BOOK REVIEW / Into paradise with a curled lip: The Happy Isles of Oceania - Paul Theroux: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
IN AN EARLIER book, Paul Theroux describes an encounter with a young woman on a lonely path in southern England. He greets her, but she gives him a horrified stare, then runs off in the opposite direction. Theroux relates this in a tone of pained surprise. To me she has always seemed the most sensible person in the book. Stopping to chat to Theroux is a risky business: there are so many things - your grammar or your jumper or your political views - that may suddenly enrage him, and then, there you are, impaled on the page among all the other oafs and dimwits who abound on Theroux's travels.

That was in The Kingdom by the Sea, a stroll around the coasts of Britain. In this latest book, he sets out for the wider shores of the Pacific. One has not read far before realising that it is not just solitary walkers at risk from the baleful Theroux eye: whole racial groups and small sovereign states should beware.

Admittedly, he sets off in a grim mood: his marriage is on the rocks, and he might have skin cancer. It is an odd time to head for a region with the highest incidence of melanoma in the world, and sure enough, it turns out badly. Theroux is wretched in his first port of call, New Zealand. He detects 'the English death' hanging over the streets, people are smug and Calvinist or dirty and ignorant, they carry string bags into shops called 'things like Edwin Mouldey Ironmongery'.

In Australia a fat man bowls up to him at a literary function, calling him a 'fucking wanker'. Thereafter it is apparent to Theroux that all Australians 'wanted to hit me'. He berates the 'gloatingly rude and light-fingered' Western Samoans for their 'low hilarity' and failure to get his puns. Tongans are 'porky' and 'mendacious', American Samoans 'piggy' and 'hoggishly contented'. And so on.

Theroux has in the past defended himself obliquely against the charge of malice, quoting Dickens, who wrote: 'To represent me as viewing America with ill-nature, coldness or animosity is to do a very foolish thing, which is always a very easy one . . .' Well, perhaps Theroux does not set out with malice aforethought. But, involuntarily, his lip curls. Can one imagine Dickens writing this: 'I passed a bloody sanitary towel where someone had thrown it on the street, and I thought: because of that disgusting object I will never come here (Christchurch, NZ) again'?

This relentless solipsism has its admirers. People say it is precisely Theroux's displays of honest bad temper that distinguish his from lesser travel writings. I do not agree. Theroux is an exceptional writer; but his deadly ear for dialogue and his command of language are never better than when free of misanthropy.

His interview with the King of Tonga, for instance, whom he admires and is rather awed by, is marvellous. When Theroux is away on his own, under the Samoan stars or kayaking below the cliffs of Easter Island, the writing is superb. On Aitutaki Lagoon, he records: 'As I sat on a log and began eating my lunch, the whole beach got up and started walking sideways. Shells big and small were bobbling all over the place . . . like a Disney cartoon where nature begins to frolic . . .'

The longer he is in the Pacific, the more he cheers up. By the time he reaches Hawaii, he is in a positive muddle of benignancy. Hawaii 'may be the most successful multiracial culture in the world,' he tells us, then in the next breath warns that white people are 'cheerfully tormented and sometimes assaulted' if they go to certain beaches.

It seems strange, from a man who goes stiff with rage when offered a pert word from a teenager in Samoa, this roguish wink at racial violence on the shores of the 50th state. But Theroux, an American, is soaring on: Hawaii, he tells us, is no less than Paradise itself. Why? Well, it's got a good climate and 'great stores' and 'great hospitals' - to which no doubt you are taken after going to the wrong beach.

These patriotic fervours can easily be forgiven. Finally one returns to the first objection to the book - its curious air of heartlessness. Theroux muses about other writers - Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pierre Loti - who have gone to the Pacific and bestowed on some place a 'power of bewitchment that it never really loses'. He wonders whether he too may not do the same to some 'bugsy island'.

That seems unlikely. To 'give bewitchment' one must be capable of being bewitched. We can compare Theroux's and Stevenson's first encounters in Polynesia: Theroux lands in Tonga, sees 'filth', 'pigs oinking', bad roads and a rude desk clerk who tells him to carry his own luggage to his room - 'Up dey. Turd flo'.'

Stevenson, too, is unhappy at first. His cabin is invaded by a rag-tag gang of Marquesans, variously dressed, one 'in a handkerchief, imperfectly adjusted'. He writhes under the gaze of silent and 'embarrassing eyes. Polynesian eyes are large, luminous and melting . . . like the eyes of animals and some Italians'. A young woman, who has never before seen velvet cushions, hikes up her dress and 'with cries of wonder' rubs her bottom upon them. Stevenson, you sense, is already half bewitched. Theroux would be calling security.

(Photograph omitted)

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