Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book 6, Solomon Islands: "Jerry of the Islands" by Jack London

Yeah, I realised I couldn’t reach Vanuatu without crossing the Solomon Islands, so I decided to grab a free online classic, available for free via Project Gutenberg and the Kindle Store.

And wow. Horrific wow.

This book is mind-blowingly racist.

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Sure, I had warning. After all, I’d heard from my sis that London is kinda screwy about race in “White Fang”. Anyway, it’s the oldest book I’ve done so far, and the first book by a non-citizen of the nation involved.

But I’m still flabbergasted. You will be too. The main character’s an Irish terrier called Jerry, bred in the Solomons by a white colonist, specifically bred to be a “nigger-chaser”. That’s right: his specific job is to run around mauling Mister Haggins’s Melanesian serfs.

He’s given as a puppy to a ship trader called Van Horn, a former wrecking crew worker from Harlem who now goes through the islands trading with tribes in calico and cigarettes and indentured manpower. And what does Van Horn (and his good-for-nothing schnapps-addicted second-in-command Brockman) get called from the perspective of the little dog? A “white-god”.

It’s freakish: the dog is ridiculously committed to the “colour line”: even the noblest of the native Solomoners will not suffice as master compared to a “white-god”.

Yet the book is intriguing, partly because of its fucked-upness – we’re seeing the world from the perspective of a dog, after all, which is so ridiculously subjective and different from our own that we end up being critical of every single figure in there.

Jerry isn’t the colonial master: he’s the colonised subaltern, abused by both the white-gods who barter him and the natives he aids in oppressing. And of course, the natives turn on him – Van Horn gets headhunted and Jerry is nearly eaten as he’s left in the community of Somo.

And it’s in Somo, where white men do not rule, that we encounter the most fascinating characters – intelligent Solomoners each deserving of his own novel: the boy Lumai, the genius chieftain Bashti, the wily devil devil doctor Agno and the blind hero Nalasu. These guys are products of their own deeply foreign culture, implicated in cannibalism and misogyny and blood feud – things that white readers of the 1910s would have immediately read as barbaric. But they’re uncolonised: unlike the Papuans of “Cry of the Cassowary”, they know who they are and do not thirst after other cultures.

But of course, Jerry can’t be happy with a black-god, can he? The kickass ninja master-esque Nalasu has to be dispatched in the least dignified way possible, so that the doggie can find his way into the arms of a silly white lady-god, Villa Kennan, and live happily ever after in California.

Oh god, this post is full of spoilers. But the book’s worth reading anyway – the prose is so bloody good, thriller action and piercing philosophical takes on the relationships between the wild and civilised consciousness of humans and dogs. There’s even loads of great pidgin dialogue (Bislama, they now call it).

Plus, it’s free, so you won’t be funding the ridiculously racist London in his own schemes to support the Great White Hope against an emerging African-American boxer. (London’s foster mother was actually an ex-slave, Virginia Prentiss. I think he must’ve just felt really fucked up about social status and race. His biography is insane.

There’s even a sequel: “Michael, Brother of Jerry”. Think I’ll keep that one for another day.

Representative quote: “Nalasu was not a white-god, but only a mere nigger god. And Jerry hated and despised all niggers save for the two exceptions of Lamai and Nalasu.… At the best, they were only second-rate gods, and he could not forget the great white-gods such as Skipper and Mister Haggin.”

Next book: James A. Michener’s “Tales from the South Pacific” from Vanuatu (yeah, I really mean it this time)

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