Leaves of the Banyan Tree by Albert Wendt

I think the blurb gives a pretty good idea of what kind of book this is:

An epic spanning three generations, Leaves of the Banyan Tree tells the story of a family and community in Western Samoa, exploring on a grand scale such universal themes as greed, corruption, colonialism, exploitation, and revenge. Winner of the 1980 New Zealand Wattie Book of the Year Award, it is considered a classic work of Pacific literature.

It is, in other words, a Big Novel about Important Things. And although it occasionally feels a bit self-consciously epic, on the whole I think it pulls it off. It’s the story of Tauilopepe, a matai in the village of Sapepe. I can’t think of an English title which is quite equivalent to matai, but it means he is the official head of an extended family, one of three in Sapepe. 

Having been expelled from theological college, Tauilopepe is ambitious, driven at the start of the novel by a resentful sense of underachievement, and convinced of the superiority of modern, European ways of doing things.

So the novel is partly about the decline of the traditional Samoan way of life; the coming of Western agriculture, a wage-based economy, Western buildings, and the loss of influence of the village council, the loss of the old stories. But it’s also a story of greed, power and dysfunctional family relationships that could take place in a shoe factory in Bradford.

On the whole I really liked it: it’s a successful portrayal of a time and place, Tauilopepe and his son Pepe are both great characters, and the whole thing moves along at a sufficient pace to keep me reading — it felt like quite a short 400 pages. If I was going to be super-picky, I’m not completely sure about the ending; without wanting to give away too many details, a new character unexpectedly turns up and throws everything up in the air. I’m not completely convinced by the character, who seemed a bit stagey to me, and that slightly diminished my pleasure in the ending, narratively neat though it is.

Anyway, here’s a little extract:

‘There she is,’ Toasa said, sweeping his walking-stick across the bush. ‘No one has touched her before. Anyway no one who’s alive to tell us, eh? She has remained pure since God created these islands. Line up!’

All the men except Tauilopepe, who remained beside Toasa, formed a line at the foot of the green wall. ‘Remember, no one has touched her before!’ Toasa shouted. The men advanced cautiously. ‘What are you waiting for for, eh? You don’t want to deflower her? You scared of her?’ A few of the men laughed. Tauilopepe advanced to a short tree and chopped it down with one blow of his axe. ‘There, see that?’ called Toasa. ‘It’s easy. She won’t scream and charge you in court with rape! Many of the others followed Tauilopepe’s example. ‘Good! Come on now, raise your baby-sized manhoods and chop, cut burn!’ The line advanced; the axes and bushknives started biting into the flesh of the living wall.

When the first big trees thundered to the ground, tearing and levelling all the small vegetation before them, some of the men cheered. Their axes and bushknives took on greater fury. Soon the snapping chomping sound of iron biting deep shattered the silence and chased the birds like wood chips into teh air and away towards the range. Toasa moved from group to group, encouraging them to hack and chop. ‘Prove your manhood!’ he said.

Leaves of the Banyan Tree is my book from Samoa for the Read The World challenge. If you’re wondering, btw, ‘what kind of Samoan name is Albert Wendt?’, well, I was curious myself; according to Google he had a German great-grandfather. And if you’re wondering about the reference to ‘Western Samoa’ in the blurb above: the Samoan islands are divided between a US dependency called American Samoa and a nation which was called Western Samoa but changed its name to Samoa in 1997. (Western) Samoa was German Samoa until the end of WW1 and then run from New Zealand until independence in 1962.

» the picture, Samoa in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s, was found on Flickr and is © Lorena Haldeman.

Island rugby

One of the minor pleasures of international sport is the way that sports change and adapt as they travel around the world. So professional soccer starts with one character and one meaning a century ago in grimy industrial British cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, and mutates into something different in Buenos Aires, Budapest, Milan, Dakar, and even Los Angeles. And no one place can claim that their version is somehow the real thing. A sport is just a set of rules, an abstract framework; there are as many ways to play a game of football as there are to write a sonnet.

For the English, there’s one vision of an archetypal game of cricket. It takes place somewhere lush and green; preferably a village green in the country, with an oak tree, a pub and some fluffy white clouds. But cricket is also a game of dusty back streets in Karachi and sun-baked pitches in Guyana.

The first games of cricket in India, perhaps played by members of the East India Company or the British Army, must have seemed impossibly out-of-place, a bloody-minded attempt to maintain a facade of Englishness; like Kim Philby sitting in his Moscow apartment eating Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade and watching Test cricket on videotape. But at some stage, to use the colonial jargon, cricket went native, and cricket is as authentically Indian as kedgeree is authentically English.

But I want to talk about the adoption of rugby union by the people of the South Pacific. The image of rugby has improved since the game turned professional in 1995, but not long ago, even at international level, it seemed to be a game of fat blokes grinding out low-scoring wins in about three feet of mud. And at club level, an opportunity for middle class men to go on the kind of tours that involved a lot of beer and songs with vulgar gestures. Grey skies, mud, and self-satisfied amateurism.

public school rugby kits

Against that kind of background, I remember the first time I saw a touring team from Samoa on TV; I thought at first that some of them were wearing some kind of tight black Lycra shorts under their kit. It was a shock to realise that their entire thighs were densely covered in traditional tattoos. The tattoos aren’t the most spectacular thing they brought with them from traditional Pacific culture, though; that would be the pre-match challenge. The most famous is the Haka, performed by the New Zealand rugby team before a match, but Samoa, Tonga and Fiji all have their own versions. There are lots of examples on YouTube, but the most atmospheric is this one, with the New Zealand Haka facing up to the Tongan Sipi Tau:

I don’t actually know how the sport came to be taken up so enthusiastically in the Pacific. Given rugby’s boarding school origins, it’s tempting to think it was purposefully introduced there by missionaries as part of the kind of muscular Christianity that believes in cold baths and lots of manly sport as the best way to prevent ‘filthiness’. But the Pacific islanders have made it so much their own that you could believe it happened the other way round: that missionaries took the bible to Polynesia and came back having discovered an exotic, warlike local sport called, as best as they could pronounce it, ‘rugby’. The way polo was brought back from the Himalayas by the British, and turned into a game for stockbrokers.

The reason I’m posting a paean to Pacific rugby now is that the Rugby World Cup is currently on, and the island teams have looked good. With professionalism, they can now make a living playing for clubs in Europe, and they’ve added greater fitness, discipline and experience to their game. Last week, Fiji beat Wales in a brilliant match to reach the quarterfinals for the first time. That might not seem much of an achievement, considering I’ve just been rhapsodising about their passion for the game, but sport generally favours countries which are large and rich, and Fiji, with a little under a million people, is neither.

And Fiji is a colossus compared to Tonga and Samoa, which have a combined population of about 300 000. There are 57 cities in the USA which have a population of over 300 000; despite that fact, the US rugby team has been beaten by both countries at this tournament. Yes, I know, rugby must be about the 15th most popular team sport in the US; but still, you have to enjoy this parallel world where the puny Americans are crushed by the mighty Tonga.

» Football Ghana was uploaded to Flickr by sarahebsgaard; Cricket at The Oval Maidan is by .Hessam. The rugby kits are from an illustration Football Colours of some of our Public Schools from the Boy’s Own Paper, used under a by-sa Creative Commons licence. The Flickr account of Frederic of www.rugby-pioneers.com is a mine of great vintage rugby material. Check out that link to his blog, as well. THE Beach, taken in Samoa, was uploaded to Flickr by Tagaloa.

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