Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Review: Typee by Herman Melville

Get it here.
I was left a little dissatisfied with this book. I think my frustration was founded on one main problem: Is it fact or fiction? A nagging part of me felt that this shouldn't matter, besides, these things are subjective. But the author protests many times that it's all factual. And if the eventual escape of the hero is a report of a true event, then it's quite thrilling, but if it is fiction - then it's quite poorly thought out.
But - first things first. The story is very simple. The narrator, on board a badly run ship, decides to take his chances on a South Sea island. After much crashing through undergrowth, he and his companion stumble across a tribe of indigenous people, who are reputed to be cannibals. Nonetheless, the villagers treat our heroes with great kindness, being so hospitable, in fact, that they can't seem to bear for their guests to leave. Then the narrator's friend disappears unexpectedly, and escape seems to be his only chance of surviving.
Which is all simple enough, but the real interest comes from the contrast between the westerner's lives and that of the islanders. It seems they have very different ideas on morality, propriety and marriage - and guess what? Everyone seems very happy, healthy and has all of life's wants and needs on hand, without effort. Which seems like paradise - but as the narrator finds out, paradise without liberty is meaningless. Which, as a work of fiction, is what I would expect the book to be getting at. Kind of a 'Herman Melville's Utopia', where the place held up as a satirical mirror to our society is imaginary. But the author does not seem to think it is a work of fiction. Perhaps Herman Melville was so far ahead of his time to have deliberately used an 'unreliable narrator', just to tease out the additional meanings this would create. But what sits uncomfortably with this is an obviously heartfelt rant against the behaviour of the missionaries in the region. (Interestingly, Melville clearly felt that it was right to convert the natives; he just didn't like the way they were going about it.) If the book is factual, these passages have an urgent purpose, if not, they are just rhetorical hot air.
The thing that redeems the book again and again for me, is the voice of the author; sarcastic, funny, friendly and wry, he is a companion it would be a pleasure to share any experience with. And, putting my pedantic quibbling to one side, the book is full of interest and incident, and builds the tension up to a fever pitch.

Michael Scherer reads this with all the skill of a professional, which, I believe, is exactly what he is. All the more reason to add this to your 'to read' list. Ignore my reservations about 'truth'; the story of colliding cultures is highly relevant today.

Next: 'Typhoon' by Joseph Conrad. Which shares the first three letters of its title with 'Typee'. Coincidence? Or Typical?

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