Coffee Break Review: Smith's Dream by C. K. Stead

By Kevin Rabalais

A right-wing coup in New Zealand leads to the rise of a man who uses the army and a special police force to maintain power and control his government. After the referendum that propels him to power, this man, Volkner, suspends Parliament. He places an embargo on all imported goods. He obsesses over rumors of guerrillas roaming the hills and devotes his energies to stopping anyone who tries to defy his power or legitimacy.

Put all of that in a novel, and nobody would believe it, or at least that’s the way it must have seemed to readers in 1971, when C. K. Stead’s novel Smith’s Dream first appeared in bookstores. (In 1977, Roger Donaldson directed a film version, Sleeping Dogs, which stars Sam Neill.) Read it now, however, and it seems as though Stead pulled these events and characters, including the dictator Volkner, directly from the evening news.

Meanwhile, Smith’s wife’s affair has left him disengaged with the world. As the novel opens, we find him unaware of Volkner’s rise or the growing underground—and armed—opposition. Distracted from these events and attempting to start a new life, Smith leaves Auckland for Coromandel, a town where he knows no one. He acquires a boat. He spends his days fishing. Slowly, he begins to make friends. Or at least he thinks he does. One day while fishing, Smith discovers a transistor radio in his boat. He didn’t put it there. A week later, returning from one of his trips, he finds three uniformed men waiting for him. They inform him that he’s wanted in Coromandel to explain how and where he acquired the radio and how long he has been part of the revolution.

“There was no warrant for his arrest,” Stead writes, “and under the Emergency Regulations, none was needed. If he refused to come he would be taken away by force.”

Smith complies. Moments later, before he’s taken away, he sees the guards shove something into the trunk of a car, something he recognizes (though it can’t be) as “a human forearm projecting from inside”—the very forearm of one of those few friends he thought he had acquired.

On the road to Auckland, Smith sees a parade of slogans and portraits. “It might have seemed there was an election taking place but for the fact that there were photographs only of one man, blown up to dictator size,” Stead writes.

The world Stead envisions becomes even more nightmarish for its portrayal of these characters’ complacency and the surface tranquility under Volkner’s rule. This version of New Zealand under a dictatorship becomes all the more frightening for it. Smith’s soon-to-be-ex-wife’s father, for instance, continues to live for those brief periods he can sneak away from his job in Auckland and vacation in Rotorua with his family. And when the awkward Volkner summons Smith, we find a dictator so distracted that Smith manages to escape from a conversation that involves New Zealand wine, the leader’s avowed fondness for Maori and the size of the crowds at his early rallies. From that moment, Smith becomes involved in the country’s revolution.

In Smith’s Dream, Stead, the current poet laureate of his country and an elder statesman of New Zealand literature, takes an ordinary man and places him under extraordinary circumstances. He forces us to take sides and think about where we would stand, how we would act. This slim novel deserves to be discussed alongside Brave New World and 1984, the latter of which, nearly seventy years after its publication, is on the current New York Times bestseller list. These writers remind us why we must take time to untangle those seemingly outlandish prophecies of our writers and artists who devote their time to examining other possibilities for the world we inhabit now. 


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