When grumpy white men go native
Theroux is a famously caustic writer, but The Happy Isles of Oceania is perhaps the most ill-tempered of all his works. As he travels from island to island, flying over stretches of open ocean but paddling his collapsible kayak on the relatively calm waters of lagoons and harbours, his mood is relentlessly irascible. Although he is capable of appreciating the scenery of Oceania, the famous writer has little enthusiasm for the peoples of the region.
Theroux begins his journey in New Zealand, where he is disgusted by what he considers the slovenliness of immigrant Pacific Islanders. Watching members of the Pasifika community 'waddle' down an Auckland street, he decides that they must all come from an island called 'Fatland'. As he travels north, through the archipelagos of the Cooks, Samoa, and Tonga, Theroux finds nothing to improve his opinion of Polynesians. He discovers that Samoans are stupid, and he describes Tongans as 'late, unapologetic, envious, abrupt, lazy, mocking [and] quarrelsome'.
Again and again, on island after island, Theroux draws an unflattering contrast between the behaviour of contemporary Pasifikans and his romantic vision of their ancestors. When he spots a Tongan with a paunch eating corned beef from a tin, or a Cook Islander revving an outboard motor, or an American Samoan attaching a satellite dish to a tiled roof, Theroux sighs, and pines for the ancient Polynesian, who sweated off his feasts in the taro plot, and travelled by motorless vaka, and used the stars rather than GPS to navigate.
Theroux's complaints about the supposed decadence of the modern Polynesian segue into long and often self-indulgent accounts of his exploits as a seafarer and camper. As he paddles his plastic vaka across deserted waters late at night, Theroux self-consciously gazes up at the stars to check his progress. He lands on an uninhabited atoll, chops wood for a fire, cooks a meal, pitches his tent, and falls asleep congratulating himself on his sturdy self-sufficiency. There is an implicit contrast, throughout The Happy Isles of Oceania, between the degenerate modern Polynesians and the industrious, adventurous palangi writer who travels amongst them.
It is amusing to compare Theroux's attitude to Polynesia to that of the missionaries who descended on the region a century and a half ago. Where the missionaries sought to turn Polynesians into brown-skinned Europeans, and demanded the banning of barbarous practices like tattooing, lewd dancing, and inter-island travel, Theroux longs to meet an authentic, pre-modern Polynesian, who might be able to paddle with him under the stars or chant homage to pagan gods beside his campfire. But the Islanders Theroux encounters prefer to eat corned beef in front of the telly, and to worship Jehovah every Sunday. The Happy Isles of Oceania can be read as Theroux's attempt to deindigenise contemporary Polynesians, and to present himself as the true inheritor of traditional Polynesian culture.
And Theroux's effort to outnative the natives has more than a few precedents in European literature. When Daniel Defoe invented Robinson Crusoe, he gave his hero good survival skills as well as a Protestant work ethic. Crusoe has often been considered a symbol of European imperialism - James Joyce called him 'the prototypical English colonist' - but he can also been seen as a white man who adapted successfully to the world of 'savages' like Friday. From Defoe's time until our own, the Pacific has attracted a stream of Robinson Crusoes, solitary men who have sought to prove themselves the masters of its waters and islands.
After growing up in the South Island, Neale escaped the Great Depression by taking a series of jobs as a petty colonial bureaucrat in the Cook Islands. Although Neale enjoyed the climate of the Cooks, he fond the local people, with their growing enthusiasm for a cash economy and their desire for foreign goods, a 'bore', and yearned to live alone on an island. Neale got his chance in 1952, when a ship dropped him on Suvarov, which had been populated by Polynesians in prehistoric times and by Kiwi coastwatchers during World War Two.
With its descriptions of solo gardening and fishing expeditions in a homemade boat on Suvarov lagoon, An Island to Oneself is a sort of how-to guide for solitary survivalists. Like Theroux, Neale tries hard to present himself as a sort of modern incarnation of the noble Polynesian savage. The photo on the cover of his book shows him standing under a coconut tree on one of Suvarov's beaches. His darkly tanned skin is naked except for a painful-looking loincloth, and he awkwardly holds a long spear. If the photo were not in colour it might be mistaken for a nineteenth century ethnographer's portrait of a 'primitive' South Sea Islander.
Russian Empire. Bakov pointed out that Russian mariners had given the island its name after visiting and finding it uninhabited in 1814, but the Cook Islands government was unimpressed by his imperial ambitions. Bakov arrived in the South Pacific later in 2011, and together with a group of supporters set out for Suvarov in a chartered ship. Unfortunately, seasickness forced the empire-builders to turn around nearly two hundred kilometres from their goal.)
It is more than a little ironic that misanthropes like Theroux and Neale should try to associate themselves with traditional Polynesian culture, when that culture was, and indeed is, so relentlessly social. In the early 1860s, with the help of Iberian and Australasian pirates, Peru's wealthiest families acquired thousands of Polynesian slaves to work on their plantations and in their homes. Within weeks of their arrival in Peru, though, the apparently healthy slaves were dying in large numbers. In his study of the Peruvian slave trade Henry Maude suggests that, after being torn from their families and from the landscapes of their native islands, the Polynesians died of extreme loneliness. Such intensely social people could not bear isolation in an alien land like Peru.
Polynesian culture still puts an emphasis on sociability. Albert Wendt has talked about growing up in the midst of a perpetual crowd of relations and neighbours in Samoa, and has explained that the barren lava fields along the coast of Savai'i were virtually the only place he could go to enjoy solitude. In her funny and useful book Making Sense of Tonga, Mary McCoy notes that inhabitants of the Friendly Islands are so accustomed to company, and so fearful of solitude, that they will often refuse even to go a short distance on an errand without having at least one companion to stroll and chat with.
It might seem petty to criticise Paul Theroux and Tom Neale for their attempts to associate their self-isolation with traditional Polynesian culture. Does it really matter that Neale pranced about on his lonely beach pretending to be a Polynesian warrior, or that Theroux in his collapsible kayak saw himself as a latter-day Kupe?
It seems to me, though, that books like The Happy Isles of Oceania and An Island to Oneself reflect a widespread Western delusion about Polynesian civilisation. Polynesians are supposed to be intrepid seafarers and ferocious warriors, and if the present-day inhabitants of societies like Tonga and Samoa do not fit these moulds then they must be some way deficient. If they eat processed food, watch television, or wear Western clothes then Pacific Islanders are somehow betraying their history, and displaying their decadence. Other cultures are allowed to embrace modernity without being tarnished by it; Polynesian culture, though, apparently cannot survive such contact.
The sort of prejudices we find in The Happy Isles of Oceania can make it difficult for Pacific Island intellectuals and artists to win the Western audiences they deserve. The painter Andy Leileisiu'ao, for instance, has complained about the expectation that, because of his Samoan heritage, he should put frangipani on his canvases, and avoid dealing with images and ideas which come from outside the Pacific.
Paul Janman's film Tongan Ark, which has been an occasional topic of discussion on this blog over the past six months or so, is an attempt to introduce palangi to Futa Helu, a polymathic intellectual who was as interested in Italian opera as Polynesian dance, and who sought to fuse European and Pacific cultures. During his lifetime, Helu was often criticised for being 'too European' and 'not Tongan enough', and over the past six months, Paul's film about Helu has occasionally been faulted for supposedly failing to deal with 'real' Polynesian culture. Only yesterday a commenter on this blog called Tongan Ark 'a study in decline', because it showed Polynesians 'wearing Western clothing' and 'living in Third World housing' instead of 'crossing the great seas' like Jason and the Argonauts. Paul's reply to his critic is worth pondering:
Tongan Ark represents uncomfortable contemporary (perhaps also eternal) realities...The film is also an indictment of the powers that are not allowing the modern 'argonauts of the mind' like Futa Helu to create paradoxical cultural hybrids of Eurocentrism and Tongan purism. In this way, they rob such innovators of their creativity and free will.
I hope that the new issue of brief can help in some small way to undermine the patronising and inaccurate picture of Polynesia found in books like The Happy Isles of Oceania.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]