Islands the World Forgot

The Happy Islands of Oceania     by Paul Theroux

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1992  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      The south sea islands! Stevenson's Samoa, Gauguin's Tahiti, Melville's "Typee," Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" (withmusic by Rodgers and Hammerstein), Heyerdahl's "Kon Tiki." Theroux brings their story up to date in a long and detailed travelogue, covering an extensive territory.

      His journey starts with New Zealand and Australia, parts of the prosperous western world, though their native inhabitants do not seem to share much of that prosperity. It ends in Hawaii, which also seems familiar. But in between he moves off the beaten track to the Solomon islands, the Marquesas, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Easter island, and some whose names I had never heard until I opened this book--Vanuatu, Aitutaki, Trobriand islands, Vava'u group.

      A travelogue on television usually involves more than meets the eye--a camera crew is always around, and what seems spontaneous often isn't. Not so here. Theroux travels alone, carrying a collapsible kayak for travel around and between islands; he talks to countless natives and visitors, learns pidgin, collects words (all Polynesian languages seem related), camps in his small tent on deserted beaches and no doubt, takes copious notes throughout his trip.

      Like other travel books by Theroux, this one too seems a bit too personal--too many pronouncements, too much of the writer's ego, and the reader may also wish for more passion for the islanders. No matter: so much is crammed here that the reader is swept up by the story. It is an easy read, most chapters stand on their own and it makes little difference whether you read them in order or skip around.

      The lush islands and the sunny lagoons are all still there, but times have changed. Having fought bitterly over some of these islands in World War II, the world has largely lost interest in them. Once again they are a backwater of civilization, and once again their inhabitants have to live austerely off fish, coconuts, yams and foraging pigs. The old culture, though, is fading: old seafaring skills are neglected and lost, and ancient traditions are smothered by missionary Christianity. Alcohol, rock music and canned food make inroads: societies which until recently had lived in the stone age do not adapt gracefully to modern times.

      And yet. And yet, life on these islands still echoes old tribal ways, and as Theroux drifts from one island to another, he experiences many interesting encounters. It is a world tourists rarely see: read this book and catch a glimpse of it, for it might not last much longer.


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Last updated 18 January 2002