[Recently Michael - or, as he's known in Tonga, Maikolo - Horowitz told me that his novel DownMind is due for a second edition, and asked me for a sort of blurb. Here's what I sent him.]
The Friendly Islands have long been a refuge for discontented palangi writers and artists. Near the end of his life Lord Byron took mental flight from an illiberal Europe to Tonga, making it the setting for his long poem The Island; in the late '30s Ernest Beaglehole sailed away from a Western world threatened by fascism and war, and wrote two books about the complicated paradise he discovered in a Tongan village; a generation later photographer Ans Westra turned the people of Tongatapu into symbols of her rejection of postwar consumerism and philistinism.
Maikolo Horowitz is another rebel, but where the likes of Westra and Beaglehole were visitors to Tonga he has been a resident of the kingdom for almost twenty years. His novel DownMind, which he has published under the allusive pseudonym VO Blum, is ostensibly a fantasy set in the near future, but like all the best science fiction it deals with the present.
Horowitz describes a set of interconnected, apparently insoluble crises - ruinous climate change, declining economies, suicide epidemics, intercontinental tension - and then imagines that they are all effects by the cosmically depressed consciousness of an Asian-American intellectual who has exiled himself to one of Tonga's remoter atolls. From his hut under a coconut tree, this exile writes and transmits a series of unrequested and unrequited polemics about the bootlessness of humanity. His communications have the melancholy of Arne Naess and the bellicosity of the Unabomber.
But Tonga's resident nihilist does not realise that he is the cause of the miseries and mishaps that convince him of humanity's redundancy. Like a nuclear reactor in meltdown, his psyche is irradiating the consciousness of humanity. After a New Zealand scientist discovers the sinister effects of this 'downmind', Tonga becomes the target of American special forces.
Horowitz uses Rupert Sheldrake's eccentric but poetic theory of consciousness to explain the effect of the 'downmind' on humanity. According to Sheldrake, who once taught biology at Cambridge University but now prefers to grace New Age conventions rather than seminar rooms, all humans are connected by a 'morphic field' that exists outside time and space and enables them to learn from from and communicate with one another. Horowitz's novel imagines one superlatively unsettled human consciousness disturbing the rest of humanity, via such a morphic field.
Michael Horowitz is not the only resident of Tonga to be intrigued by Rupert Sheldrake's ideas. Dr Mapa Puloka, the kingdom's only psychiatrist, has used the notion of a morphic field to explain some of the stranger alleged features of local mental illnesses.
In his essay 'A Commonsense Perspective on Tongan Folk Healing', Puloka observes that Tongans suffering from the illnesses known as 'avanga tahi and 'avanga 'uta often speak to invisible figures about mysterious matters. Sometimes, according to Puloka and many other Tongans, sufferers from 'avanga use languages alien to them, and describe places they have never been and people they have never met. Puloka tries to explains such talk by arguing that sufferers of 'avanga are somehow accessing a Sheldrakean morphic field that connects all humanity, and regurgitating the experiences of people distant from them in space and in time.
Although Sheldrake formulated his ideas on the other side of the world, they are well suited to Tonga, an intensely collectivist society where experiences as private as dreams or premonitions are often viewed as messages from living or dead relations. DownMind is a very Tongan novel, even if its concerns are global.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]