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Friday, April 23, 2021

Why Helen Clark may be the best thing that ever happened to the Nobel

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It is 40 years since Susan Sontag told Patrick White to “Go to hell” when she lectured to the Pacific Congress in China. (She didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, she was merely saying she despised what he was saying. “It was a kind of private quarrel,” she later said.) Well, in a crucial way it has been 40 years since Margaret MacMillan called for Patrick White’s arrest for inciting the mass murder of World War II, if she could persuade the New Zealand prime minister that this was what the crimes of Gallipoli were. She no longer has that power. But now that Helen Clark is prime minister of New Zealand, MacMillan — now twice as famous in her native country as she is abroad — is back in her corner.

How then did she come to be arrested and to find herself with not merely Olympean but Gallipoli fame — a novelist, historian, journalist and serious literary critic, the recipient of England’s highest literary honor, the Nobel Prize in Literature, only six months ago. It is a telling indictment of contemporary attitudes to war that an author who could write two fictional novels full of compassion, one in the form of “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” the other a history of the camp of 7,000 people at the Shire, soon finds herself applying rhetorical absolutes to the mostly blank battlegrounds of New Zealand’s contemporary wars.

This is a war for the imagination — whose paradigms have been prefigured for 50 years at intervals — one that neither Sergeant MacMillan nor the poet Robert Heinlein was willing to recognize as any less savage than the one they were writing about.

MacMillan’s work is measured and dispassionate. She explains the politics of war rather than taking sides in them. She attends to the spirit of her fiction rather than focusing on the details of its conflicts. She takes its turmoil seriously, but her discomfort with the political context of her works is palpable.

MacMillan’s contempt for this new generation of politicians, who invariably have ambitions to become her ally in the peace-making process, is unavoidable. More than anyone in her generation, Margaret MacMillan believed that politics was at bottom a quarrel between the savage and the weak. What she feared was that this had been mistaken for a workable philosophy — that at best governments would be content to simply prevent their enemies from conquering the land.

The trouble with this new generation of politicians, who invariably have ambitions to become her ally in the peace-making process, is unmistakable

“War is peace without the feet,” her character tells her at one point.

The trouble with this new generation of politicians, who invariably have ambitions to become her ally in the peace-making process, is unmistakable. Indeed, when the Great War comes to mind it is in the context of the political war. But the history of wars, while it can be read that way, is also a thread through MacMillan’s career. In the long, silent parallel history of colonial-settler relations the case for the position that the worst crimes of war are the ones not committed in them — such as in the Battle of Amiens — is nearly as compelling as the cases for war, in which the worst crime is the one actually committed.

When we are not talking about policy as policy, there is still this war in the history books, this long, sad, horrible war that is always there in New Zealand — about which that country has a duty to say a lot. And she seems pleased that her writing, however slow, may be assisting that duty.

Born in the former Ruhonga, on the northern tip of Oceania, MacMillan is, as her grandfather was, an expert historian. Her passion for the life of the mind as opposed to the political life is often startlingly exact. MacMillan’s manner may be detached, but her facts are precise. This is a historian with a relentless streak of curiosity. She is fascinated by the “mold, the machines, the shapes of the thing,” according to one of her characters in the relatively successful 1950 novel “A Peacock’s Necklace.” Her postwar years as a travel writer will probably be remembered for this book title. And surely there has been no writer since Camus who did a better job of celebrating in the last 20 years the astounding oddity of New Zealand’s distinctive landscape — as opposed to Justus von Liebig who derided it in his account of Napoleon’s retreat from Paris, “The Outline of History.”

MacMillan

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