Life in a campervan. Constant movement, gliding through a landscape that gradually changes. From dry tussock grass slopes to the humid, rain-grey land behind the sea. Moeraki. Prettily painted wooden houses on green hills. A small bay with almost black rocks scattered idyllically across the beach and protruding craggily out of the water. Golden yellow, lense-shaped grains of sand, brightly shimmering shells, and Keri Hulme. Wouldn’t it be nice if you met a writer in this country, the organizers of my journey suggest, and they tell me her name, and as I had started reading the now famous novel "The Bone People" just before I left and I liked it, drawn in by the strange autonomy with which Hulme makes her characters act and speak, I instantly agree.
A woman who lives isolated in a tower, somewhere in a small town by the sea – where else should a typical novel be set in New Zealand? – meets a man and a child. That’s how the story starts. Individual existences come together but don’t form a family. Typical for the 1980s, I think on the very first pages – how pleasant to come across people as people, not lashed into gender roles and family clichés. I’ve been wondering often recently to what extent the past twenty to thirty years haven’t just seen progress in society but also regression. And what an unpleasantly educationally correct, sterile middle-class setting some of the German novels of recent years have had. Here, on the contrast: a seven-year-old boy who smokes. That’s something I only know from the work of Wolfgang Hilbig. And a woman so lonely she’s always talking to the telephonist who puts her calls through. Albeit, the child’s not allowed to be a child, no one sees him as one. I only realize that later, and I’m shocked by the story’s progress.
We meet in the afternoon, in the only place to meet in Moeraki, a mixture of a pub, a restaurant and a billiards hall. She’s sitting outside on the patio with a beer and she raises the glass when she sees us coming. A plump older, extremely modest woman in a sweatshirt, tracksuit bottoms and aviator glasses inset with tiny glittery orange stones. Not much later we’re sitting opposite one another. The conversation starts up haltingly. She seems shy and reserved but still passionate. We spend a long time talking in great detail about the weather. She asks us where else we want to go, and I find out that she doesn’t like travelling at all. Although I’ve got more used to New Zealand English since we’ve been here, I find it hard to understand her. And when I do ask her a few questions, for example what she’s doing at the moment, perhaps writing as well, her speech seems to get even faster and more indistinct. I get the impression she doesn’t really want to talk at all – which I find very likeable.
A few days after we meet I’ve made more progress with her novel, and I begin to understand that the three people it’s about are trapped in a terrible maelstrom of closeness, distance, domestic violence, loneliness and helplessness, which is related very drastically, with great force. The way Keri Hulme describes it, as hard as it is to bear, instils great respect in me.
After the pub she’ll take us to a small cove, show us stones, seaweed and shells, and a couple of ramshackle huts on the beach. Concentrating on the conversation, I won’t notice until the last second that we’re passing a sea lion, the first I see here, lying perfectly camouflaged on one of the brown rocks.
After meeting Keri we drive to the Moeraki Boulders. Strange. Huge balls of stone, only in one place in the world, only on this beach. Apparently scientists have now solved the puzzle of how they came about. Yet they’re still an astounding sight. A few huge spheres cast down by nature at this exact spot, like an open question.