Friday, May 11, 2012

When grumpy white men go native

While I was putting together the new issue of brief, I found myself rereading Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific. The book records a journey Theroux made in the early nineties, in the aftermath of the disintegration of his marriage.

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.

Tom Neale is nowadays a forgotten figure, but forty years ago he could reasonably have claimed to be one of New Zealand's most successful authors. An Island to Oneself, Neale's account of the seven years he spent living alone on Suvarov, a coral atoll in the northern Cooks, was published by mighty Fontana Books and became a critical and commercial hit in Britain. While the likes of Sargeson and Smithyman were struggling to get reviewed in New Zealand, let alone the Mother Country, Neale's artless narrative was being called 'absolutely required reading' by The Bookman and being praised as 'Crusoesque' in the Guardian.

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.

(Tom Neale died in 1977, but Suvarov continues to fascinate some Westerners today. In July 2011 the Russian politician Anton Bakov announced that he was taking possession of the atoll, and making it the capital of a revived 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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

time for a transpacific tunnel

1:39 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Pigeons must be holed, or controlled. Reading you, which I enjoyed immensely reminded me of - we studied the book at school, perhaps to assert the class message rather than usurp it. I note it is no longer in the English curriculum. Our history teacher for 2 years (unusual) was a teaching heretic, sadly he died on the playing field kicking round a soccer ball with students.

9:42 am  
Blogger Will Robe said...

Are you aware of this?

Sorry, couldn't find a better link to it.

10:54 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Undersea tunnel projects

Posted on May 13, 2007 | Leave a comment

Last month, supporters of a proposal to build an undersea tunnel to link Alaska with Russia renewed their efforts. Such a tunnel, if completed, would be more than twice the length of the Channel Tunnel which links Britain to France.

Presently, debate ensues over a proposal to build an undersea tunnel to link Japan to Korea. Such a tunnel, if completed, would be more than four times the length of the Channel Tunnel.

11:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

paul theroux has a new book about the problems of africa.

6:36 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Merc and Will,

thanks for those links. Barrie's piece sounds Therouxian, while Vltchek's book seems like a response to Epeli Hau'ofa's call for the reopening of Oceania in his great essay 'Our Sea of Islands'. I'll be keen to track both texts down.

I should have mentioned that the new issue of brief contains an essay about The Happy Isles of Oceania by Andrew Dean, the Rhodes Scholar and prolific opening bastman from Ashburton. Andrew's piece, which was originally published on his blog, investigates the history between the attitude Theroux takes towards Pakeha New Zealand in his book:

Since the publication of Patrick French's sensational biography of VS Naipaul in 2008, we know that Theroux was happy to send racist tidbits like jokes and derogatory comments about darkies in letters to reactionary writer he wanted to impress. Perhaps he garnished The Happy Isles of Oceania with racist cliches for the same cynical reason he wrote toxic letters to Naipaul back in the '70s. Perhaps he simply likes appealing to prejudice.

Naipaul is surely one of the most bigoted men alive, yet his best travel writing is able to transcend the limitations of his worldview, and open windows on places like India and the southern states of America. Naipaul the travel writer seems compelled to put aside his prejudices, and listen carefully and respectfully the testimony of everyone he meets on his journeys; the same can't be said about Theroux.

10:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Theroux defends Arizona's racist anti-Mexican law:

11:08 pm  
Anonymous avegoth said...

proof of inter-dimensional travel???

11:27 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I read a part of that book by Theroux in which he met Borges it was quite good. I didn't see or read anything racist. I haven't read much of him. Why is he such a big what way IS he good?

I've only read one book by Naipaul, but I keep seeing his books. I have a few for sale. Also his son's books. (Shiva Naipaul, but I haven't read anything by him either.)
I read the father's Guerillas which was not bad. I have Bend in the River, An Area of Darkness and Guerillas.

I read Robinson Crusoe last year I found it a great book to read...I didn't see it as a "colonialist book at all. Too much politics can spoil your fun. One also has to consider when it was written, I read it partly as I like Elizabeth Bishop's poetry greatly and she wrote the poem Crusoe's Island which is a favourite of mine ...and it's true she didn't like the original book [letter to her publisher] (the significance of it, not necessarily its interest as a book or as a "good read" (Gulliver's Travels is a great Mennipean satire however.)

7:56 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott why don't you disable anonymous comments as it is meaningless if you don't know who is posting and also they are usually either abusive or way off the topic?

7:59 pm  
Anonymous AHD said...

Hi Scott,

It's been a while since I've been around commenting on blogs -- there have been other distractions, such as watching my University attempt to tear itself limb from limb.

Theroux, to say the least, is a bit of an odd bugger. Misanthropy -- maybe someone should write a book on it? -- is a mode of expression that seems to hide its deep ideological commitments behind supposedly hating and targeting everyone. I wonder.

But my real problem with Theroux is that whatever you think of his politics, he sure skewered us. He may walk a dangerous path, but damn can he write!

It's fantastic to have our own Crusoe -- even better that he comes from the South Island. Reminds me of one of Charles Brasch's (many)lesser poems, 'Ben Rudd'. Look it up, if you dare.


12:05 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

Theroux describes his encounter with Borges in The Old Patagonian Express, a book which recounts his journey by trains through the Americas. Along with The Pillars of Hercules, which records a journey around the Mediterranean and culminates with an encounter with Paul Bowles, it's my favourite of Theroux's travel books.

Shiva Naipaul was actually the younger brother of VS. Like his more famous sibling, he decamped to Britain, where he became associated with the right-wing magazine The Spectator. Shiva Naipaul published fiction and travel writing, including a book about Africa which was quite entertaining, though relentless cynical in a tiresomely Tory way, but he was very fat, and he died in his forties of a heart attack. In his extremely unflattering portrait of VS Naipaul, Paul French quotes letters where the older brother mocks Shiva's early death, and claims it was all that he deserved.
Nice guy!

Hi Andrew,

I wasn't very impressed by the misanthropic, self-obsessed Timaruan Tom Neale. I think that better South Island hermits can be found in John Pascoe's marvellous book Unclimbed New Zealand, which features portraits of old codgers who lived in high country shacks. Afew years after the publication of Unclimbed Pascoe 'discovered' the hermit Arawata Bill, and wrote a series of (bad) poems about him, which he showed to Denis Glover. Not surprisingly, Glover thought he could do better, and the rest is history...

10:09 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

And I forgot to ask, Andrew: do you really think Theroux is such a great writer? Some of his travel books are very poorly organised - overlong, repetitive, full of semi-digested secondary material which suggests last second mugging up - and even the best feature numerous infelicitous sentences, where the same word of phrase is repeated gratingly, or a preposition is placed awkwardly in front of a full stop. Dark Star Safari, his account of a rail journey through Africa, is a real plonker, and The Happy Isles is far too long.

I don't think Theroux measures up against Naipaul. India: A Million Mutinies Now is my favourite travel book.

10:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But should be Theroux be persecuted for his sincere beliefs?

10:26 am  
Blogger bielby said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:51 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'But should be Theroux be persecuted for his sincere beliefs?'


11:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

does kyle chapman read paul theroux??

1:45 pm  
Anonymous Fuck Paul Theroux said...

Paul Theroux also baits disabled people. One of them hits back here

Well, fuck you Paul Theroux.

My fiancé suggested that we might bottle up some tap water from Mexico City and let Theroux drink it on a nonstop plane trip from Mexico to Taiwan. He would get to overcome a whole bunch of travel adversity! His trip would look, smell, and feel remarkably like that which my friend Andrew, who suffers from severe Crohn’s Disease, gets to experience every single day of his life. Perhaps Paul might gain a new perspective, as he spent hour after miserable hour locked in an aluminum tube with his bowels roiling uncontrollably. He might learn what it’s like to actually be in delicate health while traveling, and he’d stop sneering at those of us laboring along inside of imperfect bodies.

2:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

7:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Theroux is a far rarer breed of author than the author of this blog, whose name will, thankfully, drift through cyberspace clinging to a reeking cluster of post-colonial crap-inspectors, deep into the Great Waste of nothing-people where he belongs. In saying that, Theroux himself is a writer whose curiosity and honesty barely redeem his plodding prose. At least he has something original to say, unlike this blogger.

12:46 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Tongan Ark will have its World Premiere as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival at Sky City Theatre on August 4th at 4.15 pm.

Included is a live performance by the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts and a free panel discussion, performance and drinks at the Civic Wintergarden afterwards. Tickets go on sale this Friday. Discounted group bookings are available.

Follow us on facebook:

See also the Tongan Ark website:

Hope to see you all there. Malo! Paul

10:10 am  
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5:57 pm  

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