. The author states that one of her main aims in writing it was to encourage Māori language and literature students to discover more of the riches to be found in the “manuscript trove” of transcribed oral literature; and surely any such student reading the book would be enthused. But for the general reader, the book offers insights into the contribution Māori oral tradition can make to an understanding of what it should mean to be a New Zealander, and what it means to be human.
Auckland University Press has played its part in making this book pleasurable. The layout is neat and reader-friendly. The scholarly endnotes, and the comprehensive bibliography and index, are useful without being obtrusive. It has that rare thing, a cover that enhances the text, the symbolism incorporated there being succinctly explained in a note on the reverse of the title page. Physically, the book provides the sort of tactile and visual pleasure that is exclusive to an admirably assembled combination of ink and paper.
But of course it really comes down to the text, and without doubt the author has written something of exceptional value. Read it. Be enriched.
Author: Jane McRae
Publisher: Auckland University Press
ISBN: 978 1 86940 861 9