Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Easy reading

•Célestine Vaita: Breadfruit.
New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2006
ISBN 978-0-316-01658-2
•Célestine Vaita: Frangipani.
New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2006
ISBN 978-0-316-11466-9
SUMMER IS THE TIME, they say, for light reading; now and then I get nostalgic for French Polynesia; and a favorite friend recently recommended the novels of Célestine Vaita. So before last month's road trip — yet to be documented here — I ordered two of them, used paperbacks, from sources online, hoping they'd arrive in time for the trip. They didn't, alas, but I made short work of them on our return.

I enjoyed them. I don't usually read things of this sort, and I'm not sure if they fall into some genre or other. I note that my copy of Frangipani ends with a "Reading Group Guide" including a short interview with the author and a series of suggested discussion topics — oh dear: is that what book groups do, sit around responding to publishers's suggestions? And my copy of Breadfruit turned out to be an advance copy, with odd typographical problems (double quotes for apostrophes, for example). So I suppose the novels are book-group fodder, and perhaps even Young Adult, and certainly directed toward women more than men.

In fact that may have lay behind my friend's recommendation: she feels one should read as many female authors as male, at least when it comes to recent and contemporary publications. Perhaps she's right: one of the things I very much enjoyed about these novels was their strong central character, Materena Mari, a fortyish woman living in a fiber shack in Faa'a, the town adjacent to the international airport outside Papeete. Materena.

Vaite was born there herself, and there may be a certain among of autobiography in these stories — Materena may have been modeled on her own mother. There are parallels, too, between events of Vaite's life and those of other characters, particularly Materena's daughter Leilani, a serious student.

Vaite's mother language was, I suppose, French, and she must have been frequently heard and occasionally spoken Tahitian as well; but these novels were written in English, in Australia, where the author settled with her Australian surfer boyfriend, later husband. A lot of the charm of the novels is in fact their language: breezy English, using the conventional French present tense regardless of the actual time being written about, occasionally translating French constructions in an awkward literal manner, occasionally sprinkling in a bit of Tahitian. The writing is constantly oral: you hear the voices of the characters, and through them, I imagine, that of the author. "Ah oui," they say, rarely simply "oui," and aue bof; statements are frequently preceded with "eh"; daughters are addressed as "girl."

And what does she write about? Daily life, which seems to be relatively easy. The ambience reminds me of Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, fondly recounting everyday incidents among ordinary but colorful people whose relatively simple pleasures and easygoing setting emerge from communal life, not upward mobility. Tahiti is depicted, probably accurately at least for the time period, as a comfortable blend of French structure, socialist humanitarianism, and easy weather. You could grow to like this kind of life.

It might not be a stretch to think of Célestine Vaite as a contemporary, female Marcel Pagnol, substituting today's commercial-based culture for his more agrarian one (thinking of his rural novels, not the Fanny trilogy set in Marseilles). The warmth, gentleness, humor, and inevitability common to extended families, and to relationships between men and their women, women and their children — those qualities are universal, both these authors remind of us, if you strip away the striving and yearning and ambition that so often distracts us from them. They are what finally counts, those qualities and the everyday rhythms of sleep and mealtime, love and irritation, work and pleasure and occasional sadness. It's a good idea to be reminded of this from time to time, and it doesn't hurt if the sermon is light-hearted if it's as deftly written as these books.


Curtis Faville said...

Merry and I spent a week on Rarotonga in the late 1990's.

I'd never experienced Polynesian culture before.

The island is a volcano, so the structure of the place is simply a mountain surrounded by a ring of land, beaches, and a ring of coral. I scuba dove for the first time, and saw amazing fish. Tube fish the most amazing, like 10' long translucent tubes with long snouts--glittering and changing colors.

There didn't seem to be much to do. We motor-scootered around, drank tropical drinks, ate lavish meals, and swam in the princess's pool--a very pretty place.

Life was very slow, and not particularly motivated. People seemed lazy, and bored. My clothing stuck to me, I couldn't keep my hair in order. Every so often a terrific thunder storm passed over dropping extraordinary amounts of water, then as suddenly ended, and the heat returned.

I don't think I could live there for long. Nothing to do, really, except lie in a hammock and read long novels.

Charles Shere said...

I've made two trips to French Polynesia; I wrote about them here.

A Google search suggests that boredom is frequently associated, in the Western mind, with Polynesia. In fact I recall reading that it is apparently the one danger of traditional life, striking many natives at least once in a while, leaving them disconsolately looking out to sea — I can't find the source for this just now, The local word is, I think, fitu, or something of the sort. (I note that "fitou" participle of Portuguese "fitar," "to stare.")

On both my trips I found the place delightful, and Tahiti — the main island of French Polynesia, not the collection of islands — has lots of museums, interesting villages, friendly people (at least a few years back), and in our winter a delightful climate. I'd go back in a minute.