Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book 11, Samoa: "Leaves of the Banyan Tree" by Albert Wendt

Yes, I've dissed Prof Thumboo before for his lofty style, but I have to say I'm bloody impressed by his philanthropy. Turns out the entire RDET section on Level 6 of the National Library stands for Reference: Donation of Edwin Thumboo, and the only reason I can get these South Pacific writers in the first place is that he bought (or was personally given) these volumes while on tour in the islands.

"Leaves of the Banyan Tree", for example, comes with a personal dedication to ET's wife:

For Swee Chin,
With best wishes
And alofa,
Al Wendt

Furthermore, it comes with several kilos of kickass.

It's an epic saga of a family over the course of the 20th century, as they move from poverty in the old clan system of plantations in the village to cosmopolitan nihilism in the city and back, centering on the voyage of the ambitious leader Tauilopepe who stops at nothing to gain power: mowing down the sacred bush of the village, sodomising his rival's wife, beating his children (who of course run away and rebel, and maybe one comes back...)

Ah yes, and here's the coolest thing: the book's written in three sections, each of which is in a slightly different style. The first is your standard realist post-colonial novel in third person, the second is in first person and much funnier, more sardonic (in fact, it began as the titular novella of "Flying-Fox in the Freedom Tree"), while the third is realist and third person again, only with a tinge of humour left over.

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It's really good. A pity I couldn't check it out of the library: I had to camp in and finish its 411 pages in three shots. Very readable - I love the childhood opinions of the son Pepe who goes to school in the capital city, Apia, and he's all prepared to be the hero of the village who's absorbed all the wisdom of the elders, rescuing them from the corruption of his father. But then he drops out of school and invests himself in cheating tourists out of their money and semi-abusively seducing girls and committing violent crimes...

It's a world after the Fall: no returning to the dreamworld of the gods they're named after. Criously, the characters are proud of not having been completely colonised unlike their neighbours, yet they're subsumed by Christianity and family structures and exploitative economics. Sure, some of them get rich and enter white men's clubs and go to New Zealand for boarding school and learn to say words like jake and bloody and raining cats and dogs (does it really rain animals in the winter?) but it's uncertain if independence is a triumph for them.

But it is a more optimistic ending than you'd expect, given the way everyone buggers each other upside-down in the book. Anyhow, highly recommended.

Oh, and language WIN: liberal use of Samoan words like fale, papalagi, umu (getting familiar, these are) but with a glossary at the end.

Representative quote: The papalagi and his world has turned us and people like your rich but unhappy father and all the modern Samoans into cartoons of themselves, funny crying ridiculous shadows on the picture screen. Nevermind, we tried to be true to our selves. That is all I think any man with a club can do.

Next book: Ze Lin Xiao's "Tutuila" from American Samoa

P.S. Apologies for calling this country Western Samoa when I first wrote this post! It was changed in 1997 and I never knew.


Mome Rath said...

This is a rare book to see on the book blogs! I enjoyed reading Leaves of the Banyan Tree (aka The Banyan) last year. The first section reminded me of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the sudden change to first person narrative in the second section was unexpected but brilliant. Glad you enjoyed the book. I'm envious of the wide range of Pacific literature you have available in Singapore!

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

Oh man, sorry, didn't see this comment. This book was in the reference section - not very easily available at all! But it was worth the visits to the library to get it finished.