Forked tongues

Review: SERPENT IN PARADISE by Dea Birkett Picador pounds 16.99
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This is Sartrean travel writing. Pitcairn island is the size of Hyde Park. Its inhabitants are scarcer than Liberal Democrat MPs. They speak a mixture of 18th-century nautical English and Polynesian. They are all Seventh Day Adventists. It is further from anywhere else than can easily be imagined; the nearest phone connected to the outside world is more than 3,000 miles away, in New Zealand. The nearest doctor, if not there, is wherever the nearest ocean-going ship happens to be. From Houston, where Dea Birkett embarks for the island on a Norwegian bulk chemical carrier, it would be quicker to travel to the moon.

Pitcairn should be paradise. Birkett's passion for it is fuelled by watching The Bounty at the Elephant and Castle Coronet, but its appeal is wider. As James Hamilton-Paterson says in Seven-Tenths, "everyone looks at an island, whether consciously or not, much as a tyrant eyes a territory ... [a] unit of land which fits within the retina of the approaching eye is a token of desire." ("Within a month," echoes the newly-landed Birkett, "I could conquer Pitcairn.") With the added lustre of its mutineer heritage and a philatelic industry built on rarity and proudly extreme isolation, Pitcairn is besieged with would-be lotus eaters begging "Licence to Land".

On Birkett's account, they should stay at home. Left to their own devices, the islanders seem to have evolved a strain of paranoid madness. They snoop and spy on each other. They steal each other's avocados. Minor infractions of social niceties result in surly vindictive revenge attacks: one islander, who finds that her banana tree has been scrumped, camouflages six-inch nails, points up, in the mud outside the offender's house. As Birkett sees it, there is no way of dealing with these feuds: "it was inconceivable that Dave would go to his brother [the island's policeman] and ask him to arrest his aunt". The islanders' presentation of self has disconcerting boundaries: all the islanders are team, the rest of the world audience.

Birkett eventually becomes convinced that the islanders wish, actively or passively, to murder her. Her previous book, Jella, recounted her experience as part of the crew of a cargo ship, but by comparison even to that Pitcairn is claustrophobic. Dennis, her hosts' adult son, writes her passionate notes one day, then refuses to speak to her the next. In a reversal of the normal pattern of participant observation, things slip away from under Birkett. At first, she is welcomed by the islanders, who invite her to parties, take her to collect wood for carving, teach her to paint banana leaves, and fish with her for sharks. But the deeper she penetrates their society, the less she likes them or it. The title of the book contains an ironic admission that she is the serpent; but she also clearly comes to regard the islanders as snakes. Her joy at being in paradise turns to stark, frankly articulated loathing.

Serpent in Paradise reads with the momentum of a narrative proceeding at an increasing pace towards inevitable disaster. It mixes acute anthropology with historical exegesis and personal confession. And yet, or perhaps as a consequence, reading it is an uneasy experience. In Jella, Birkett altered the name of the ship and its crew, but they were still readily recognisable to other merchant seamen, who wrote to her from all over the world triumphantly identifying both. With Pitcairn Island, no such exercise is possible. You cannot falsify this island; and in a place with 38 inhabitants, all the characters would be immediately recognisable to their neighbours even had she changed their names.

What responsibility does the author have in such circumstances? She travels to the island under false pretences, supposedly on assignment for the Royal Mail. She accepts the islanders' hospitality; inevitably, as there are no hotels. She knows they are hostile to being written about: the jacket flap defiantly quotes a conversation she has with one of them to this effect. "Them people who go write books on Pitcairn should go wipe" ("an indication of disapproval or disgust", is the redundant translation). She reveals their secrets, collective and individual, to the world.

In her defence, Birkett might argue that there are no secrets on Pitcairn anyway: the instant revelation of her liaison with one of the islanders, whose wife is in New Zealand, demonstrates that. And if she betrayed the islanders, they betrayed her, sending news of this encounter to Britain, using her as unwitting courier. And if a copy of Serpent in Paradise reaches Pitcairn, it may lie dusty and unread in the island library, along with the copy of Jella she sent ahead of her.

None the less, a travel book whose acknowledgements thank everyone but the author's hosts is a clear testament to the complete breakdown of a relationship. Birkett is critical of her own conduct, but with an anthropologist's disinterest. "I had been a tolerated, sometimes amusing outsider. But, in trying to get closer, I had abandoned that privileged status and become an aberrant insider." Had she analysed explicitly her own subsequent literary act of revenge, Serpent in Paradise might have felt less like a set of six-inch nails buried points up in mud.