Study Guide

The Luminaries Foreignness

By Eleanor Catton

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'Everyone's from somewhere else,' Balfour went on. 'Yes: that's the very heart of it. We're all from somewhere else. And as for family: you'll find brothers and fathers enough, in the gorge' (I.1.54).

You can probably count on one hand the number of characters in the novel who are actually from Hokitika or even New Zealand as a whole; most everyone else is an immigrant. The result is a big old melting pot where, according to Balfour and Moody, the same kind of divisions one might expect back in England don't apply.

'Chinatown' was something of a misleading name for the small clutch of tents and stone cabins some few hundred yards upriver from the Kaniere claims, for although every man hailed from Guangdong, and most from Kwangchow, together they could hardly be said to comprise a township: 'Chinatown' was home, at that time, to only fifteen Chinese men (I.9.2).

Well, maybe there's a bit more division than Moody or Balfour might be willing to admit—after all, the Chinese residents of the area near Hokitika actually all live separately from the British in Kaniere, in an area called "Chinatown" (despite the fact that it's too tiny an area to be a town).

The drug, for Quee Long, was a symbol, signifying the unforgivable depths of Western barbarism toward his civilization, and the contempt with which the Chinese life was held, in the face of the lifeless Western goals of profit and greed. Opium was China's warning. It was the shadow-side of Western expansion—its dark complement, as a yin to a yang (I.9.8).

While usually the book shows British characters trash talking foreigners and "othering" the Chinese, here we get the Chinese perspective on the West—and it ain't pretty. Although Ah Sook is kind of the face of opium use and abuse in the area, Quee associates the spread of the drug as a commercial item with Western power. And of course, we soon discover that it's actually Frank Carver who has brought opium into Hokitika—where he indirectly became a supplier to his mortal enemy, Ah Sook.

'Come out of there, you rotten chink! You come out of there and stand up like a man!' (I.9.39).

While Ah Sook and Quee Long are trading information, Mannering comes blasting in, trying to get information from Quee about the Aurora's gold supply. As you can see, he's very comfortable using racial epithets to address the Chinese.

Finally Charlie Frost, who had been hitherto very successfully ignored, suggested that perhaps the Chinese men had simply not understood Mannering's line of questioning. He proposed instead that the questions be put to Ah Sook again, and this time in writing: that way, he said, they could be sure that nothing had been lost in the act of translation (I.9.39).

Mannering's conversation with Quee and Sook doesn't go well; because of Mannering's jerky behavior, the men aren't super inclined to be cooperative, and there's a language barrier to boot. Frost, who's a lot calmer (and a lot less of a jerk), is trying to find a way for them to get something out of the chat (and bring Mannering's offensiveness/anger down a few thousand degrees).

Turning the pages of the translated document, Devlin had wondered how the holy message had been simplified, and at what cost. The unfamiliar words in their truncated alphabet seemed infantile to him, composed of repeating syllables and babble—unrecognizable, like the nonsense of a child. But in the next moment Devlin chastised himself; for what was his own Bible, but a translation of another kind? He ought not to be so hasty, or so prideful (I.11.3).

The good reverend is reflecting here on how he almost fell into the trap of viewing something that was foreign and difficult as nonsense or childlike. Luckily, he caught himself—after all, his own English-language Bible is a translation of the original. Now, if the rest of the English-speaking residents of the area could be similarly self-aware of their own foreignness—to native New Zealanders…and everyone else on the planet, for that matter.

'Oh yes,' said Mrs. Wells. 'Just think of it: an Oriental presence, at this evening's séance!'
'Is a séance an Oriental practice?' Anna said, doubtfully (II.6.68-69).

Here, Lydia Wells has just come up with the idea to invite Sook to be present at the séance she's holding that night. She basically wants to use him to create a certain kind of aesthetic or mood; she thinks it will add to the mystery of the whole affair. The idea that "the Orient" was some scary, mysterious, unknowable place was pretty commonplace during English imperial expansion, and Lydia is just trying to cash in on that cultural shorthand …

'In fact it was you, Mr. Mannering, who gave me the idea. Your Sensations from the Orient. Nothing sells tickets like an Oriental touch! I saw it twice—once from the gallery, and once from the stalls' (II.10.65).

Here, Lydia Wells is telling Mannering about how she got the idea to include Sook in her séance. Apparently, she had seen his own Sensations from the Orient exhibition—remember how we said that the English liked to build up this crazy idea of the Orient in their mind? Well, this is another example of how that tendency often translated into entertainment or thrills for English.

'Frank Carver speaks Chinese?' one of the others said, in a voice of incredulity.
'He goes back and forth from canton, does he not?'
'Born in Hong Kong.'
'Yes, but to speak the language—as they do!'
'Makes you think different of the man' (II.11.89-93).

During the séance, Lydia Wells apparently went into a trance and then started talking in Chinese. Sook knew that she was repeating the oath he had sworn to kill Frank Carver several years before, and tells the other men in the room that it was Carver (and not Staines) who had been channeled. Apparently, the idea that Frank Carver could speak Chinese rocks these guys' world and makes them think differently of Frank…really, guys, this is what makes you "think different" of him?

'She lied. Under oath. She defiled her late husband's memory—my brother's memory—by calling him a suicide…and all to protect that worthless chink from the punishment' (III.10.39).

Although George Shepard claimed not to be all into revenge, his words here (complete with the racial epithet he drops) suggest otherwise. He's angry at his wife for protecting Ah Sook over her own husband—not just because he thinks she owed her husband more loyalty than that, but also because Sook is, in his eyes, "a worthless chink." Definitely says a lot about the racist and xenophobic attitudes that were flying around Hokitika, if he felt totally comfy saying something like that—and to a holy man (as he was talking to Devlin).

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