Sunday, May 12, 2013

Book 123, Kiribati: "A Pattern of Islands" by Arthur Grimble

So it turns out that if I hadn't already covered Robert Louis Stevenson for the British Virgin Islands, I could've spent this past week reading his travel memoir In the South Seas. Alas! Instead I'm covering yet another British colonial administrator's jottings.

But I'm being facetious - once you get past the early bits about the Oxonian old-boy system of the colonial administration, and about cutting his teeth as an eager young 20something official on Ocean Island, we actually get to something quite remarkable: a thoroughly British man who engaged with the native lore of the Gilbertese to a degree unprecedented among those who didn't actually marry into the tribes. Even got himself ritually initiated into the Karongoa tribe through ritual tattooing without anaesthetic: a serpent going up and down his arms, a 15 year-old virgin on each side of him to scream out on his behalf while he manfully said it did not hurt.

And such stories - shark hunts, cursed stoves, roofs collapsing in on the family during hurricanes, ghost sightings (of both the dead and the not yet dead), mediums who could foresee the end of Japanese tuna trade, barehanded octopus fishing (which was particularly hard on Grimble, aka Kurimbo, as he had a phobia of octopi), fearsome feuds between Catholic and Protestant converts including an island-wide millenarian uprising which resulted in several deaths...

And as before, told with a considerable degree of respect towards the Gilbertese themselves; a condemnation of the heavy-handed missionaries who attempted to destroy their culture, dancing upon the shards of their ancestors' skulls; a trust that colonialism had improved things on the whole (they'd caused the land wars to cease, and Grimble quotes from a 94 year-old lady who is joyful that her great-granddaughters can travel the island without fear of robbery or rape), and that really, all shall be well, all shall be well.

There's also a clear message that colonial life wasn't a bed of roses - out in the islands, there was no fresh food; they had to subsist on breadfruit and tinned beetroot and the native cooks (only men were allowed to serve as cooks) were pretty awful, burning the rack of lamb the Governor brought specially, and making Grimble's wife Olivia weep. And having to build a house from scratch on Beru, when the previous Resident had made off with not only the furniture and the beds but even the verandah itself, and having the roof cave in on them and their three kids during a hurricane... There's even a wistful sonnet about the delights of the tropical sunset not being surpassed by the comforts of England, which is quite lovely.

Of course, this is all describing a fairly early stage of colonisation: during the 1910s, the Great War passing them by at a distance, rubbing shoulders with actual tribal kings and administrators that Robert Louis Stevenson met (he was a particular inspiration, and is referred to simply as RLS). Grimble went on to St Vincent, the Windward Islands and the Seychelles before going back to the UK and becoming a celebrated author and radio presenter, which was in the 1950s, when the empire was in an ineluctable stage of decline.

Given all those shifts of geography and fortune, how can we trust this text as anything genuine? But that's the point of non-fiction as literature, I suppose - the thing isn't the fact but the style, the voice, the way we use language to make things beautiful.

On another topic: one thing that isn't beautiful is my map. I miscalculated the location of my Kiribati marker (the country covers a huge swathe of ocean) so I'm criss-crossing myself, going northwards and westwards on my journey to the east.

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

But no matter - next week we'll be doing a big jump across the rest of the Pacific Ocean to the Americas. Toodle-pip, Oceania! It's been a blast!

Representative quote: So Tanoata had learned an age-old spell called 'The Spoiling of the Oven'. She had been finishing the third performance when I stumbled upon her. Here is a translation of the words she muttered:

I stab them north, I stab them west,
I stab them south, I stab them east,
The ashes of the oven of Mareve,
Spirits of fire, spirits of stone,
I stab, I confuse, I overturn.
Bring stinking, bring anger.
Be sick at the stomach, you Biribo, Birbo! Be enraged!
For the food of Mareve stinks and stinks:
It is tiiki - tiki - tiki

Next book: Dr Florence Goring-Nozza's One and One Is Two: Caribbean Thriller from the Cayman Islands.

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