SEASON OF THE JEW<i> by Maurice Shadbolt (Norton: $16.95; 384 pp.) </i>
“The Season of the Jew” is a novel about the war between the English settlers in New Zealand and a band of Maori tribesmen who rebelled in the 1860s against the growing colonial occupation of their lands.
In form, it is a superior, though rather clogged, example of the historical fiction genre. What gives it a special quality is that it possesses a passion as well as a story. The passion is the author’s quarrel with history or, at least, with historical fashions.
It is not, of course, an American reader’s quarrel. And yet there is a benefit in it. It provides energy to a story that might otherwise seem remote and overdetailed.
Maurice Shadbolt, the author, makes it clear throughout and particularly in a series of notes at the end that he rejects the version of history that proclaimed the English in New Zealand to be the benevolent bearers of civilization. But he also rejects more recent versions that stress the virtues of Maori resistance and understate the cruelty that went with it. Historical judgment, as he puts it in the mouth of his protagonist toward the end of the book, is simply an argument over “whose arse is blacker.”
The words are pronounced by a battered idealist who has learned, by this point, that ideals must be defended, that defense means fighting, that fighting means war, that war is hell, and that hell is not merely universal pain but universal degradation as well. George Fairweather, successively an English army officer, a painter, a settler and an anti-Maori fighter, concludes, in other words, that it is war that makes warriors rather than vice versa.
Fairweather despises the greed and bloody-mindedness of many of the settlers and officials. He sympathizes with the Maoris’ complaints of despoilment, befriends some of them and takes a Maori wife. He understands the anger that leads one of them to return from an unjust punishment and conduct a savage rebellion in the guise of an Old Testament warrior--the Jew of the title. But once blood flows, Fairweather goes bloody himself, returning or at least countenancing the return of atrocity for atrocity.
We first meet Fairweather as a young lieutenant taking part in a British army operation against Maori guerrillas. There is a touch of lightheartedness, even gallantry to it. The besieged Maoris thoughtfully arrange to have their besiegers supplied with food from the surrounding countryside; in turn, they ask the British for ammunition, since they are running out, and are puzzled not to receive it.
The army sees its role as the enforcer of the Queen’s peace. It resents pressures from the white settlers to act as their agent in clearing the Maoris from the land. Fairweather, fiercer than his fellows in the character of justice, is forced to relinquish his commission after an excess of fair-mindedness leads him to beat a soldier for needless killing.
He takes up painting, and drifts among the new settlements doing his work. He holds himself apart from the land hunger of his fellow whites; he begins a liaison with Meriana, a Maori woman whom eventually he will marry.
He also resists the efforts of Biggs, a fiery settler who leads the local militia, to get him to join them. But when word comes of an insurgency in the hills nearby, he reluctantly accompanies the militiamen in order to provide tactical advice.
The insurgency is led by Kooti, a former Maori trader who was deported by Biggs, along with others, for allegedly plotting rebellion. In fact, the purpose was to do a favor for a local white trader, who resented the competition; he, in turn, rewarded Biggs with land.
Exiled to a barren island, Kooti studies the Old Testament, and decides that his people are ancient Israelites seeking deliverance by the sword, and that he is their Joshua. Overpowering their guards, he and his followers escape.
“Season of the Jew” relates the battles and massacres--based on historical fact--that follow. The whites repeatedly underestimate their enemy. For his part, Kooti is a shrewd and pitiless guerrilla fighter, a kind of Pol Pot of his time.
His forces ambush the militias sent against them, and conduct sorties in which they hack to pieces not only the white settlers, but also many Maoris who are reluctant to join them. Only when the settlers enlist another Maori chieftain of equal ferocity is Kooti driven far into the back lands and gradually neutralized.
Shadbolt’s accounts of the jungle fighting are extensive, detailed and sometimes hard to visualize. His interest, in any event, is not in the battles themselves but in what happens to those who fight them. The focus is principally upon Fairweather, who at first treats the battle against Kooti as necessary though distasteful self-defense, and later--after the Maoris have raped Meriana and massacred her family--as revenge. Eventually, vengefulness itself wears out.
Revengeful or compassionate, Fairweather is always lucid; sometimes excessively so. All the characters talk at length in an epigrammatic style that can penetrate and illuminate their moral dilemmas, but that can also fatigue them and us. There are inversions, a portentous omission of the definite article, and frequent use of high-sonority archness.
“Season of the Jew” is worthy, often telling and sometimes trying too hard. It is an intelligent effort to apply a present-day judgment to a contentious past; its flaw is that the judgment is rendered more convincingly than the past is.