Happy Isles of Oceania : Paddling the Pacific
by Paul Theroux
Release Date: 19 October, 1993
I read this book a couple of years ago and am still galled by Theroux' writings. Although I have visited many of the islands of the South Pacific, I will contain my comments to Fiji alone.
I have visited many, many times and lived in Fiji for over five years with my family (my mother lived there for almost 20 years). What is written about Fiji is almost fiction. I don't know how Theroux interpreted the islanders as threatening. Their smiles could light up the world.
I've been married to a Fijian (man) for over 20 years now and Theroux' take on the people couldn't be further from the truth.
Finally, his section on the two coups that occurred is so far from the truth as to be fiction. He must only have spoken with the Indian faction to get such a one-sided slant. My mother was there during the coup and there was no threat or danger to anyone. In fact, very little "uprising" to say the least.
I've been waiting for a forum to vent my anger over the Fiji section of the book and I thank you for the space.
Theroux's work is persistent in generalizations and superficial observations, based on fleeting encounters with the many peoples of the South Pacific. He has a habit of labeling a number of the ethnic groups that he encounters, as ignorant of other cultures, which really is descriptive of his own ignorance!
Unfortunately such fleeting encounters as Theroux describes, are no substitute for being a part of the region from birth. Had Theroux taken time to study the South Pacific in a space-time field that has its origins in the region, he would get to a better understanding of the local peoples, and would have done justice to the local people and provided a better return on the reader's investment.
The book reads like fiction due its abundance of inaccuracies: "...Indians who never drank kava... Fijian men did little else but squat around a bowl and guzzle it". These statements are blatantly wrong! Also, "[Fijians] ... tended to prefer porky Chinese food over Indian curries."- Ch. 12. I would ask Theroux how many Fijian homes he had visited and dined within?
Unfortunately, Theroux misses a fundamental truism of the South Pacific peoples - be they indigenous or a descendent of colonial implants - they are extremely reserved people. Their friendliness and amiability may be apparent at the first encounter, but to really get know their thoughts, one needs to spend extended periods of time within relatively small communities.
There's almost a hint of jealousy that folks in the South Pacific can prosper and are socially, technically and academically progressive, despite the 'seemingly carefree' attitude that they exhibit. This results in expositions that are frequently punctuated by arrogance and racism on the part of the author.
It does make for entertaining reading, hence the two stars. However, it is not objective, as travel journals need to be, and is far from the truth that one would encounter. Visit the South Pacific and find out for yourself !