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The Zen Warriors of Old Zealand : MONDAY'S WARRIORS By Maurice Shadbolt , (David R. Godine: $21.95; 304 pp.)

February 16, 1992|Dick Roraback | Roraback is a member of the Book Review staff.

OK, so they eat people. Nobody's perfect. They are also kind to their kids, solicitous of their environment, respectful in the presence of their elders. They are natural resources, Maurice Shadbolt's Maori: impassioned, even irascible when aroused; pragmatic and philosophical when the occasion demands. But yes, they do eat people, though hardly so's you'd notice, and even then just to put the fear of God into the English.

These are the feisty but foredoomed heroes of "Monday's Warriors," and while history tells us they didn't stand a chance, we can't help wishing for just one more victory, one more braised Brit.

Set in the 1870s, this sinewy, rollicking novel, treating of a Maori tribe's last stand, is grounded in gospel. "Where this story most seems fiction it is fact," says the author. "Otherwise it is folklore, leaving a novelist with few liberties to take." Be that as it may, after Page 1 you're Play-Doh in the hands of a master storyteller. And you know straight off whose side you're on.

A British general, frustrated in his efforts to pacify New Zealand's aboriginal Maori, has ceded command to another, who "rather magically managed to lose most of his army to belligerent ravines and insurgent vegetation without engaging the enemy."

Along with a shipload of replacements, an ill wind has also exhaled one Private Kimball Bent, historically authentic, "a fleck of fable in history's eye." Bent, "a son of Sodom Docks, Eastport, State of Maine" ("the buggers borrowed me when I wasn't looking"), has "ostensibly aided and abetted Britain's legions in the reddening of the world's maps." By now, though, Bent is more bane than brawn, a splendidly cheeky cuss forever under the disciplinary lash. When he makes his corporal "a lewd proposal of impractical nature" and tells his colonel, "It's not a hundred years since us rabble whipped the likes of you good, sir," his tenure as a Tommy is problematic.

Bent deserts, and fetches up behind the lines, a captive of Maori chieftain Titoko. Titoko, also historically authentic, is a "lean mystery of a man" much given to Zen-like pronouncements and zealous hanky-panky. He is surpassingly ugly but sartorially resplendent--from bowler to spats, with burgundy waistcoat and gold watch chain en route. Intrigued by Bent--"I have long wished a white of my own"--Titoko allows the American to live, and eventually adopts him. But not before Bent has been bloodied in a series of battles brilliantly orchestrated by the outmanned but ingenious Maori.

And here's the good part: Even before the battles, it is clear that this is not exactly your Politically Correct caper pitting the Forces of Evil against the Noble Savage. The British are rapacious enough, God knows, but the Maori are neither savage nor particularly noble. Exuberant and mystic by turn, they also are as duplicitous and treacherous as the rest of us. Above all, they are earthy.

The felicitous Maori euphemism for making love is wriggling , a pastime that occupies not only a goodly portion of their waking hours but their myths as well: Taranaki, their nearby God/mountain, "sits far from others of its kind," banished for wriggling with a female peak affianced to another; and north of the tribe's camp dwells Tara Pikau, "a demon who collects female parts. He wriggles women silly. Those wooed into his territory never return to tell the tale."

By 1870, the Maori no longer believe in myths, but when a decision must be made whether to confront the invaders, Titoko ascends the mountain, with Bent in tow, for a wisdom fix. "Moss cushioned their footfall," writes Shadbolt, "and flimsy fern and beards of lichen fogged their route. . . . They moved through mammoth trees in moist gowns of lichen . . . shy herbs." The terrain is palpable, and the moment transcendent, as Titoko seeks succor from his forebears:

"I travel higher," he tells Bent.

"All the way?"

"Until quiet ends."

"What quiet?"

"That in my head."

Then, on the descent:

"Aged men of the tribe say that when the old gods were spurned, they looked out a tall dwelling."

"War gods?"

"Waiting their call."

"Up here?"

"Some say as mist and rainbow."

"You believe that?"

Titoko shrugs.

"So you wish peace?" Bent persists.

"I wish a woman."

The spell effectively broken, the Maori turn, most reluctantly, to war; not to drive the British out, not even to reclaim some of their lost lands, but simply to cling to what they have. Battle plans are constructed of Titoko's genius. With fewer than 70 warriors against hundreds, victories are nailed down--victories still in the history books. Titoko alone appreciates war's futility, and in a heart-rending open letter, he appeals to the colonists' reason:

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