Lagoon-level view, Martin Sutton

In Polynesia
Antony Alpers
Hazard Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877161802

For over forty years, Antony Alpers has given us books which all share as their main themes the diametrically opposed but often intersecting realms of myth and reality, fact and fiction. He began in 1953 with a biography of Katherine Mansfield, a subject he expanded upon in The Life of Katherine Mansfield (1980). A Book of Dolphins, one of the first scientifically informed books to be written on the subject, appeared in 1960. Maori Myths and Tribal Legends followed in 1964 and was the first of three volumes on the myths, legends and folktales of Polynesia. The second, Legends of the South Sea (1970), was republished as The World of the Polynesians in 1987. This trilogy has now been completed, four years after the author’s death in 1997, with the publication of his last work, In Polynesia, described on the back cover of the book as

a window into the soul of Polynesia, a window as intricate as the patterned Samoan tapa cloth and as richly coloured as the Tahitian pareu … a collation of fables, mythology, prose and poetry, told in the vernacular of the varying cultures and interpreted from the often austere recordings of early European explorers and missionaries.


Alpers himself preferred a more subtle image to convey his own idiosyncratic approach to his topic. In his Preface, having summarised the two earlier books of the trilogy, he goes on to compare them to this last one:

Both books are still being read, but they have not satisfied my own desire, so this one tries again in a different way, presenting Polynesian stories interleaved with chapters which give a Western perspective of the islands. Like one of those lagoon-level photographs that are done with an underwater camera, it permits our viewing both the mystery below and the common world above, or so I hope.


To relay to us the mystery of myth and legend overlaid with the recorded facts of historical reality, such is Alpers’ intention in this book.


Readers versed in traditional stories will recognise in the myths and legends collected here all the elements of the so-called “primitive” tale, elements that are archetypal in most cultures, especially the preoccupation with eating and killing, with food and violence. Such themes have always gripped the human imagination and continue to do so. (A quick glance at contemporary TV programmes will confirm this.) The Polynesian popular tale is no different. And where the Polynesian narrative pattern does depart from Western expectations, Alpers alerts his readers to such departures. Right at the outset, he introduces us to the “open-ended” nature of Polynesian time and to its consequences for these traditional stories. We must not expect a “point” or an “ending”. As he says, “we like the clock to go tick-tock, we do not like ‘tick-tick’”. In this book, we must prepare ourselves for the latter.

The author’s aim, as in his earlier works, is to offer traditional tales primarily “for the reader’s enjoyment”, and also to provide a scholarly apparatus identifying the sources of these tales. At the same time, these tales are interwoven with other narratives, historical ones, where names and dates predominate, and digressions and explanations are necessary. Unfortunately, this interweaving often disrupts the continuity and slows the reader’s progress. A wealth of material has been researched and gathered together here for our enjoyment and edification. But such wealth needs to be better divided and displayed. One wishes that Alpers were more like the great Herman Melville whose masterly narrative technique he describes so aptly: “what he added from his ‘sources’ was so deftly woven in that the joins didn’t show”.

The joins do show here, and this may be because the final proofs were most likely created from an unfinished manuscript, edited after the author’s death by his widow, Margaret Alpers. She will have had a difficult task taking over her husband’s work, and she remains mysteriously invisible, rather like one of those “missionary wives” who are briefly mentioned in the text and whose lives still need to be told. Her presence is indicated only in the Acknowledgements, for which she is responsible, and again in a puzzling editorial note on p116. This note reveals that the narrator of the following story is a purely fictional character from the 1950s, invented by Alpers to tell a story originally collected over a hundred years earlier and to tell it in – for this reader at least – an irritating form of broken English. This fiction highlights two related questions that are never resolved in the book. Why and how exactly did the author alter the texts that he found in his 19th-century collections?

Other contemporary collectors and translators of the Polynesian oral tradition, like for example Richard Moyle and Margaret Orbell, have correctly done their absolute best to remain true to their originals, changing as little as possible. In altering and improving his original texts, which in fact were already published English translations, Alpers follows the 19th-century tradition of editors manipulating texts in accordance with their own personal preferences. Admittedly, he, like them, had the excuse that the source texts needed improving because of their now inappropriate and culturally prejudiced perspective. Nevertheless, from a historical and scholarly point of view, it is important to know precisely what changes have been made in the newly revised texts, and why. 

These questions are not fully answered in In Polynesia, and the fact remains hidden that the resulting stories often bear very little resemblance to their sources. Readers will be ignorant of this unless they go to the 19th-century source texts and compare the two closely. For example, the source for Alpers’ “Tetui Poka, Wife Unfailing” can be found in William Wyatt Gill’s From Darkness to Light (1894). The abbreviated version invented by Alpers is just over half the length of the original and is told from quite a different perspective. Added to this are the intrusive interjections on the part of Alpers’ narrator, interjections that once again interrupt the narrative flow. Sometimes the original text is modified by the addition of information quite unnecessary for the story and out of place in it. That the fictional narrator from the 1950s repeatedly compares the Polynesian paragon of female beauty with Queen Victoria, the “late Queen”, is a glaring anachronism. It is also a reference that is nowhere to be found in the 19th-century original, which simply states that “the great requisites of a Polynesian beauty are to be fat, and fair as their dusky skins will permit”. Political correctness raises its head – ugly or otherwise – here!


The book does show signs of being hastily prepared from the original manuscript. As in many publications nowadays that are haphazardly rushed to the press, there are glaring misprints, like the inexcusable misspelling of the painter Gauguin’s name on the back cover (even reproduced on the publisher’s website). There is also confusion of dates, as well as the occasionally careless cross-referencing to the “Notes on the Stories”, probably caused by the late inclusion of the Appendix that immediately precedes them. Such errors, which should have been spotted by a good proofreader, spoil the reader’s enjoyment of the book because time is spent unnecessarily on searching for the relevant pages, and the overall narrative thread is once again lost in this search.

The Appendix has been added as a finale, and in it Alpers provides a personal memoir dating back to his visit to Rarotonga in 1956. Its concluding section makes the claim that the Rarotongan form of singing in multi-part harmony must have sprung from local familiarity with the echoes of voices in fourth and fifth intervals within the caves on the island of Mangaia. But this imaginative assumption must be questioned in the light of recent musicological evidence. Mervyn McLean’s Weavers of Song (1999) gives a more convincing case for seeing the origins of the Polynesian multi-part hymnody, or ‘ïmene, in Western “fuging tunes” introduced by missionaries in the 18th century.

In Polynesia will not always please the professional ethnologist or the ordinary reader, but it remains without doubt a book containing much of interest. It does indeed succeed in giving us a “lagoon-level” view of its subject, even though this view is at times blurred and obscured. It is not, as is claimed in the Acknowledgements, Alpers’s “best book”. It would have been much improved by more careful editing, the addition of a helpful index, a fuller glossary of Polynesian words, and, to match Alpers’ earlier works, a selection of accompanying illustrations, especially to illuminate the colourful section on Gauguin in Tahiti. Here we need not only a literary lens on the originals but also a camera lens to clarify both the author’s and the artist’s vision.


Martin Sutton is an Auckland writer and sculptor who has published on the indigenous reception of traditional European folktales in the South Pacific.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Literature, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
Search the archive
Search by category