About this time last year, on a uncomfortably hot and yet windy and wet
day, I was sitting in Escape, the aptly named, because air-conditioned, cafe in central Nuku’alofa,
listening to several Tongans talk about Clive Edwards, a veteran and controversial player in their country’s political scene.
Edwards has sometimes been called
the Winston Peters of Tonga, but his career makes the leader of New Zealand
First look like a paragon of consistency. For nearly three decades Edwards has
moved back and forwards between Tonga’s royalist political
establishment and its pro-democracy opposition, sliding in and out of parties
and Cabinet posts.
As Minister of Justice in the ‘90s, Edwards oversaw the
jailing of several pro-democracy activists, including the distinguished
journalist Kalafi Moala; a few years later, though, he was presenting himself
as the voice of Tonga’s opposition, and winning a parliamentary byelection as a
candidate for the People’s Democratic Party. Today Edwards sits
once again in Cabinet, as part of an ultra-royalist and very unpopular
government headed by Lord Tu'ivakano, a man elected by his fellow
nobles rather than by voters on the general roll.
When I asked how Tongans could still take Edwards seriously, given his
numerous vacillations, one of my interlocutors looked at me with the slightly sympathetic, slightly mocking expression Tongans reserve for palangi who ask silly questions, and
said “You don’t understand who Edwards is. He is the Maui of his generation.”
I found it hard to relate Clive Edwards, who hobbles about Nuku'alofa in expensive, extra- large suits, to that master mariner and fisher
of islands Maui. My interlocutors explained, though, that Maui is a sort of
archetype who returns in every generation of mortals, and pointed out that the
legendary hero and Edwards share a penchant for trickery.
After talking with some of my Tongan colleagues at the ‘Atenisi
Institute, and eventually discovering the essays of Niel Gunson, the
missionary-turned-scholar who insists that Tongans traditionally experienced
time as a cyclical rather than a linear phenomenon, and made sense of
personalities and events by interpreting them in terms of endlessly recurring
archetypes, I began to understand what had seemed to me a very strange
explanation for Clive Edwards’ career.
In the visionary paintings of Benjamin Work, who has just had a
triumphant debut exhibition at Otara’s Fresh gallery, archetypal figures float
or stride through a sort of timeless time. In a review of
Benjamin’s show for the online art journal EyeContact, I’ve suggested that his
paintings not only educate us about Tongan history but give us a different, profoundly non-linear way of viewing history in general. You can read my piece here.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]