Paul Theroux on the South Pacific

The Press, August 1, 1992

Denis Dutton

The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific, by Paul Theroux. Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 501 pp. $34.95 (paperback).


Dame Catherine Tizard has an odd way of eating. As Paul Theroux describes it, she scrapes food onto her fork, and then uses her thumb to nudge on more. After chewing, the Governor General of New Zealand licks her thumb. She also picks her teeth to dislodge fragments of her meal while conversing with guests.

Though Theroux’s account of dinner with Dame Cath caused a minor media tempest when it was first reported here, it is only a tiny part of his long, fascinating narrative of travelling the Pacific with collapsible canoe, primus stove, Walkman (plus Kirl Te Kanawa tapes), and notebook. Theroux’s acidulous descriptions will make him few friends in the insecure, corrupt, and untidy little island states he visited, but that may just be testament to his book’s accuracy.

Some of his disgusted reactions to people and places are, as he freely admits, purely subjective. Others seem undeniable to anyone, as these words describing Port Moresby: “One of the most violent and decrepit towns on the face of the planet. Dusty and felling apart, it had been thoroughly vandalized before it could ever be finished, so it looked like an enormous building site, slums and flimsy bungalows scattered across a number of ugly hills.”

Paul Theroux
From Port Moresby he heads for the Trobriand Islands, with their Christian hypocrisy and local culture in various stages of decay. Tormented by a mob of boys with fish spears, he is surprised by their cruelty: here, as elsewhere in Oceania, he was the “perfect victim: an outsider.” Afterwards, he hears of a mortal battle that had been waged between two villages he visited. There was nothing idyllic about the lives of these islanders, whose existence is riddled with superstition and violence.

But he frequently meets with kindness and extraordinary natural beauty, paddling near white beaches with slender palms against the backdrop of spectacular dormant volcanoes, Kiri singing Puccini through his earphones. Solomon Islanders treat him well. They admired the movie character Rambo, who has become a folk-hero throughout Oceania (as I discovered myself in New Guinea at about the same time). As Theroux says, anyone inclined to condemn this as simple-minded savagery should remember that Ronald Reagan saw Rambo and claimed to be uplifted.

In Vanuatu, Theroux finds villages where Christianity had been abandoned in the late 1930s in favour of the John Frum cult. John Frum, if that was his actual name, seems to have been an American pilot whose appearance was taken as a sign calling for a return to the old animist traditions — no more tithing, Ten Commandments, or prudish, meddling missionaries. And he promised “cargo”: useful, valuable goods from another world. Some villages fly the American flag as an act of continuing faith, and people even told Theroux the Gulf War was an event perhaps heralding Frum’s next appearance.

If the Solomons and parts of Vanuatu were high-points because their traditional cultures were still somewhat intact, other isles fare less well. The political disaster of Fiji is nicely described, with blame apportioned to all. Yet Theroux’s sympathies lie with the desperate, frightened Indians, rather than with the sanctimonious, Bible-waving Fijians.

Tongans — whose reputation for thievery “exceeded even that of the light-lingered Samoans” — are usually “late, unapologetic. envious, abrupt, lazy, mocking, quarrelsome, and particularly sadistic to their children,” despite Methodism or the influence of their Mormon churches, which by the way “looked like Dairy Queen franchises.” None of this, however, quite describes the King of Tonga, a huge man whose slow, indistinct speech masks considerable intelligence. He lectures Theroux on the origins of the Franco-Prussian War, explains the Chinese etymology of certain Japanese words, and denounces the French.

Theroux himself regards the French “insincere, unprincipled, and unreliable” and he particularly detests their nuclear testing. In contrast he admires New Zealand especially for its nuclear policy, and is positively enthusiastic in reporting a long conversation with David Lange in the Cook Islands. He also finds the Cook Islanders “special” — hospitable, generous, and friendly.

Such summary judgments do not convey the richness and descriptive complexity of this book. Theroux is not an old Pacific hand, but his wide knowledge of other cultures and races gives his view of the region depth and penetration. He has a sharp eye far detail and writes with an attractively rough honesty, even when, as with his paranoia about theft in American Samoa (a “kleptocracy”), he realises he was reacting foolishly. The Samoans had been good humoured and helpful.

Though often asked, “How do you like Na Zillun?” Theroux’s attempts to respond with praise were turned aside: Kiwis seemed “the hardest people in the world to compliment.” Christchurch wasn’t pleasant, but as he explains, he was miserable because he had just split with his wife. He sees a happy family having dinner in the Californian Fried Chicken restaurant on Papanui Road and breaks into tears. Dunedin is “cold and frugal,” and he falls into the hands of some Otago students who seem “ignorant, assertive, and dirty.” On the other hand, some of Theroux’s most loving pages are eloquent descriptions of the Routeburn Track.

He did not like Dame Cath, characterising her as bossy, shallow, and unimaginative. But she still comes across as a lively, good-hearted lady, capable of laughing at a rude joke — “a New Zealander to her fingertips.” Like many of her country-folk, Theroux finds her principled, but slightly smug about it. In contrast with the stupid, racist Australians he describes, and the dreadful, hypocritical French, this is high praise, however grudging. In fact, New Zealanders seem rather well regarded by this grumpiest of travel writers.

One journalist has cast doubt on Theroux’s account of his dinner with Dame Cath because he had neither tape recorder nor notebook at hand. However, speaking as one of his victims, I have news on that score. I ran into Paul Theroux in Port Moresby in 1991 and spent a few hours with him in shops looking at carvings, which I was there researching at the time. We chatted for over an hour, said our good-byes, and I thought no more of it.

What an bracing little shock then to find myself in this book. I have a different name and the place of our encounter has been changed, but Theroux has managed to record with uncanny accuracy what I told him. I imagine he holds conversations long enough in his memory to write them down as soon as he is alone. My page in The Happy Isles leaves me both astonished and mildly embarrassed. Did I say that those villagers on one occasion I recounted to him “almost shat in their pants”? Well, uh, I did. People who loose their tongues in the presence of writers have no right to complain.