The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific
Hamish Hamilton, $34.95
The barrage of criticism that greeted this book in New Zealand needs to be ignored. The exception taken to Paul Theroux’s acerbic comments about New Zealanders and Dame Cath (which she deserved) only reveals a long-standing national characteristic of craving visitors’ praise, and bridling at criticism. Theroux’s reception echoes Edward Tregear’s 1887 dismissal of J A Froude’s Oceania as ‘an utter failure in its attempt to represent our true position’. Tregear railed against visiting ‘distinguished guests who flash in upon us for a moment, instantaneously know more about us than we know ourselves … and then sparkle into literary fireworks far beyond our horizon’.
In any case, of the book’s 541 pages, only 23 are on New Zealand, and more than half of those describe Theroux’s pleasurable tramp in Fiordland.
Theroux also has chapters on Australia (where he also raised hackles) but his large book is mainly an account of travels through the Pacific Islands. His route follows that of the first humans to enter and settle Oceania – through Melanesia (he visits the Trobriands, Solomons, Vanuatu, Fiji) and onward into Polynesia (Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Marquesas, Cook Islands, Easter Island, and Hawaii).
In spite of grumpiness, Theroux has written one of the more perceptive and vivid accounts of island experiences. He appears well read in Pacific anthropological and historical scholarship, past and present. He is one of the few popular writers rightly to condemn the fanciful scholarship of Thor Heyerdahl. He speaks Melanesian Pidgin, French, and Spanish (on Easter Island). He is attuned to current indigenous issues and concerns. For example, he nicely captures the anxiety of those Solomon Islanders who, during the war on Iraq, were genuinely fearful of being bombed as in World War II. And he notably evokes the post-coup tensions in Fiji, and the French Polynesians’ ambivalence towards atomic testing.
Above all Theroux disassociates himself from that long tradition, from Melville to Michener, that
felt a need to invent the Pacific and to make it a paradise. How misleading it all is. The very name of the Pacific is a misnomer. But I should say that the fact that so much written about the Pacific is inaccurate – indeed, most of it is utter crap – intensifies the pleasure of travelling there and gives it so much unexpectedness.
Theroux’s experiences are often unexpected because of his means of travel. With tent, Walkman and collapsible sea kayak, he paddles remote coasts and islands, revelling in
having left all essentials behind, and entering a world of natural beauty which has not been violated, where money has no value, and possessions are a deadweight. The person with the fewest possessions is the freest.
But he is seldom free. Apart from a few desert islands, most places were inhabited by communities whose demands and generosity circumscribed his freedom.
Theroux’s account of Pacific communities is scarcely politically correct, for as well as depicting their joys and benefits he also exposes their darker side – their prejudices, tensions and latent violence, particularly in the more traditional cultures. Theroux is no Noble Savage ideologue:
An island of traditional culture cannot be idyllic. It is, instead, completely itself.. riddled with magic, superstition, myths, dangers, rivalries, and its old routines. You had to take it as you found it. The key to its survival was that it laughed at outsiders and kept them at arm’s length. And although it seemed strange that they thought of themselves as human and me as subhuman … I could see now the utter impossibility of my ever understanding the place.
A few of the Pacific’s more notable anthropologists should share this simple insight.
If Theroux’s journey is not in search of paradise, it is in search of happiness. All journeys are ultimately interior ones and, as some of Theroux’s critics might note, good travel literature should do more than document the external world. Theroux’s inner point of departure was his separation from his wife and his fears that he had cancer. His Island odyssey is more self‑revealing than his previous journeys and, for all his snide remarks about others, there are many moments of self-deprecation and self-awareness.
Theroux exposes his fears, as when he was terrorised by armed Trobriand children, and his periods of dark paranoia, particularly in Samoa, whose inhabitants became pathological monsters. Samoa was his nadir and, having finally confronted himself with the realisation that most Samoans had indeed been kind to me – generous, good-humoured and helpful, he finds his mood lifting for the rest of his journey through Polynesia. Finally in the Hawaiian Islands he finds his happiness, but he is too insistent that he has. The book concludes with a graphic account of the total eclipse in Hawaii in 1991, and his simple human act during the eerie mid-morning darkness reveals him still a lonely soul.
K R Howe is the author of Where the Waves Fall. He teaches Pacific history at Massey University and is a keen sea kayaker.