Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cruising with Paul Theroux

I’ve often lamented, on this blog and elsewhere, the influence of Paul Theroux on Western conceptions of the modern Pacific. Theroux is a bad-tempered man at the best of times, and when he researched and wrote his bestselling book The Happy Isles of Oceania twenty or so years ago the implosion of his marriage and a cancer scare had left him particularly dyspeptic, so that he could take sadistic pleasure in characterising Tongans, Samoans, and other inhabitants of the Pacific as comically stupid, chronically dishonest, and disgustingly gluttonous.
The Happy Isles spends hundreds of pages reviving or inventing racist stereotypes, but it does have a few enjoyable passages, thanks to its author’s love of the natural world. Theroux the misanthrope is happiest when he turns his back on the contemptible mass of humanity, and walks into a forest, or paddles out to sea. In the chapter on his visit to the Trobriand Islands Theroux describes kayaking across a flat stretch of water at night, under a sky teeming with stars. As he paddles towards a horizon that is the same colour as the sea, the author makes an analogy between the thousands of islands flung across the Pacific Ocean and the uncounted solar systems strewn through the Milky Way. He looks up at the stars, and imagines that he is guiding his little craft through Outer Space, from one archipelago of planets to another.
Yesterday Skyler, Aneirin and I caught the new and improved ferry which motors between Tongatapu and ‘Eua Islands on every day of the week except the Sabbath. When I travelled on the old, small, unstable boat to ‘Eua a couple of years ago, my face turned as green as a gangrenous limb, and I donated my lunch to the fleets of sharks that cut the deep water of the Tongatapu Channel. On the new, three-storey ferry, though, I confidently ate first one and then another ham and cheese sandwich, and only leaned over a handrail to take photographs.
The journey to ‘Eua begins with a ride through Nuku’alofa harbour, which is home to a series of small islands, each protected by its own reef. Tonga was one of the seedbeds of Polynesian culture, and these islands gave their names – ‘Ata, Motutapu, ‘Eueiki, Hihifo, Hahake, Onevao - to forests and beaches and marae thousands of kilometres away, in Tahiti and Aotearoa and Ontong Java. Wooden dinghies lay beached on the islands, like the landing craft of an invading army, an army which had disappeared amongst groves of coconut trees and giant taro.
By noon, when the ferry pushed past the V-shaped island of Fukave, the sky had turned the same very dark shade of blue as the sea. Nuku, the round green island just beyond Fukave, seemed to float like a little planet in this universe of blue.
After the ferry had left Nuku’alofa harbour and entered the Tongatapu channel I went downstairs, to a room with linoleum floors and tinted windows, and found a space between its sprawled snoring bodies. I fell asleep quickly in the gently rocking semi-darkness, and began to dream that I was back in Auckland, in the darkness of the Civic Theatre’s little basement cinema, where avant-garde dramas and overly serious documentaries are shown to clusters of graduate students during the city’s yearly film festival. I knew, thanks to the background knowledge which is mysteriously granted to dreamers, that I was about to watch a recently discovered extended cut of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I leaned forward in my seat, peered at the man seated beside me, discovered that he was Paul Theroux, and began at once to complain to him that the very notion of an extended version of a film as long as 2001 was absurd. “Dreams are defined by their absurdity”, Theroux replied solemnly, without bothering to turn his head in my direction.

Slowly, with the soft roar of a distant but unstoppable tidal wave, seven long, bone-white spacecraft cruised onto the movie screen’s black sky. Untwinkling stars appeared one at a time in the distance: I wondered whether they might be the lights of a fleet of outpaced pursuers.
In the last science fiction movie I had watched all the spacecraft resembled Stealth bombers and had little American flags painted on their wings, so that they looked like stamped envelopes. The ships on the Civic’s screen lacked flags, but had koru patterns carved into their sides. A carved atua perched like a wart on the nose of the closest ship, just above a cockpit filled with orange light and brown tattooed faces. “A thousand years ago seven waka set out across interstellar space, from the constellation of Tropical Polynesia to the outlier planet known as Aotearoa”, a voice announced through the theatre’s speakers. “This is the story of the Imperial Starships Tainui, Aotea, Mataatua – “
Theroux was looking at me grumpily. “Foolish!” he shouted. “How foolish – and how implausible!”
I was suddenly impressed by the distinguished travel writer’s knowledge of New Zealand history, and by his awareness of the blunders of amateur Victorian ethnographers like Percy Smith and Elsdon Best. “Yes, well, the Great Fleet story about seven founding waka was pretty much discredited in the ‘70s” I began. “We know that Smith and Best simplified the stories they collected, and settled on a number of mythic significance – “
Theroux’s face had hardened. “Foolish boring man! I’m not interested in your tinpot country’s oral history – I’m talking about the mechanics of space travel. Those ships are impossibly cumbersome – they’d sink into the depths of space before they made it a mile to Aotearoa. The only way to travel through space is with a small kayak – the paddle is more efficient than the fission engine. An explorer has to travel alone, not with a herd of engineers and ethnographers.”
As Theroux spoke the screen began to turn the same dark shade of blue as the sky and the sea that enclosed the ferry to ‘Eua.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]



Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:22 pm  
Anonymous Theroux bastard said...

If you’ve ever read any of travel writer Paul Theroux’ work, you know he hates almost everything and everyone. Now we can add “People protesting Arizona’s new illegal alien law” to that list. has reports Theroux’ acerbic comments:

These people who are protesting being asked for identification by Arizona cops—have they been anywhere lately, like out of the country? Like Mexico, or Canada, or India, or Italy, or Tanzania, or Singapore, or Britain—places where people in uniforms have routinely demanded my papers? Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen is offended (“as a Latin American”) by the Arizona law and recently claimed that all illegal immigrants are “workaholics.” Has he been back to the land of his birth lately, Venezuela, and expected not to be asked for his papers? Ozzie, tell the police in Ocumare del Tuy, “I’m a Latin American,” and see if that will end the interrogation. And spare a thought for the policeman two days ago who was gunned down in the desert by a workaholic drug dealer.

The request for papers is not just a line in Casablanca. I have been hearing the question my whole traveling life. I had an Alien Registration Card in Britain and got occasional visits from the police at my home, to make sure I was behaving myself. Seventeen years in Britain as an alien: papers. Six years in Africa: “Where are your papers, bwana?” Three years in Singapore: another alien identity card and immense red tape in that fussy, litigious bureaucracy.

8:39 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott a great dream / poem ... amusing also!

I read part of a book by Theroux he didn't seem grumpy. He was in South America.

Does his writing travel or novels) have any merits?

I like reading bits or "chunks" of Bill Bryson...

11:44 pm  
Anonymous Mike Kaufman said...

In fairness, a number of anthropologists views are equally tainted by their Marxist ideology and present idyllic and romantic versions of non-western destinations. Prime examples being Margaret Mead & the response to Napolean Chagnon's findings from his time with the Yanamono.

3:46 pm  
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Blogger Shianeth Jacobs said...

I'll try to find his book. Interesting stories indeed!

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