Saturday short story: Der Traum, by Witi Ihimaera

‘Everyone began to hongi, press noses, in the sign of respect and conciliation’: a new story by the legendary author Witi Ihimaera. Photography by Peter Black.

The man wakes abruptly

The man wakes abruptly after having had half a dream.

His dream has been moving in a certain direction that isn’t to his liking. Uncertain as to how it will resolve itself he says No, very firmly, and forces himself to wake up.

In the dream, the man had been in a small van, perhaps an eight-seater. He was on a tour of the South Island with indigenous friends who were familiar to him but whose names he couldn’t recall; as soon as the dream was over, they disappeared from his subconscious. The dream began just as the van was leaving a busy metropolitan market. His friends were all artists, carvers and craftsmen and among them was a weaver, maybe in her fifties. As the van was waiting at the lights of the busy intersection, she looked back.

Silhouetted against a red sunset was the marketplace with its jumble of stalls. Close by, was a flax vendor. Oh, what beautiful harakeke, the weaver said. She began to cry, and the sound of her weeping invaded the dream. A tear, like lustrous jade fell slowly from her left eye.

For some reason, the man felt sorry for the weaver. He called to the driver, Let the woman go to buy the flax, and then, immediately, he felt embarrassed. He had overstepped the mark as such a decision to stop was the responsibility of the tour director, a young woman. He apologised to her. It was clear that the young woman was annoyed, We are running late, she answered, but she nodded to the driver to let the weaver out.

The weaver ran through the blood red sunset past the many other traders to the flax vendor. They began to talk, but something went wrong because the vendor began to shake his fist. He called over another person and the arguing escalated. Clearly the weaver was continuing to offend. The anger was menacing. You don’t want to pay?

I will pay but your price is not a fair one.

The price I quoted is the market price.

The argument rose to a crescendo. The man heard the woman say, Harakeke should not be sold in the first place. He thought, I better step in. He got out of the van but before he could go any further, the flax seller and the person with him - the manager of the market - approached. They had taken the weaver in custody.

She has offended us, the manager said. She asked if she could purchase our harakeke and is now objecting to the price. If you wish to have her freed so that she can rejoin you, it will cost 98 dollars.

The man looked at the tour director expecting her to take charge of the situation. Instead, the young woman looked at him. At that point, not sure if he wanted to take responsibility, he had decided to wake up.

I need to explain

I need to explain a particular circumstance that makes the man’s dream somewhat unusual.

The man was in Berlin when he had the dream. He had flown 17 hours from Auckland to Dubai and then six hours to Germany, with two stopovers of three hours each. One day he had been in the Southern Hemisphere, the next in the Northern.

It also happened to be Easter, a time when the Christian world reflected on its humanity. And as anybody who visits Berlin frequently would tell you, the city at any time was an utterly fragmenting experience: it forced you into personal encounters with a history characterised by constant reinvention. On previous visits, for instance, the man had considered the city to be in self-denial about its past, especially its Nazi history and division into East and West Germany. But now he admired Berlin because, ever since the Wall had fallen, it has gained great momentum. The most obliterated country of WW II was now the undoubted leader of the EU.

Let me tell you more about the man’s itinerary. He was staying in a well known hotel just off the Unter den Linden. And yes, he was with a tour group from New Zealand and Australia, some of them artists, one a weaver - and there was indeed a tour director, a young woman, concentrating on the operation of the tour rather than her group. Therefore, reality had certainly coloured the man’s dream.

So too had the group’s cultural programme. On the first day they had visited the Brandenburg Gate and the Jewish War Memorial, always sufficient to remind him of the city’s troublesome histories. Their first evening out had been to see a performance of Adam’s Passion, a new production by Robert Wilson based on Arvo Part’s music, Adam’s Lament, Miserere, Tabula Rasa and Sequentia; after being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Adam anticipates all of mankind’s catastrophes, blaming himself for them.

A few days ago, on a tour to Potsdam, the old city of kings and kaisers, flakes of snow had started to fall; the man was reminded, sentimentally, of a snow globe; but there was nothing sentimental about shopping among the expensive shops in the Freidrichstrasse and, there, the snow was real and bitter to the taste. In one of the shops the man saw a beautiful shimmering cloak, made entirely of feathers like a Māori cloak, but reconstructed as a haute couture high-end fashion creation. The price tag was exorbitant.

Although the cloak delighted him, the man had sensed something disturbing. Everything in the world is for sale, he thought, even us.

The night before at the Staatskapelle Berlin the tour group heard Daniel Barenboim conducting Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien. Last evening, they had been at Das Wunder Der Heliane, the extraordinary opera about a stranger from a distant land who commits suicide and is then resurrected by his lover.

The sonorities and their dissonance only served to amplify the man’s thoughts on life, its transformation, transfiguration and, yes, transubstantiation. The change of something natural into something manufactured - a feather into a cloak. The placing of a monetary value on a simple item, like flax, even though the essence had not changed.

And so the man had awakened from his dream at 3 o’clock - or was it 4 o’clock? - the change to summer time only adding to his disorientation. He made a cup of tea and watched the grey light seep along the Berlin boulevards. But the dream still disturbed him.

He began to ponder a scenario that might have occurred had he not said, Stop.

The man heard with anxiety

The man heard with anxiety the manager’s decision, If you wish to have the woman returned to you...

The situation could quickly spiral out of control and he had to think fast. The manager held the upper hand, he the lower. This was the world as a global marketplace whereas the man and his colleagues were indigenous visitors. And so the man began to negotiate for the weaver’s release by being conciliatory.

I respect your decision, he said in a contrite fashion, an attitude against his nature. However, he continued, asserting his own mana, sovereignty, it has been taken unilaterally, and you present it to me and my fellow companions as a fait accompli.

Experience had taught the man that sometimes it was better to establish an arena of negotiation as fast as possible, and he was pleased to see the manager take an unconscious step backward; sometimes, negotiation skills from people of colour were unexpected.

Your woman was disrespectful to the principles of our business, the manager rejoined.

Let us see if she was, the man interposed quickly, preferring not to seek permission to proceed from the manager. After all, both you and I were not witness to the encounter between her and the flax vendor, you being in your office before being attracted by the commotion and me in the van. Shall we talk to the vendor first?

A large crowd had gathered to observe the proceedings. The manager called the vendor of the harakeke to come forward. The woman was rude to me, he said. She came running to my stall and ordered me about, rummaging through my flax and choosing the best stalks. And when I told her what the price was she refused to pay it.

The man gestured to the crowd. Can anyone among you verify the vendor’s story?

An elderly man spoke up. The woman was certainly in a hurry, he said, but perhaps she was less rude and more anxious to finalise her purchase.

And what price did you charge her? the man asked the flax vendor.

98 dollars.

A murmur rustled through the crowd. Clearly, 98 dollars was on the high side. But the flax vendor defended himself. It’s the market price, the stocks are based on supply and demand.

And, The woman’s offence still stands, the manager said. She refused to pay.

The man paused, wanting the crowd to know that he was pondering the manager’s words with care. But clearly there are mitigating circumstances, he began, and we are adjudicating not just on the commercial value you put on the transaction but, at origin, an even larger question to do with custom not cash. Who owns harakeke?

The crowd appreciated his observation and there were some nodding heads. The man pressed home his point. Therefore, he suggested to the manager, if we expand the focus of the offence, perhaps the woman’s error might be considered against a wider, more informed, background? After all, cultural context, while a minefield - whether it be Māori or for that matter, Syrian, Palestinian or Turk - was a valid defence.

It was appropriate that the man should direct the question above to the manager because that allowed him to make the judgment and, by it, prove his magnanimity to strangers. It also revealed his essential fairness to the vendors who rented the stalls in the marketplace.

Okay, the manager agreed and, at the words, the man sighed with relief. He wondered why the tour director herself had not joined the debate and realised that such people occupied a curious position in any negotiation. They had their own agenda, in particular the need to continue maintain their contracts with the market.

This scenario agreed to, the man was happy to add it to his dream. But as he continued to drink his tea, he became irritated about not finding a way to resolve the dream and give it a satisfactory conclusion.

What had caused him to dream the dream in the first place? Certainly I have earlier pointed out the external factors: Berlin, Easter, the resonances from his stay in the city.

There were others.

Sometimes a dream

Sometimes a dream is a metaphor for what is engaging our brain at the time. In this respect, perhaps I should tell you more about the man. In particular, what he had been thinking about while at sojourn in Berlin.

It had not helped that on his way to Europe via Dubai he read Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Golden House. In the book, an uncrowned seventy-something king from a faraway country arrives in New York City with his three motherless sons to take possession of the palace of his exile, behaving as if nothing is wrong with the country or the world or his own story. But clearly there is. With all three. A new president, Barack Obama, is elected at the beginning of the book and by its end his successor is appointed whom the protagonist refers to as “the Joker.”

Reading Rushdie itself was, for the man, a parabolic experience, especially within these days when the global order was undergoing huge traumatic changes. The world was seeing the return to Great Power politics that were not necessarily only due to the comedian in the White House or to the shapeshifter in the Kremlin. The bewildering nature of the new order had also conjured up the little rocket man, shooting off nuclear toys from a Korean palace. Elsewhere, the world was being dictated to by a killer klown in Syria and many others of his ilk.

China had, within all this, become surprisingly the newly appointed moderate broker, the smiling tiger in the world firm. Meanwhile Germany kept the EU to its cooperative principles as much as she could. Add the chaos of refugee migration, fuelled by wars in the Middle East and Africa, and you had a picture of utter destabilisation.

And, well, the internet Millenial Moguls were putting their own spin on global culture, politics and finances and creating out of it a new metastasising world order.

It was clear that the existential crisis had had a trickle down effect, even to the man’s dream world; moemoeā had always been the place where he could figure out where he - and by extension - indigenous people existed in an international political, economic and environmental bubble over which they had little control. Coming from islands of Oceania did not secure their safety, they were not immune to what was happening in the rest of the world. Their world was the international world. The global story was their story, the international marketplace their reality.

Like it or not, their own cultures were tradeable commodities, and there was no free pass.

Nor had reading the daily The New York Times while in Berlin brought the man any joy. An analysis in the international edition of 28 March had caught his eye. Written by Peter S. Goodman under the headline “Global order is assailed by the powers that built it” the man had focused on two sentences.

First: History was not supposed to turn out this way.

And second: In the place of shared approaches to societal problems - whether trade disputes, security or climate change - national interests had become primary.

After decades of promoting cooperation, the globalists were losing. And when they lost so would indigenous people lose for, once the gates started to close again, they could be shut out of the political and economic endgame.

Was this why the man had dreamt what the Germans would call his traum?

And so the man

And so the man decided to resolve his dream in the following way.

The traum had become his deeply unsettling trauma but, once the parameters of the negotiation were agreed upon between the man and the manager of the market, there were enough mitigating circumstances to enable a judgement to be made. The weaver was released.

Everyone began to hongi, press noses, in the sign of respect and conciliation. Emotions were smoothed over. There had been no sale. Let’s get back on the van, the tour director said. She was pleased that she would be able to bring another tour group back to the market.

And that would have been the end of it except that the man still couldn’t let the dream go. Instead, two further questions rolled around in his brain:

First, must all negotiations be based on political considerations, particularly self-interest - on notions of, say, America First which is really Trump First? Or, second, on economic considerations - the trade deals, say, which have seen self-interest prevail, as witness Mr Trump bypassing the World Trade Organisation (he calls the organisation a “disaster”) with tariffs here and there?

Instead the man, decides on an addendum to his dream which counters that bargaining basis.

Taihoa, he says to the tour director. Wait.

He places a gift of 98 dollars on the ground between himself and the manager. As he steps back from the gift he says, Large animals should not fight for if they do all the grasses beneath their feet get trampled. It is an appropriate gnomic utterance that those who are there will interpret how they wish. The interpretation will depend on the hearers’ backstories and how they feel at being brought against their wills to the brink, for instance, of environmental collapse.

The manager interprets the utterance his own way. He sends out a representative to pick the money up. But before the representative steps forward, he says, One moment. He orders the flax vendor forward to offer the appropriate reciprocal gift.

The harakeke, the flax.

Take whatever moral you want from this story. Regard it as you wish, it only has merit if you think it has. Consider: in the dream, the man has offered the manager a redemptive act but, in the real world could it or would it ever occur? Or is it simply an act of sentimental wish-fulfilment that the man makes to enable him to feel better - to give him a sense of having some power or hope in a situation over which he has little power.

Be that as it may, never forget: a story is a free gift, it does not need to have merit or meaning. Nor does a dream need to make sense or be consistent, comprising as it does oscillating experiences of hope and terror, pleasure and nightmare which amount to something...or nothing. Sometimes it is better not to remember them at all but to let them fade with the dawning. But the man is not like that. His cross is that he must never forget.

Therefore pity him because he has been truly frightened by the dream. And now, still worrying over it, he is asking himself, Why 98 dollars?

Ponder this question with him as he drinks his tea and imagines white winged angels coming with the day to perch upon the towers of the city.

In Berlin, in the early morning. At Easter, while the workers tread the streets below.

Next week’s short story is by Fiona Grubb, formerly of Greymouth.

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