THE BACK PAGES

My husband, the Noble Savage

An academic marries a Maori in New Zealand and moves back home to Boston with him

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR September 22 2008
THE BACK PAGES

My husband, the Noble Savage

An academic marries a Maori in New Zealand and moves back home to Boston with him

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR September 22 2008

My husband, the Noble Savage

An academic marries a Maori in New Zealand and moves back home to Boston with him

PETER SHAWN TAYLOR

books

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All doesn’t have much to recommend it as a tourism board slogan. But for a book that’s equal parts New Zealand history, cultural contemplation and personal love story, the unusual title is easily appropriate. The phrase comes from shouted warnings of Maori warriors to early European explorers of New Zealand. And one of the book’s most interesting turns is its look at the enduring appeal of the myth of the Noble Savage.

Author Christina Thompson, a New Englander by birth and academic by training (she’s currently the editor of Harvard Review), was pursuing a Ph.D. in European Pacific literature when a visit to a remote part of New Zealand produced a chance encounter with a Maori whom she calls Seven. Seven comes from a traditional Maori upbringing—he believes ghosts walk the earth and that making plans is pointless. “Some people map out their future like an arrow,” he says at one point. “I just wait for an arrow to drop in front of me.” While the romancing is mostly offstage, Thompson marries Seven, has three children and moves back home with him.

This becomes Thompson’s own “first contact” encounter with the Maori. Throughout the book she alternates between her experiences and those of early explorers such as Capt. James Cook. While Thompson finds love, frustrations in long-term planning and a greater appreciation for seafood, those who went before had a somewhat rougher ride. The historical interaction between white and Maori was frequently violent and will be familiar to most students of early Canadian history (though not the part about the booming trade in preserved heads). But there’s also a mag-

netic attraction between the two distant worlds that cannot be denied. In one historical chapter, Thompson recounts the experience of Pacific islander Omai, who joined Cook’s fleet and ended up spending two years as the talk of the town in London in the 1770s where he was held as a paragon of the Noble Savage.

According to Thompson, Seven had much the same experience tootling around Boston in the 1990s. “Everywhere he went he was the belle of the ball,” she writes. Part of the attraction is Seven’s appearance—he’s big, strong and exotic-looking. But he is also different in instinct and action. When they go to the beach with their New England friends, Seven scours rocks for shellfish and eats them on the spot. He frequents local markets for cast-off fish heads, brains and eyes being a personal delicacy.

While Thompson writes with a liberal white academic’s aversion to stereotypes, it becomes clear there’s something about the Noble Savage concept that still resonates. The phrase springs from the work of 18th-century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Primitive man alone in his natural state, Rousseau argued, represents the only true form of liberty. This notion quickly caught the imagination ofWestern thinkers, who idealized North American Indians and Pacific islanders as proud and independent primitives infused with a natural nobility. Dangerous but grace-

ful examples show up in such works as Moby Dick and The Last of the Mohicans.

Even today the image of the Noble Savage, politically incorrect though it may be, appears to satisfy something deeply set in North American culture—a longing for a simpler and purer time. “I’m not saying my husband is a Noble Savage, but what’s interesting is how willing people are to project onto him that sense of mystery and excitement and sexiness,” said Thompson in an interview. “There is a profoundly romantic undercurrent here. I know, I got caught up in it too.”

Thompson’s intriguing mix of the romantic and the historical has drawn heat in New Zealand, however, where Maori writers have accused her of neo-imperialism for dwelling on cultural differences. “Replace ‘Maoris’ with ‘Jews’ and ‘Blacks’ and this... would sound not just simplistic but offensive,” writes an incensed reviewer in the newsmagazine New Zealand Listener who manages to miss Thompson’s point entirely. The term Noble Savage says nothing about natives. Rather it is an expression of envy and loss coming from Western civilization. Besides, the urge to attack outsiders who speak uncomfortable truths, especially from personal experience, seems a most primitive form of tribalism.

As for the centre of all the attention, Seven reportedly prefers his new world to his old. Thompson says her husband has no interest in moving back to New Zealand, and has even become the local suburban tennis champ. Nl