Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book 119, New Caledonia: "Penelope's Island" by James McNeish

Eastern Heathens has been launched, and it looks fabulous, hurrah! We're planning a Kinokuniya event in 20 or 27 April - no confirmation yet, so stay tuned.

Also, we’re back in the world of good ol’ epic novels: stories of revolution and betrayal, cultures clashing, men and women caught between loyalties and choosing ultimately to do what is right.  And all from a country most of us had no bloody idea existed!

(The author’s a Kiwi, though. Seems he likes to do these stories set in the Pacific islands.)

The Penelope in the title's the narrator - a nature photographer who ends up improbably marrying a Caldoche, one of the white New Caledonians descended from French penal colonists (yeah, it was France's Australia for a while). She herself happens to be Jewish-Hungarian-British by way of Canberra, which seems even more probable. But there's a method to the madness, as we'll soon discover.

The crazy thing is, the guy Penelope marries - a not-very-employed outdoorsman named Felix - is pretty racist, kicking around the house servant Baptiste for no reason, saying awful things about the Kanaks (the natives of the island) as they try to fight for independence. Violent streak, too - shoots his pet deer without a qualm when he hurts his girl, wants to shoot their dog too at a whim. So the reader's thinking getoutgetoutgetout this racist bastard's gonna destroy you.

And then what happens? Well, first we have the Mayor, Dominique, coming by a lot. He's the first Kanak man to hold the post, and Felix treats him civilly, never mind that he's Baptiste's half-brother. Then we gradually realise that Felix is different: he's not as racist as his fellow Caldoches, wasn't even raised among them: was left for useless with his club foot and raised instead among the Kanaks, leaving him with a culture split halfway between deserving white privilege and actually getting precious few of those privileges till this Brit girl married him.

And when the independence movement breaks out - and it really did happen the way the book describes it, it seems, in 1984, with election boycotts by the Kanaks, takeovers of the land, city by city, and the Caldoches retaliating violently, guerrilla-style ambushes on civilians in cold blood, and not even facing trial for their murders - well, Felix has to take sides. Penelope knows she's on the side of the natives, what with her British sense of fair play and her actual memories of having to flee her land as a little girl in WWII. But when Felix changes - seeing what's happened to Baptiste and his other Kanak "friends" - well, he's forced to realise that the business of being a French settler/colonist is just too much bloody-minded awfulness than he can take. And he does what he can for the side of independence.

I suppose it's not giving away too much to note that New Caledonia remains a French Overseas Protectorate, and that they're still doing pretty badly under French colonial rule. Doesn't sound as racially segregated as it used to be, but rural poverty pulls them down, and there doesn't seem to be that same connection to their skull-templed roots as there was in the eighties, when this book was written. (The publishing date is 1990, but it sure doesn't feel like a nineties book - it's got the heaviness and sorrow and anger of the sixties or seventies.)

But back to the title - why use Penelope at all? Why not describe the story of Felix from his own perspective, or else the tribulations of the Kanaks themselves?  Well, in the wake of Chinua Achebe's death, it seems important to consider the relationship between literature and politics, especially when your readers are people living far, far away from the politics you're describing. As privileged, First World folks, we can only understand the way of the Kanaks through the eyes of white people. We can't even understand their oppressors. We've got to find a third party, someone similarly privileged, and bring her close to oppressors, and watch them transform.

Strategies for empathy. Fiction itself.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: At first I didn't see him because of the mist. He appeared before me like a wraith. Baptiste had a sense of the dramatic and I was not surprised to see him - he would turn up unexpectedly, when he wasn't working for Felix, and often at odd hours. He wore his old khaki shirt and his legs, beneath the skirted pareo, were wet. He's come through the coffee fields, I thought. A scent of gardenia, from the dripping coffee flowers, clung to him.

"Madame," he said, keeping his eyes lowered - and then, for a man who seldom spoke more than a phrase or two at a time, he delivered himself of an oration.

He said that, if we left, the crops would perish. The coffee would die, the valley would be laid waste and the crabs run to the river and be drowned. There would be a great fire. The house would fall down. The crabs would come out from beneath the foundations, the river would rise, the bamboos turn from silver to red and everything would end in the river.

Next book: Futuna: Mo Ona Puleaga Sau, Aux Deux Royaumes, the Two Kingdoms, from the Wallis and Futuna Islands.

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