Wulf is one of my favorite novels of the year.
I didn’t know very much (ok, virtually nothing) about New Zealand fiction before visiting there earlier this year, but discovered Wulf in Unity Books in Auckland, one of those shops just designed for book lovers with titles arranged in thematic clusters so you literally want one of everything.
Wulf, written by first-time author Hamish Clayton (during his PhD–mad respect!), recounts the history of English trader John Stewart’s encounter with famed New Zealand chief Te Rop’raha in the early nineteenth century, but sets these historical events against the backdrop of an enigmatic tenth-century Anglo-Saxon epic. The poem, “Wulf,” is a cryptic and obscure narrative of a woman’s desire for a man called Wulf, though her relationship with him is deeply ambiguous. He is sometimes her lover, sometimes her son, sometimes interchangeable or part of a love triangle with a second warrior, Eadwacer.
Onto the mysterious, bitter, longing canvas of the poem, Clayton maps the British’s interactions with Te Rop’raha and their relationship with New Zealand as a place, through the voices and stories of two English sailors. One, the narrator, describes the haunting beauty of this country, its compelling allure:
“…We sailed the wild coasts of deep green forests and shiny black sand, their blue and white air brighter and clearer than any church windows we’d ever seen…I breathed in that wild air and felt those island breezes coursing through me. I felt the pleasure of that country, a sexual desire for its high winds and sheer green valleys I knew to be cradled inside its borders of shining shores” (82).
He chronicles the trials of being far from home, the explorers’ instinct to compare all foreign places to familiar ones, alongside a deep fascination with the practices of native people:
“As we sailed around the world we had misplaced the date…and so as we looked at the fierce new sun rising warm over the wild morning we thought of the cold light that we imagined it had left in the last hours of a darkening British sky. A fading sunset in our minds a whole world away from the bright morning of this strange green country, new to us and ancient. The sun was brighter here. Its light was wilder and younger, its heat more savage. The legends told in these islands spoke of men who had gone to war against it, for the New Zealand sun was a mischievous god. They had caught him in enchanted ropes of woven flax and tamed him, beating him with a weapon made of magic jawbone” (67).
The narrator’s knowledge of these legends comes from his relationship, verging on obsession, with Cowell, the Elizabeth‘s young trading master who knows the New Zealanders’ language, their myths, their leaders, and keeps the preserved head of one in a locked box in his cabin. It is through Cowell’s stories that we learn of the warrior larger than the myths he creates about himself, who has conquered the whole Northern Island with rapacious violence and sits enthroned at Kopitee Island, controlling the trade in flax (what the British came for), poised for the seizure of the Middle Island and its tribes. Through his stories, the sailors come to call Te Rop’raha the Wolf, the ruler of “a land that has never known wolves,” an imported British beast (56). All the while he waits for their arrival:
“He is the river and he is in the river, and he lies there asleep in the dreams of men…He is the shiver of sharks following this ship. He is the shark and he is the dark and silent water it swims through, a creature of the deep…We are sailing towards him and he is coming” (57).
Two thirds of the book builds toward the encounter between the Elizabeth and Te Rop’raha, which when it finally happens feels (intentionally) anti-climatic and deeply clouded, for the narrator is never privy to an audience with the chief and gets all his information secondhand, through the subtly subversive Cowell. And when Stewart strikes a deal to bring Te Rop’raha to the Middle Island in exchange for a hold of flax, our narrator absconds from the ship and spends two weeks camping with the natives on Kopitee, rendering the violence, greed, and injustice of the transaction obscured in a mist and the momentousness of moral failure blurred and dull as an unsharpened blade.
The fluidity, beauty, and rhythm of Clayton’s prose are like love letter to his homeland, making New Zealand glitter like a green gem in the sun and the novel a pleasure to read. Meantime, the visceral and metallic clarity of native history and legend, and the candidness and unabashedness of British attempts at mental and physical conquest indicate a deep respect for indigeneity and ancientness, an acknowledgement of complicity and complexity. That Clayton wrote the novel as a doctoral student is seriously impressive, and the comparison between British epic and New Zealand history is ingenious, ironic, and hypnotic. Were I ever to write a novel someday, I hope it’d be like this one.