on December 12, 2010
Before reading this book, I read through some of the reviews on here. Needless to say, I had the preconceived notion that this book was going to be the diatribe of a misanthropic, bitter wanderer. Although there are some moments where Theroux gets carried away with unkind portraits - his descriptions of Tongans and Samoans, for example - he is not the monster that many of the reviews here paint him as. Not everybody can be happy all the time, and that's more or less how he tells the story.
If you have never read Paul Theroux, then perhaps you will be a bit shocked at his raw cynicism. I, for one, am a big fan. This is the blood and guts of world travel. Nobody can be completely open to a new culture or worldview, and certain things are bound to be annoying. The entire adventure of his literary tour in Australia, for example, points out the nagging, dragging questions of people unfamiliar with his work yet trying to conduct journalistic interviews. It isn't until he is rumbling over the outback that he meets a rural Australian who knows and admires his work - rather unexpectedly, at that. Also, one must remember that Theroux puts it right on the table that he is going through some serious issues in his life - a rough marriage break up, health issues, and feelings of alienation - and is removing himself from the mundane to paddle away his problems.
I, for one, feel like this is one of Theroux's finest books. It is devoid of a real theme and lets you paddle alongside Theroux and his emotional travails. I've traveled a bit in Melanesia, and I find his descriptions to be quite apt. Trouble is everywhere in paradise. Murky, trashed lagoons and quarreling kin networks. Bugs, nagging children, and hustlers. But also, there is the hospitality, the betel nut, the amazing conversations, the unique and unexpected characters and, of course, the bleeding sunsets and turquoise, coral-studded seas.
on December 14, 2011
I'm a big fan of Paul Theroux, at least his travel literature (the only novel of his I've read is Waldo, his debut, which, despite moments of hilarity, doesn't quite come off). In the travel genre, I've read his The Great Railway Bazaar, The Kingdom by the Sea, The Pillars of Hercules, Dark Star Safari, Riding the Iron Rooster, and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
The Great Railway Bazaar is a masterpiece, the others merely very good to outstanding. Time magazine called The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) "possibly his best," and I wondered, as I took up the book, whether this were overstatement or requisite gushing, the deification of another American intellectual. But Happy Isles really is possibly his best - possibly. It's certainly his most unique. Theroux has become famous for being "that travel writer who travels by train," yet here he explores 51 Pacific islands mainly by foot and collapsible kayak. He could have rented cars (and he did, occasionally) and trudged around the more developed areas (he does, sometimes), but no, this author is prone to doing things the hard way - exploring the middles of myriad nowhere, and even setting up camp - and the reader is rewarded for it.
Happy Isles is divided into four happy parts: Meganesia (New Zealand and Australia), Melanesia (the Trobiands, the Solomons, Vanuatu, Fiji), Polynesia (Tonga, Western Somoa, American Somoa, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, the Marquesas, and Easter Island), and what Theroux calls Paradise (the Hawaiian Islands). The isles are diverse, yet similar. Words have travelled thousands of kilometers, and the writer talks about how most islanders have a sense of family, of connectedness. And this is what Theroux doesn't have; he's just broken up with his wife, and his journey is a sort of cathartic, extended "walkabout."
The volume is ironically named. Though there are happy inhabitants in the South Pacific islands, or at least contented ones, the writer reports on the despondent, the taunting, the slow-witted, and the downright peculiar: a man standing up to his neck in a lagoon while puffing on a cigarette; another cradling and cuddling with a large pig. The first Iraq War is on, and people in the Solomons worry about the war spreading to their islands. There are harbours of fish, yet people eat canned tuna and spam. Beaches are often used as communal toilets or dumps. Locals warn the paddler he'll never make it to that distant island, yet he usually does in an hour; the witch winds and sinister currents people speak of never make an appearance. Villages are often threadbare - huts and what not; missionaries have convinced islanders they are sinners, and the Mormons are out recruiting souls for their planet in outer space. And even where there things are more "civilized" they are buggered. The French have politicized Tahiti beyond repair and ruined fragile ecosystems with their atomic bombs; residents of Queensland drink too much and have racist views about the "abos." Theroux probes and ponders, questions and interrogates. He draws people out, and jots down what they say. He plays botanist, beachcomber, anthropologist, investigative journalist, humourist, historian, philosopher, and bum - and he does it all so well. Above all, he is a snoop, one with an appreciation for the outdoors, a limitless curiosity, a sharp understanding of human nature, and a gloating abhorrence for political correctness.
In addition to being his most personal book, this is arguably Theroux's funniest. Consider this chapter intro:
In the way that tardy and negligent people are often blame-shifting and chronically mendacious, many of the Tongans I met in Nuku'alofa were unreliable, and some outright liars - or, to put it charitably, they meant very little of what they said. This could be tiresome in a hot climate. My solution was to take my boat to a part of Tonga where there were no Tongans.
In another bit, the narrator describes a tribal chief as being visible as tribal chief because he had on a less dirty shirt. There's no racism here, for Theroux lambasts all - his description of a pompous New Zealand politician stuffing her gob with meat is deserving of a commemorative plaque. But he's respectful and charitable when people are generous, informative, and normal. Like most sensible people, he just doesn't suffer fools.
There are great "characters" in the "story," and you'll learn tonnes about the region: everything from how to get by in Pidgin English to the complex social structure of Honolulu. I've read Bill Bryson's Down Under, but Theroux better conveys what Australia is like in about 50 pages. When Theroux is exploring Easter Island, Vanuatu, and the Marquesas you feel as though you're exploring it, too. Travel literature can take you far, far away, and Paul Theroux is a superb guide.
If I have any criticism about the book it's the usual one for Theroux: it could have been whittled down a little. Sometimes, there are sections where not much happens, though that makes for balance and mimics the experience. When travelling, it's normal for not much to happen. Still, 528 pages could have been 475, maybe 450.
Paul Theroux remains the godfather of travel literature. There may be others who, on a technical level, write better (Jan Morris, Colin Thubron), but Theroux writes exceptionally well - the descriptive prose in this book is visceral and exquisite. As far as travel writers go (and travel writing is such a rich genre), no one has nearly as much to say.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
on September 6, 2011
Having traveled throughout the world as A Navy SEAL, I have been to many of the places and have encountered many of the personalities and environments in which Paul describes in his book. Yes , the pacific has wonderful sights and wonderful people, but this is usually a facade for the REAL environment hidden under layers which Paul spends the time to peel through . His view of New Zealanders and Australians as backwards, ignorant, arrogant stooges is spot on. His portrayal of local indigenoue islanders as being fat, stupid, lazy mean spirited racist savages is correct as well. I had a blast reading this book as it is finally a travel book telling the true side and nature of most of the pacific. Not the wonderful luau and lei tourist trapping that the islands want tourists to see, but instead, the seedy, backwards, lazy insolent take take take gimme gimme attitude that truly prevails.
His portrayal of American Samoa as having giving up on fishing, agriculture and traditional living and embracing the welfare state that America has set up for them with their weekly cargo shippments of Orange soda and canned spam is a testament to what these islands have become.
It may be a brooding dark commentary by a bitter depressed man on the verge of divorce, but if you truly take the time like Paul did, you would come back with the same views. This is an excellent read and a testament to how missionaries, government do gooders and "civillization" has taken the tahiti and pacific as Captain Blighs men on the bounty found and turned the entire pacific islands into a cesspool of ferment and stagnation.
on July 15, 2001
The idea of touring Oceania by kayak is an interesting one, but I was VERY DISAPPOINTED with Theroux’s book. I’m assuming Theroux was trying to be ironic by calling Oceania "happy," because the book reads like a 500-page complaint form. I don’t believe this is a genuine attempt at giving any insight into the people or places of the Pacific.
He complains about islanders who don’t smile at him on the street, or who react to him with caution or suspicion. Rather than asking himself WHY they react this way (gee, maybe it’s because he’s a single, white, male STRANGER walking into their village…), rather than trying to understand, he simply labels them unfriendly, "fat," "stupid," "lazy," "clumsy" (his words). When he doesn’t find the young, nubile females he was hoping for, he insults the friendly women he does find, calling them "hooting fatties" with "fat, booby faces." On island after island, he ridicules people’s physical appearance and makes assumptions about their intelligence based on that. Is that what a travel writer does? A professional writer? Heck, is that what a mature adult does?
When every other tourist is like Mr. Theroux, is it any wonder that islanders are so reserved or distrustful? When your home has been overrun and your culture wrung-out by Europeans and Asians for centuries, is it such a surprise that islanders might tend to look at them with a wary eye? He expresses near-hatred of Japanese for coming to the Pacific and "taking over"...but forgets that Euros/Americans have been doing the same thing for hundreds of years. The level of contempt he seems to express toward everyone he encounters is remarkable, yet he continually boo-hoos about how lonely he is...is it any wonder?
If you’re looking for a detailed list of strip joints in Honolulu, this is the book for you - he seems to have visited every single one and describes their "specialties." If you want a book about Oceania, look elsewhere.
on September 24, 2008
I can understand how this book would offend some people from Oceania, as there are lots of unflattering descriptions of people Mr. Theroux encountered on his journey. There are, however, lots of lovely and interesting people and places described. In any event, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Tonga and I heard some negative things about it from several people. One man told me that his brother had been and didn't feel safe and thought it would be really unsafe for women. I was surprised, but went back to reading my Lonely Planet guide with a more critical eye. I found the statement, "While the threat of rape does exist"... taking precautions like not walking around alone on empty beaches, etc, should keep women safe. That it even needed to be mentioned seemed telling to me. So I bought this travel book to get a more thorough description from someone opinionated and a little cranky, like me (I read Dark Star Safari and respect his opinion) and I found it really enlightening. Yes, it's slanted, but it's slanted from the point of view of an American who isn't used to the more unfortunate and seemingly common aspects of some Pacific Islands' cultures, with their stealing, with their often nasty treatment of outsiders (jeering and insults), and with the threat of violence. Of course, in the wrong neighborhood almost anywhere in America, these things occur, but that's not the point here. These kinds of things are really useful for an outsider (especially a female) to know going in and I really appreciated being able to read this book and radically readjust my naive idea of the Happy Isles as looking and feeling like a Gauguin painting. I recommend this book.