The Miss Tutti Frutti Contest: Travel Tales of the South Pacific
Awa Press, $29.95,
Liars and Lovers: A Travel Memoir
As a child, I used to read adventure stories featuring coral atolls and leaping mako sharks and talking parrots, and think how wonderful it must be to live somewhere near the Pacific Islands, which were clearly at least a million miles away from Palmerston North. Years later, I was astounded to discover that these mysterious lands, which had seemed as remote to me as Narnia, were in fact our neighbours. Even now, New Zealanders have largely failed to engage with the South Pacific. There’s a perplexing lack of curiosity about the extraordinary archipelagos on our doorstep: most Pakeha Kiwis pride themselves far more on their knowledge of London or Hong Kong than Nuku’alofa or Papeete.
In this collection of stories about his journeys around tropical Polynesia, Graeme Lay goes some way towards redressing the balance. Lay has associated the Pacific Islands with romance and adventure ever since reading Treasure Island as a boy, and the reality he encounters as an adult is no disappointment. Whether he’s drinking bush beer in the Cook Islands, catching flying fish in an elongated butterfly net in Nuie or simply propping up the bar in some dusty waterfront drinking hole, Lay displays a contagious delight at finding himself in a part of the world that inhabited his dreams for so many years.
Like all good travel writers, Lay is more interested in the people who populate a landscape than in the landscape itself. In the South Pacific, this category inevitably expands to include those Westerners who helped define the islands to the modern world – Herman Melville, who jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands in 1842 and emerged, after a four-day jungle trek, into the arms of a tribe so violent that the translation of its name meant “lover of human flesh”; the hapless Paul Gauguin, whose arrival in Tahiti with both shoulder-length hair and a cowboy hat prompted locals to jeeringly call him a “taata vahine” (man-woman); and, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson, who defied tuberculosis by spending his last years smoking, drinking kava, dancing, partying and butting into Samoan politics.
Lay doesn’t let his fascination with the human flotsam and jetsam who have washed up on the shores of the South Pacific over the past couple of hundred years blind him to the harsh realities of life for many islanders. He’s good on the cynicism with which politicians in Paris govern French Polynesia, while the inequities of cultural tourism are neatly summed up by a disturbing encounter between a light-fingered teenage tour guide and a pair of middle-aged American birdwatchers.
One small caveat: Lay can’t resist rendering the speech of Westerners phonetically (although he’s far too PC to do it to islanders as well). An English traveller, for example, introduces himself thus: “Me too, jost arrived. I’m from Brimming’im. Ing-lund.” This patronising tactic was popularised by Clive James, who went on to make an entire career out of mocking the absurdities of Johnny Foreigner, but at least he had an ear for it. Lay doesn’t.
Still, in recompense for this, The Miss Tutti Frutti Contest offers us one of the most sensational jacket illustrations produced all year. It’s by Andy Leleisi’uao, a New Zealand-born artist of Samoan descent, and if it doesn’t immediately make you want to cancel your plans for a short break in Sydney and book a ticket to Apia instead, then there’s something very wrong with you.
On the face of it, Liars and Lovers should be a far more tempting read than The Miss Tutti Frutti Contest. One is a whimsical meander around the Pacific Islands; the other a non-stop shagfest through swinging Europe in the 1970s. For this reader – and, I suspect, many others – the shagfest is the obvious favourite. And yet seldom has a book so chock-full of sex been so utterly devoid of sexiness.
The premise is this: in 1975, 23-year-old Diane Brown gives her root rat husband the flick and books a ticket on one of the last passenger ships to Europe. Almost three decades later, as “a woman on the edge of menopause”, Brown returns to Europe with her partner and attempts a retrospective emotional dissection of her big OE. Was Tony, the American med student who looked into her eyes and said, “I see the hurt”, the love of her life? Could Marion and Kath, a pair of butch Aussie shoplifters, possibly have been lesbians? And why the hell didn’t she explore more of Rome, instead of lounging around the campsite reading Watership Down?
Even material as dull as this could be salvaged by wit, or insight, or at the very least a sincere attempt to forge a connection with the reader. Alas, no such attempt is made. On the one hand, Brown is reluctant to share any personal details that might win our sympathy (“This is not the place to go into detail about the disintegration of my marriage,” she sharply finger-wags within the first couple of chapters, and then proceeds to bleat on about this insufficiently-explained event for the rest of the book.) On the other, she assumes her audience finds the colourless descriptions in her original travel journal as fascinating as she does:
We kept driving till we found a little town, Osuna, where there was a restaurant open. Unfortunately at that time I didn’t have quite the interest in food I have now – for eating, yes, but for describing, no. According to my diary we had chicken for dinner. Boiled, roast, fried, or in paella? I wish I could say.
Some of the material here is potentially of interest, even if only as a period piece. There’s the hilarious obsession with yoga; the slathering on of coconut oil instead of sunblock; the exhilarating absence of discussions about student loans, house prices or superannuation plans; and the apparent assumption of just about every man Brown meets that a young woman travelling by herself must be sexually available.
But Brown doesn’t seem much interested in the extra-ordinary era of social change she lived through. She sees herself, first and foremost, as a writer – make that Writer – and her chief objective is to examine her twentysomething self for evidence of the poet-in-waiting. Her excuse for reading House and Garden is that the magazine sometimes features the homes of writers, and, after bemoaning the fact that she has no daughters, she says she will “give birth only to books from now on”.
Certainly, the reader is never permitted to forget that Brown teaches writing as well as churning the stuff out:
Our view of Switzerland was limited to the train window. Beautiful, I wrote in my diary. This was before I had attended my own writing class, so I didn’t know then that beautiful was an imprecise word and too vague to be recalled. What matters is precise details and imagery: the exact colour of rivers and sky, the movement of shadows, the type of trees, the shapes humans have imposed upon the natural contours of the land.
Oh yeah? It seems to me this is exactly what is wrong with the New Zealand literary scene: there are far too many writers banging on about the exact colour of rivers and sky, and the movement of shadows, and, god help us, the type of trees, and not nearly enough who are prepared to think up an engaging story and attempt to tell it using words as daringly unpretentious as beautiful.
During her first trip to Europe, Brown herself unwittingly summed up the travel memoir she was one day to write. At the time, she was being chatted up in a ham-fisted sort of way by Dan, one of many predatory Australian no-hopers:
“What is it you want from life?” Dan asked.
I had no real answer. “I’d like to write,” I said after a while, “but I’m not sure if I have the talent.”
“Write about what?” Dan asked. “What are your passions, your interests? And you have to have something to say.”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “I’m not sure that I have.”
Linley Boniface is a Wellington reviewer.