by Penelope Fitzgerald
At Hiruharama is a well crafted story which sustains the reader’s attention through its sympathetic treatment of life. Though there is no winding plot, the story catches our attention and maintains tension and suspense because of the realistic portrayal of adorable characters.
The story is about Mr. Tanner and his wife Kitty who end up in New Zealand and make the best out of the worst. Through farming, they manage to live in an almost barren land with not many neighbours. They live away from the city and so when Kitty gets pregnant, her husband is very worried about the medical help that she may need. He visits a doctor in the city and buys two pigeons which he hopes to use to communicate with the doctor through the man who sells them. He sees to it that nothing is overlooked. But he makes the worst foolishness when he mistakes one of the babies for the afterbirth and dumps it in the dustbin. It is this girl who becomes a lawyer and raises the family’s hopes for a better living.
The story seems to be part of a longer novel because of its abrupt opening. This is very effective since it sounds like the writer is taking the reader into his confidence with such ease and frankness. The writer amazes us with his story telling techniques and informal style.
The land Mr. Tanner and Kitty selected to settle down in had only one good thing about it. There was a standpipe and constant clear water from an underground well. This source of water later turns out to be the symbol of the limitless love and affection Mr. Tanner possesses. Human relationships and the need to love and be loved loom large in the story.
Though the story is written like a chronicle, the writer is able to provide it with interesting moods and subtle tones. Along with the barrenness of the land we are also told about an insensitive neighbor who comes to dine with the couple twice a year. His name is Brinkman. He doesn’t have much to do with the plot of the story but he serves an important purpose. We find that there is a kind of softness deep in him too. He has no family since he couldn’t persuade a woman to live with him in that godforsaken land.
He arrives for his half-yearly dinner when Kitty is about to have labour pains. This disappoints him and he talks endlessly about his last dinner with them. He is not bothered about the trouble the family is going through. Still, it touches us deeply when he says why he comes to visit the Tanners. He insists he doesn’t come for dinner or to enjoy the scenic beauty. He says,
“No, I’ve come today, as I came formerly, for the sake of hearing a woman’s voice.”
This touch is important for the story since the story is feminist in its content and treatment. It is a celebration of femininity. This is brought forth through the character of Kitty and how the other treat Kitty. It is Kitty who inspires Mr. Tanner to learn to read and write and he manages to accomplish it before he marries her. Her mildest suggestion to him that he should write to his sister “how it is between us” inspires him to live up to her expectations. Since she asks him to ‘write’ to his sister, Tanner knew she expected him to be literate.
Unlike Mr. Tanner, Kitty was educated even before she came to New Zealand. She came as a governess and ended up as a servant. It is with her help that Mr. Tanner is able to run a farm.
Tanner might be finding Kitty so committed since she has chosen to live with him and share his hardships. He tells the doctor the reason why his neighbor is not married.
“You couldn’t ask a woman to live out there.”
To this the doctor says,
“You can ask a woman to live anywhere.”
Against the doctor’s and Brinkman’s apparent insensitivity, Mr. Tanner comes out as man with such a good heart.
When Mr. Tanner visits the doctor, we see him very anxious about his wife’s condition. He wants to know how many women die in childbirth. He has no questions about the baby, even though the doctor makes a prophetic statement,
“Well don’t ask me if it’s going to be twins. Nature didn’t intend us to know that.”
Mr. Tanner is very resourceful and is very proactive. He tells the doctor, “I can do anything about the house.” We find this to be true.
‘He told the doctor he’d managed to deliver the child, a girl, in fact he’s wrapped it up in a towel and tucked it up in the washbasket.’
Even on the day of his wife’s delivery, in the midst of all the problems and in spite of his anxiety and desperation, Tanner is a good host to Brinkman, his neighbor whom he hasn’t seen for the last six months. His good nature goes unnoticed by his neighbour, but that doesn’t deter him from serving his guest. He wins the love of all the people he meets including the doctor and the Maori boy who sells pigeons. When the doctor says the Brinkman is a crank, Tanner objects and says that he should be called a dreamer at the worst.
Tanner is not only endowed with a good heart, he also has a smart brain. He is resourceful and plans things in advance.
“Tanner turned over in his mind what he’s say to his wife when she told him she was going to have a child.” But when he finally tells him, he doesn’t say anything but straightaway goes to the town to consult a doctor.
The language of the story is informal to a great extent though there are two instances of the writer’s skill to write in different styles. When Tanner writes to his sister his style resembles the Bible since it is probably the only book he is able to read after he became literate. Another change in style in when Brinkman talks. His English is fairly elegant. All the other characters speak in dialects.
The story ends with Brinkman’s thoughts. His words tell us how simple are the characters that we come across in this story. In fact, these words throw much light on the theme of the story. In spite of deserts and barren lands, the earth is still beautiful. Likewise, in spite of hardships and accidents, life is still beautiful in its own terms.
“All the time Brinkman continued to sit there by the table and smoke his pipe. Two more women born into the world! It must have seemed to him that if this sort of thing went on, there should be a good chance, in the end, for him to acquire one for himself. Meanwhile, they would have to serve dinner sometime.”