I wonder how many Taiwanese are aware that the dominant theory about the spread of Micronesian peoples throughout the entire Pacific region, as far south as the Maori people of New Zealand, holds that their ultimate origins were the Aboriginal people of Taiwan?
The evidence is genetic (notably mitochondrial DNA, which can be used to trace descent through the female line over long periods) and linguistic, and the attribution of the origin of all these diverse movements to the Taiwanese Aboriginals is heavily favored by experts. In May last year, for instance, officials in Taiwan and New Zealand came together to deal with the issue, signing a document — “Arrangement on Cooperation on Indigenous Issues” — to establish a forum for contacts between Taiwan’s indigenous communities and the New Zealand Maori.
All in all it’s an extraordinary phenomenon, and something all Taiwanese should be both aware and proud of. New Zealand author Jeff Murray is a particular enthusiast for the concept, and it’s mentioned several times in his recently published novel Melt, an important and intriguing work.
The migration of the Taiwan’s indigenous communities was necessarily southwards, and this story, set in 2048, continues in that direction, with one of their descendants, a woman called Vai, going from the southern tip of New Zealand into the Antarctic.
It begins, though, with an eight-day storm over a Pacific island that persuades many of its inhabitants to migrate to safety in New Zealand, despite the arrival of aid from China. In doing so, one of them says, they are continuing the migration of their remote ancestors, indigenous people from Taiwan.
But their problems are not over once they’re in New Zealand. There is overcrowding — 20 migrants in a two-room apartment, tuberculosis, legal issues and the government’s intention that they should only stay a short time before returning to an island they deem uninhabitable.
In addition, the temporary accommodation they’re offered is deeply unattractive, afflicted by drought or flooding, not close to any likely work, and places that regular New Zealanders wouldn’t be willing to live in.
But they do attend a meeting that important employers are due to attend. Global warming was making the Antarctic more important, they learn, so the towns of southern New Zealand like Dunedin were going to become busier and offer more job opportunities. The migrants at the center of this tale therefore decide to try to settle there.
Vai then makes contact with the captain of a vessel due to leave for Antarctica, which he views as a lawless place still open to unprincipled adventurers. The ship has a water cannon that can kill anything within 20 meters. She signs up as a crew member.
As soon as the narrative moves to the Southern Ocean, the novel leaps to life. The ship’s purpose is to intercept vessels involved in illegal fishing and whaling, and its first encounter is with five South African fishing boats. The New Zealanders successfully cut their nets. Next they encounter a Japanese whaler which they sink. A Japanese navy ship threatens but, seen by a worldwide TV audience, they are saved by a Chinese destroyer that offers to escort them back to Dunedin.
This section includes some conversations between Vai and the boat’s captain, which encapsulates interesting theories on environmental activism. Violence is often necessary, the captain insists. He’s essentially a vagrant, though he’s based in Goa where, according to his tales, life is not as peaceful as it may seem.
From being a piece of sociological analysis, the novel has now become a thrilling narrative. It would be wrong to give away too much of what happens next, but Vai befriends a wealthy woman of Maori extraction with good government connections. But will their friendship last? The Chinese have their eyes on Antarctica, Vai hears, and view southern New Zealand as a natural jumping-off point.
From Dunedin she eventually returns to the Antarctic, to an unclaimed area called Marie Byrd Land, where there’s a major Chinese settlement named Beijing (which she thinks of as dominated by rats).
The Cambridge-educated, Auckland-based author has told me that China is viewed neutrally in this, his ambitious but ecologically aware first novel.
Russia is involved in the Arctic, the UK is under the influence of India because of their shared history and the “big three” as far as the development of the Antarctic is concerned are the US, India and China.
Refugees and climate change are this novel’s two main concerns. New Zealand is the same size as the UK, but it has only six million people (in 2048), whereas the UK has something like 80 million. Why isn’t New Zealand taking more refugees, someone asks.
“I see all the refugee camps and I see the future,” Vai, says, clearly echoing the author’s feelings. “I see the most courageous, diverse, determined people in the world, all birthed in a crucible. And they belong to no land, but they form a new society. They are an embryo of a global society, one that has its roots everywhere. We’re a new type of nation, one hundred million strong, and we’re the future for a world that needs to be global.”
Melt is a strong novel, perceptive on how individuals in government think and work, vivid in its description of natural landscapes and the impersonality of climate change and everywhere probing and thoughtful. Putting a woman at the center of the action, and seeing most things through her eyes, was a brave move for a male author, and it pays off.
This is the kind of novel that will appeal to climate-change activists everywhere, people like Taiwan’s Dan Bloom who has been whistling in the wind down in Chiayi hoping for the appearance of just such a book as Melt, and here it is. But this is not a scare story about climate catastrophe, but rather one that takes its likely economic and political results seriously. It’s an important addition to what is sure to become a growing genre.
By Jeff Murray
Mary Egan Publications
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