Sunday, January 11, 2009

Slipping Into Paradise by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

The subtitle of this book is Why I Live in New Zealand... and it explains why I picked it up. I'll be visiting NZ in less than a week and I like to read about places before travelling. I found another of Masson's books, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals, to be thought-provoking and I enjoyed his folksy style. Somehow, that style didn't work so well in Slipping Into Paradise. It is a mix of memoir, travel writing and philosophy, which ends up being too much of a mishmash.

Being restless myself, and having considered where in the world I would most like to live, I especially liked his comparisons of living in various parts of the world. Masson's chapter outlining 50 important dates in New Zealand history was a nice, quick overview, but then I noticed a discrepancy later in the book, which was off-putting and leads me to question other facts stated.

On page 80, fact #41, kohanga reos were established in 1981. (These are "language nests" where preschool children can be immersed in a Maori-speaking environment.) On page 177, in the chapter on Maori people, culture and language, he again explains the concept of kohanga reo, this time stating that they began in 1982.

The chapter about flora and fauna is the one I found most troublesome. The logic is muddled in places and there are a number of complex topics touched upon too lightly. Masson writes that cats are the ultimate enemy of NZ's native birds, since they evolved without the presence of predators. Yet Masson himself has a cat that he apparently allows to roam free, since he mentions that his cat climbs trees every day. It is hypocritical for him to say that he can't enjoy the bucolic scene of grazing sheep because they seem out of place to him, having displaced native trees... so what about that darn cat?

Masson states that he and his wife wanted to use only "native" plants in their garden (his quotes) and then reconsiders this notion, ruminating on what, exactly, is a native plant. Admitting that he can't tell when a plant in his own garden is aggressive (i.e. he is not observant), he also writes "It is hard to see the damage that an 'introduced' tree can do. Botanists say they take over [...] but I can't see irreparable damage, and I say let a million plants grow!" He complains of xenophobia, then states, "The concept of "native" -- as in a native plant, a native animal, and especially a native person -- has always been politically loaded, and usually for good reason." And then leaps to Germany's Third Reich notions of cleansing. All of which raises the hackles of my ecological sensibilities. I want to shout at him, "inform yourself!"

In regards to political correctness, I was glad to read "I always fail to see why intellectuals, especially, feel that if something is politically correct they must sneer at the idea behind it. After all, it only means that somebody has thought about the political implications of something, and persuaded people that there is a hidden politics, which ought to be attended to." Amen to that.

Another book of travel writing, A Land of Two Halves: An Accidental Tour of New Zealand was written by a immigrant to NZ, Joe Bennett. I found his book to be far more engaging than Masson's, but Bennett is one of those people who opposes political correctness and I think I would much rather meet and have a conversation with Masson than Bennett. And New Zealand is such a small country, maybe I'll see him at one of the vegetarian restaurants that he recommends.

1 comment:

Sabine said...

Hi Lindy, I've finally succeeded in login into cyber space so I can leave comments. This post I read with interest (not just because I happen to live in New Zealand).
Yay to book reviews! I shall return.