Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965


Antarctica. The year 1965 has produced one first novel of remarkable quality, Graham Billing's Forbush and the Penguins. Billing is a journalist and broadcaster, as well as an ex-Merchant Navy man. In September 1963, Landfall published extracts, "unpolished", from his Ross Sea Journal, kept during a summer in Antarctica. He had travelled widely in the Ross Dependency in 1962 with the photographer Guy Mannering, with whom he collaborated in the illustrated volume South published for the Antarctic Division of the D.S.I.R.

His Ross Sea Journal is the direct expression of an imaginative penetration into the Antarctic experience. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I feel completely wordless. I'm responding very deeply to all that is happening and perhaps that is the reason." "I absorb the cold like a sponge ... I feel translated into another substance, impressed with another spirit, immersed in another medium of darkness."

Several passages record the moments from which the novel was born. "Truly strange and disturbing, strange forces stirring in the mind, strange sights seen and sounds heard." "I see a penguin chick almost grown, recently dead, a red hole in his neck where a skua gull has attacked and fed. I lie down on the guano and take a photograph of the dead bird, the blood, the rookery; and beyond, the people, the boat, the ice, the long inlet, the glaciers, the mountains, rock, grey mist, the icebergs stranded in the bay."

The Journal made it clear that here was an Antarctic adventurer with a poet's eye and a turn for metaphysics. That he should also prove to be a novelist is good fortune. Forbush and the Penguins page 130 poses, embodied in a concrete experience, the problems of our kind of Age of Discovery.

Forbush is a biologist who spends the southern summer studying the Adelie Penguins at Cape Royds. Isolation and cold assail his sense of reality; to reaffirm it he exercises human skills; he plays the clarinet, talks to himself, and invents a "Penguin Major Polyphonic Music Machine" made from Shackleton's sauce-bottles, a frozen potato, a toaster, and a toy rabbit. He survives a blizzard. (This is a sequence notable for the tension derived from accumulated detail.) He watches the penguins arrive at the rookery, and the miracles of life and of death that come with them.

Behind all this lies the insistent question, bared to its essentials by the implacability of the Antarctic. What is the significance of life? Are we not all victims? "What is the answer? There is no answer."

The novel makes at the end some affirmation of belief, but it is hardly won. The book closes with a deeply felt description of the freezing of the sea in early March, as the relentless period of the dark and cold returns. Compare this fine passage with the Journal entry for 18 February, and with the colour photographs in South.

(Notes for a critical discussion will be found in the Appendix.)