Sunday, 27 July 2014

Paul Theroux's Happy Isles of Oceania: The Joys and Pitfalls of Rereading Books

In recent years I've discovered the pleasure of rereading books. This is a little different from my somewhat obsessive rereads of The Lord of the Rings before each of the movies came out (which reminds me - it's been a while since I read LotR...) - that was to try and get an idea of what I'd be seeing in the movies, but now it's to revisit books that I loved earlier in my life.

I guess it's nostalgia - while in the midst of my latest re-read (The Happy Isles of Oceania, by Paul Theroux), I kept thinking back to where I was the first time I read it, rather than the last time. I bought the book in 2002, if memory serves, while in a generalized race to buy as many interesting travel books as I could find. I picked up three of Theroux's mid-period travelogues, Bill Bryson's early jaunts through the US, Europe and Britain, and borrowed the rest from various libraries. Even back then, of course, I was rereading books - I think I polished off The Great Railway Bazaar three times in the nearly three years I had access to the Southend Library.

The point here is that it's true what they say - a book you reread at 35 is different from the book you read for the first time at 25. You notice different things, or you notice the same things but with a subtly different perspective. For instance, when I reread Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country (or Down Under, for UK readers), I was struck by how well I recognized his description of Circular Quay, in Sydney, because I'd been there since the last time I'd read the book.

There isn't as much of that with Theroux's book, partly because he allots fewer pages to Australia than Bryson did, and because he experienced different sides of the place than Bryson. Theroux's first marriage had just broken up when he arrived down under, and it colored his experience of the people, in addition to driving him to different spots. I think that's also the reason that Theroux is so scathing about the Australians, attributing to them a sort of bungaloid (one of his favorite words) feral-ness that, if I'm honest, I recognize more in the English. Insults veiled as "being matey", for example, figure prominently in Theroux's description of Australians, whereas I always found the English more likely to do that to me.

The other interesting difference between the two narratives is how the Australians see their convict past - while Bryson tells of feeling the temperature in the room drop when he makes a joke about it, Theroux claims that the Australians revel in it. It comes off a bit like a Victorian gentleman finding himself plopped unaccountably in a rough East End hostelry.

Part of the difference, of course, must be attributable to when the two writers visited. Theroux was there in the run-up to the Gulf War in 1991, while Bryson went at the end of the 90s. Australia's a pretty fast-evolving country, so it's not unthinkable that general attitudes toward their own past would have changed significantly.

Another thing that fascinated me on this latest re-read of Happy Isles was Theroux's preoccupation with the Japanese. Everywhere he goes in the Pacific he sees evidence of what he calls "Nipponization" - island resorts built to cater exclusively to the newly ascendant Japanese, whom (at the time) everyone thought were trying to conquer the world by buying it all up.

In fairness, Theroux in his book does also decry the Americanization and Frenchification of certain other parts of the Pacific: American Samoa is presented as a welfare state, ruined by spam and Rambo movies (it's interesting how many times he refers to Rambo throughout the book), while his thoughts on Tahiti are a way to present how French foreign and colonial policy is as arrogant, short-sighted and disgusting as anything the US, or Russia, or anyone else can muster.

But the Japanese bear the brunt of his distaste, and at times in language that spills into overt racism. In the Solomon Islands he gets a permit from a cabinet minister (who incidentally became Prime Minister a few years later) to visit another island, and to ingratiate himself describes the Japanese in the following terms:
"... it is a one-race, one-language, one-family island of desperate overachievers who have a fascist belief in their own racial superiority... These little people have a palpitating need to dominate the rest of the world and will do anything at all to sell their stuff."
He goes on to suggest that they're cheating the Solomon Islanders (which may very well have been accurate). It's true that the Japanese have a pretty insular and self-involved way of defining the world - but I don't see it as any different from how the Chinese, the Russians, Americans or Europeans see the world. Me nambawan, uddapela nambaten. The Japanese, to my knowledge, haven't destabilized countries and let in murderous dictators, all in the name of preserving free market capitalism - in marked contrast to the United States (just ask Chile). At least, not since WWII.

What really bugs me is the "little people" comment, and the portrayal of the Japanese in other sections as these alien creatures goggling at everything through a camera lens. There's almost a feeling that anybody else taking over and building these "Nipponized" resorts and goggling at topless white women  on Australian beaches would be okay, as long as it isn't the Japanese. Later on in that screed he calls them frugal savers, and says their banks are the richest in the world. Again, could be strictly true - but it's couched in terms that sound a lot like anti-Semitism.

I understand that certain segments of the American populace felt threatened by the Japanese at the time, and I sympathize with folks like Detroit auto-workers - although not with the Big Three carmakers, because the Japanese car industry beat ours because they were building better cars than us, pure and simple. I'm just surprised by how vehemently Theroux, who at the time was likely a Democrat, talks about how the Japanese are ruining the Pacific (he seems to have turned into a crank now, though, railing against Obamacare, bizarrely).

It's a shame that he kept those passages in the book, because by the end of the decade, Japan was no longer the all-consuming juggernaut and is still being dragged down by its lost decade. The Chinese have arisen as the country that Western observers expect to become the next great power, although we'll see what happens to them.

But those passages, and all the references to the "sons of Nippon" and the "Nipponized resorts", mar a book that's otherwise beautiful and unique - after all, when was the last time you read anything at all about what it's like in the South Pacific?

I've finished Happy Isles now, and am probably not going to read it again for a while. But it was fascinating getting back in touch with the Francis who read it 12 years ago, and a little disheartening seeing how short-sighted some of those racist passages were. I'm interested to see what I notice next time I read it.