It’s not easy to act according your parents’ will, especially when you do not know what secrets they live with.
In the short story “In the Shadow of Monte Cassino”, published in 2017 in Huia Short Stories 12 by Māori author Laruen Keenan, the journey of Eruera, a Māori man who reflects on his lifelong attempt to fulfil his father’s expectations, is described. Instead of focusing on himself, Eruera continues to base his life on his father’s judgements.
The only active part of the story is Eruera. He visits the battlefield in Italy where his father supposedly fought as soldier in the Second World War. As he walks towards Monte Cassino, his thoughts revolve around his late father and what the latter might say to him in this situation. When Eruera passes a cemetery, he coincidentally finds the grave of his uncle, at whom his late father was always angry. Now Eruera realises that his father never took part in WWII and just made it all up.
The story is told from Eruera’s point of view, but in the third person. Right from the beginning, I had a strange feeling that the main character has a really negative mindset in that sentence. As the story continued and Eruera made his way to Monte Cassino, I had the impression that the closer he got to the hill, the crazier his mind went. He is always looking for excuses not to climb up Monte Cassino. All these twists and turns are really well done by the author. When I read the story, I had an odd and intense feeling because he seemed stressed. At first I thought that he was looking forward to the trip, but when I looked at him more closely, I realised that his self-esteem decreased a bit every time he thought about his father (e.g. “Man up, boy, you wouldn’t lasted a day at Monte Cassino with that attitude.” p. 72). It seemed as though Eruera believed that no one respects him. Especially his own father was never proud of him, regardless of what he achieved.
In my opinion, the short story unrolls a lot of emotions from WWII. When we meet Eruera, he thinks he is the son of a Māori soldier who took part in the war to gain respect for his tribe, to be treated equally and to receive the full privilege of citizenship for his family. So Eruera has to respect his father and believes everything he says. Yet his father used to denigrate him by comparing him with his Uncle Gerry, who supposedly “died of shame after all these heroes came home. You’re just like your Uncle Gerry, both of you couldn’t have climbed Monte Cassino if you’d tried.” (p. 72) I strongly believe that is a reason why Eruera has such low self-esteem. Always being compared is hard, but being compared to someone who cannot climb up a hill is even worse. I suppose that the relationship between Eruera and his father was really toxic. As a result, he just remembers negative comments and bad comparisons. Even in the narrative present, when Eruera’s father is long dead, he feels the disappointment in every step he takes.
After all the emotional ups and downs, this passage reveals that Eruera thinks he is failing and disappointing his father once again. It seems to me that he has the urge to show his father that he is capable of doing something right, like climbing Monte Cassino.
“Eruera should have paid better attention. He should have found out more about the war before dad dies.” (p. 72). On the one hand, Eruera remembers his father’s aggressive behaviour, on the other hand he misses him and regrets the time when he did not listen to his stories. I’m honestly surprised that Eruera’s feelings and his development could touch me so strongly. This turn of events throws a pitiful shadow on Eruera and makes him even smaller than he is. From time to time, his mind clears and he notices his surroundings. However, I guess Eruera is just looking for excuses not to climb the mountain.
In my opinion, the author is highly successful in creating a great tension. When I finally thought Eruera would climb up and feel relieved and happy, he entered the cemetery. Even though this moment was really dark, it also fascinated me. When Eruera recognized the name on the gravestone and found out what Uncle Gerry had done, it felt for me like Eruera’s world was falling apart because he finally understood why his grandparents had no contact to his father and why others gave him ugly nicknames.
I think Eruera must have been shocked at the first moment, but right after he likely felt relieved because he had uncovered the secret of his heroic father and lightened the big shadow hanging over him. To come back to my first impression of the short story, and having reread it, I feel like there is much to read between the lines. At first I thought that Eruera was a pitiful and sad man who has no goal, and only thinks about everything that has already happened, even imitating his father’s comments. From a more aware point of view I am certain that Eruera always had the strength to be himself, but was too afraid to be that person. So he hid behind the role of his father, but after discovering the big lie he grew up with, he finally understands that he is better than his father because at least he is honest.