Island Boy by Tom Davis

…or to give him his full title: Sir Tom Davis, Pa Tuterangi Ariki, KBE. The ‘Pa Tuterangi Ariki’ bit was a title he got by marriage; the knighthood was all his own. Davis was the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands from 1978-87, and Island Boy is his autobiography. He was undoubtedly an impressive individual — he studied medicine in New Zealand, then took the job of Medical Officer of the Cook Islands, where he modernised a decrepit colonial medical service; then he sailed his young family in a small yacht from the Cook Islands to Boston to study public health; did some medical work in Alaska; then he took various research jobs in the US, including research on physiological adaptions to extreme conditions for the army and the nascent space program; raced sports cars; then returned to the Cook Islands to enter politics as a free market ideologue, eventually becoming Prime Minister.

So there’s lots of good material. However, although Davis wrote perfectly well, he was not a dazzling prose stylist, or a man with a gift for anecdote, and he clearly had no intention of sharing anything very personal; he mentions two marriages, a divorce and several children during the book but gives absolutely no details at all. So what you get is a straightforward, by the numbers autobiography which is often interesting but also often a bit of a chore. I don’t think he was terribly introspective, to be honest. His obituary, which I found while trying to learn more about his title, says (among more flattering stuff):

A driven and ambitious man, he was sometimes seen by his peers as arrogant and conceited.

And that does ring true. He is certainly really quite dismissive of most of his political colleagues and opponents.

I ordered Island Boy as my book from the Cook Islands for the Read The World challenge, before realising that the Cook Islands wasn’t actually on my list of countries, which is based on UN membership. But the list isn’t that rigid, and having bought it I may as well count it.

» The picture, Avarua Market, is © Daniele Sartori and used under a CC by-nc licence.


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.


Maiba by Russell Soaba

Maiba: A Novel of Papua New Guinea* is, you won’t be surprised to hear, my book from PNG for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it second-hand and was surprised to find when it came that it was a print-on-demand edition (I’m sure it’s a second-hand copy rather than one printed for me, btw). Of course POD services — or indeed e-books — are perfect for this kind of niche literature. Because of the challenge, I’ve been browsing around for second-hand copies of obscure books from around the world, and they don’t normally come cheap.

The print quality, for the moment, is noticeably weaker; my Maiba is perfectly adequate but a bit cheaper-looking and more generic than a normal mass-market paperback. But if POD helps keep books available at reasonable prices, then a slight compromise on print quality seems a good trade-off.

I imagine that most of the people ordering copies of Maiba are teaching or studying post-colonial literature, and it does fit fairly neatly into that niche. If I had to identify a central theme I’d say it was about the conflict between traditional Papuan culture and modernity — or change, anyway. The agents of change aren’t actually particularly strongly present in the book; the action takes place in a somewhat remote coastal village where the lifestyle is still fairly traditional (as far as I can judge from my complete lack of knowledge), but the relevance and authority of that tradition is oozing away.

I imagine that tradition vs. change is going to be a frequently recurring theme in the course of this challenge; but then I suppose rapid societal change has been the experience of most of the world’s population for the past century or so. Perhaps it’s just more obvious to me when I’m reading a novel set in PNG than one set in Surrey.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it, as a novel. It’s short — only 115 pages — and rather open-ended. But it is well-suited to literary tourism; it has plenty of local detail about landscape, food, local buildings, bits of folklore and custom. And it’s well written. Perhaps my only real problem with it is that I’m not a big fan of short forms of fiction.

* Or at least that’s the title on the cover; inside it’s called Maiba: A Papuan Novel.


Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

One for the Read The World challenge. Wikipedia only mentions one writer from Vanuatu: Grace Mera Molisa. There was a copy of Black Stone, her first book of poems, for sale on AbeBooks, so I thought I’d give it a punt.

This is political poetry: Black Stone was published in 1983, just three years after Vanuatu gained independence, and the main dynamics of the book are anti-colonialism and feminism.

If the aim of the challenge is to get some sense of different places around the world, then this book isn’t ideal. It largely deals with politics in the abstract, and aside from a few place-names it would be difficult to guess where it was written. I have no more idea of the landscape or everyday life of Vanuatu than I did before I read it. But then I don’t think I’m the target audience.

I’m not terribly excited by it as poetry either; most of it reads as political prose broken up rather arbitrarily into short  lines. This is from a poem called Newspaper Mania:

The medium
of Newsprint
can make
and break
and men
in dictating
and shaping
public opinion
by subtle
and invisible

There are occasionally hints of something more interesting, though; from the same poem, I think this has a fine acid touch to it:

flock to Port Vila
crawling the bars
sniffing the farts
of other
transient scavengers
and go away
on Vanuatu politics. 

Despite  few good moments, the book mainly reads to me as social activism rather than poetry. Not that I have anything against social activism.