While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Blast From the Past: Scaling Fish Island

The other day, Marisa asked if I could get her out Moby Dick the next time I visited the library. I tried to explain that it won’t be what she’s expecting, having grown up on cartoon versions of the hunt for the white whale. She still seemed keen, so who am I to stand between her and great literature?

When I bought her home a copy of the Everyman edition, she began flicking through, randomly announcing chapter titles as if continuing my argument that the book was more of an encyclopaedia than a novel.

I have quite an involved relationship with Moby Dick. Back in 2004 I tried to write my first novel. It was an ambitious proposition: on the surface it was a road trip from Wellington to Auckland undertaken by two flatmates, but underneath it lay a retelling of the Maori myth of Maui pulling up the North Island combined with Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick in Melville’s book.

It plainly didn’t work.

I still like some of the ideas in the manuscript, but it’s an absolute muddle, full of disjointed scenes and plain bad writing.

To open the book, I chose to echo Moby Dick by having an Etymology and an Extracts section, putting space between the front cover and the narrator’s first words (my version of “Call me Ishmael”). Reading over this now, three and a half years later, I can see all the ambition and verve I had when I set out to write Scaling Fish Island. I can also tell by the voice of my etymologist (who only appears in this section, the rest of the novel is much more 21 year old Kiwi male narration) that I was still very much under the spell of Vladimir Nabokov (words like ‘homunculus’ and ‘petty bureaucrats’).

Am I a better writer now? Hard to say.

The real question is, am I still as ambitious?

Just the kind of question to ponder on a weekend jaunt to Madrid.

*sardonic chuckle*

Anyway, here for your reading pleasure is the Etymology section of the never to be published: Scaling Fish Island.


The poetically named North Island of New Zealand is located approximately 1600 kilometres southeast of Australia. It is not easy to discover just who christened the world’s fourteenth largest island “North”. In fact, this humble researcher has failed in his endeavour – the namer appears to have slipped (wisely) into anonymity, sparing their family name an immemorial association with one simpleton decision (two if you count the naming of the South Island). Perhaps I am unkind in placing fault upon one homunculus – the North/South names could just as likely stem from a drawing room full of dusty maps, wherein a dozen petty bureaucrats opt for the least offensive names and hastily depart for constitutionals in Menton and Dover to stifle their escalating hayfever or shake the jejune cloud of the industrial metropolis.

Happened upon by Abel Tasman in 1642, New Zealand has suffered its fair share of taxonomic oscillation at the hands of Europe. One needn’t wonder long why the three main islands’ nouveau-Irish monikers – New Ulster (the North Island), New Munster (the South Island) and New Leinster (Stewart Island) – were short lived. Even the present scheme has not been static – though North has always been North: the South Island was initially referred to as the Middle Island and Stewart Island bore the southern title. But alas, the Middle Island was decommissioned, and we are left with North, South, Stewart – the two largest islands left referring to each other, swirling in a vortex of incestuous representation, inadvertently implying a body of water (the blustery Cook Strait) is the heart of the nation. It is unfortunate these handles persisted as the Maori already had numerous more descriptive terms for the islands they had inhabited for several centuries before Abel breezed past.

Aotearoa, nowadays widely applied to the whole of New Zealand, was originally a term for the North Island. Oft translated as ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, there are a variety of other interpretations, many of which relate to the longer daylight the Polynesian explorers experienced: ‘Land of the Long Daylight’, ‘Long Bright World’, ‘Big Glaring Light’, ‘Continuous Clear Light’ – I think you get the picture.

Another enduring Maori name for the North Island is Te Ika a Maui, ‘The Fish of Maui’. According to the myth, the demi-god Maui (a key figure throughout Polynesian mythology) pulled up the island whilst fishing. When looking at a map of the island, one may be able to see the resemblance to a skate: the head situated at the southern tip, the mouth Wellington harbour and the eye Lake Wairarapa, the East and West coasts the fins, and the North Cape the long narrow tail.

1 comment:

Laura said...

I'd still like to read it...