Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Prologue to Potiki as a Cultural Crash Course

The story of the master carver at the beginning of Potiki seems, upon the first reading, to be largely unrelated to the story as a whole. Besides the connection between the Tamihana family’s home and the final wood carving of the master, this story hardly ties in with the rest of the novel. And yet, Patricia Grace introduces us to this man before anyone else in the story, and so grants him a particular weight in the story that lies outside the plot itself. First of all, this prologue serves as an interesting introduction to Maori culture. Without some basic explanation of the culture, this novel would be incomprehensible, and Patricia Grace effectively conveys the people’s way of thinking in this chapter. For instance, stories play an important role in the traditions of the people and in the theme of the novel, and so Grace opens with a story steeped in tradition. We see the importance of community, as the carver is important because “when the carver dies, he leaves behind him a house for the people… he has given the people himself, and he has given the people his ancestors and their own” (8). His legacy is his contribution to others, and he is remembered for his service to the community. We also see hints of the ancestral nature of the culture, and the emphasis placed on family and home. A respect for nature is also conveyed in this prologue, as it is explained that “the man is [not] master of the tree… He is master only of the skills that bring forward what was already waiting in the womb that is a tree” (7). The tree is treated with something akin to reverence, and human effort or skill is not praised as much as the latent potential of the tree. This idea of men having no right to command or control nature becomes central to the novel as the Dollarmen try to claim the land for themselves. Finally, we are given the story of the master carver’s final work, which serves as an introduction to the culture represented by the novel. As he describes it, he presents the image of an almost grotesque figure, with a large head, a long tongue, a hunched back, short arms, and extra fingers. And yet, all of these features are meaningful – they represent skills and gifts. The figure he carves resembles Toko in its deformity, but also in its value. The Dollarmen look down on Toko because of his disability, but his family loves and embraces him, as does his community. They see his intelligence and his compassion, and they value him for the skills that he does possess rather than pitying him for what he lacks. The Maori homeland is accepting and embraces all of nature, even its apparent ugliness. They do not place anyone above or below everyone else – they are all in charge, and live in a beautiful, respectful harmony which is both unfamiliar and refreshing to one who is accustomed to Western views. 

No comments:

Post a Comment