Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ave Atque Vale: Giving the Dead a Voice for their Silence

Some years ago I read C.K. Stead's Talking about O'Dwyer, a novel whose pivotal point is an event which takes place during the Battle for Crete in the Second World War, a battle in which New Zealanders played a significant part. The people of Crete have not forgotten; should you happen to visit Crete and mention that you're from New Zealand, you'll be bowled over by the high regard in which New Zealanders are still held there, even after all this time. The Cretans have long memories; best not to mention it if you come from Germany.

I was particularly struck by the book's epigraph, a dedication to the memory of Stead's good friend Parata Heta Thompson, who served with the 28th (Maori) Battalion and was killed in Crete on the 24th of May, 1941. Although best known for his fiction and literary criticism, Stead's fascination with the poetic form has long been his "beautiful obsession". He is on record as giving his view that "writing poetry is an action more comprehensive, intuitive and mysterious than mere thinking".

Taking as his inspiration the famous elegiac poem written in the first century BC by Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, Stead's tribute is masterful, moving, and while retaining the timeless poignancy of the Latin original, as uniquely of Aotearoa/New Zealand as a karakia. The echo of that unspoken "Ake! Ake!" shivers the hair at the back of my neck.

Catullus 101, trans. C.K. Stead

 Across lands and seas I've come,
brother, to take of you this last leave
giving what we give to the dead
a voice for their silence.
No righting the wrong done
By fate that took you
from those you loved---
only this gift of sad speech:
Brother, for ever, for ever, 
                                       haere ra!

i.m. Parata Heta Thompson
killed in Crete 24.5.41

As I struggle to weave lost lives from the tangled and broken threads of the past, I keep in mind that by the very act of acknowledging not only those who served during the First World War,  but also those they loved, we are giving the dead a voice for their silence; the only gift we can offer those men - and women - who lived and died a hundred years ago.

Further sources

The Story of the 28th (Maori) Battalion
28th (Maori) Battalion website

Catullus, Carmen CI,  A Brother's Tears. The original Latin with English translation
Poems Found in Translation blog

C. K. Stead: The First World War - Close Up at a Distance.
Booknotes Unbound blog. How we Remember; New Zealanders and the First World War.

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