Review: Kāwai – For such a time as this

Reviewed by Dan Rabarts

An epic historical adventure which tells the story of pre-colonial Aotearoa New Zealand like it’s never been told before.

Just as truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, Dr Monty Soutar has demonstrated in this impressive first novel that history, likewise, can be more confronting, and more challenging, than fiction.

Framed in the context of a contemporary descendant seeking knowledge of his Māori family lineage from a respected elder, Kāwai takes the reader back to pre-European Aotearoa in a tale spanning generations. Kāwai, which translates as ‘line of descent,’ embraces the harsh realities of a warrior culture governed by brutal traditions and bonds of loyalty so strong that they manifest as a commitment to violence as a way of life and a mindset that by holding true to those traditions, the fear and the power of death itself can be overcome.

“Ko tēnei taonga ko te mate he tīno kākahu nō tēnei hanga nō te toa: This prized treasure death is ever the garment of the warrior.”

Soutar’s narrative, based on his own whakapapa’s oral histories, combined for the purposes of the novelisation into a single timeline, draws together not just the politics of pre-colonial tribal warfare but also the challenges and joys of living in a world not yet influenced by colonialism or modernisation - at least until the closing chapters.

In this primordial Aotearoa, we are immersed in a culture where war, murder and vengeance are necessary for survival, inculcated in the boys, who will grow to be warriors, from their earliest days, a cultural norm extolled as the highest of virtues, superiority in battle being the greatest of claims to fame. Likewise, loyalty to family and loved ones is utterly paramount and there is an inextricable weaving of these two, love and violence, which threads the society together, and which has the potential to tear it apart.

We see this in the first instance with Tāwae, as a 13-year-old boy, accompanying his father, Kū, to an attack on a rival pā so that he might start to learn the ways of war, only to see his father killed and for Tāwae himself to barely escape with his life. Tāwae grows to adulthood and fathers his own children, among them Kaitanga (Kai), who becomes the novel’s main character. He is the conduit through which Soutar channels the story, including Tāwae’s committing Kai to a lifelong path to be the one to avenge Kū by defeating the descendants of his murderer.

Alongside this enshrined commitment to violence, we are invited to experience a land where birdlife and seafood swarm in abundance, good land grows good crops and to the victors come these spoils. Everyone in the pā has a role to play in the work that needs to be done to provide food, shelter and the necessities of life but there is time for music, revelry, artistry and play. Amidst the acceptance of brutality as a generation-spanning way of life, being alive is a thing to be savoured and lived to the fullest.

While Soutar’s prose sometimes has a clinical edge to it suggestive of his calibre as a historian, we know we are in the hands of a capable and honest storyteller as the tale of Tāwae and his descendants unfolds. We are being taken on a journey that needs to be taken, exploring a side of Aotearoa’s history which is too often sidelined in favour of the colonial viewpoint or obscured beneath the flawed cloak of the noble savage narrative.

Soutar sets out to bring to light the powerful societal forces at work which shaped Māori culture over hundreds of years, treading a careful line which asks us not to vilify that which is unfamiliar but to provide a context for understanding those things a more advanced society might deem barbaric, such as the wilful murder of pononga (slaves) as a demonstration of hospitality or the practice of kaitangata: cannibalism, particularly of one’s enemies, often intended as a final and irreversible insult to the defeated.

Weaving in fantastical elements which draw on the Māori spirit realm, including good omens, dire prophecies and apparitions in the bush at night, Soutar reiterates the importance of the supernatural as a part of the natural world. In the closing chapters, as our Māori protagonists have their first meetings with pake-pākehā, we see a shape of things to come including the arrival of industrialised warfare in the form of the musket, a symbol of change which is as much an affront to Māori protocols of warfare as it is to the rules surrounding magic, being the realm of the tohunga.

With the musket, all the pageantry and artistry of war is swept away, the power of the haka and the taiaha made irrelevant. Death can be hurled from a distance, like a fiery curse, disregarding the protocols of magic and warfare refined over generations.

Framed within the bookend narrative of the modern day, we are left with the question of where the line is drawn, between that which is lost and that which is forced to change and also, perhaps, how important it is that we value that which, as a culture, we might refuse to abandon. Faced with the inevitability of change, in Kāwai Soutar reminds us that loyalty and dedication to family and to preserving one’s history and way of life, will always be at the heart of Māori society. ‘If we are to die,[…] let it be defending what is ours, side by side, as brothers.’

In this way, Kāwai presents us with not only a window into the past but also a lens through which to consider the present.

Reviewed by Dan Rabarts