The Island of Desire (The Story of a South Sea Trader), Robert Dean Frisbie, 1944
- Cook Islands, #1
- ebook, free from Project Gutenberg Australia
- Read: August 2015
- Rating: 3/5
- Recommended for: people who fantasize about expatriating, not because they want to be a part of a different culture, but just to get away from their own, and have romantic and fairly unrealistic ideas about what that would actually be like
Disclosure time: I’m breaking my own rules with this book. My first Cook Islands selection is not written by a Cook Islander, but by an American transplant. Robert Dean Frisbie moved to Tahiti when he was 24 and spent the rest of his life moving around the South Pacific. A good chunk of his adulthood was spent in the Cook Islands, on Pukapuka, Penrhyn, Suvarrow Atoll, and Rarotonga. He’s included here because he’s one of the most frequently-mentioned authors in Cook Islands literature, and this is one of the earliest published works I could find from the country. This is a problem I’ve run into a lot with Polynesian nations: writing was only introduced with colonization, and even then education was frequently restricted to the colonizing class, meaning that it is very difficult to find any works earlier than the 19th or even 20th centuries, and the earliest works are written not by natives of a given country, but by immigrants, whose work generally reflects their own native culture more than that of their adopted country. This is certainly the case with Frisbie, who saw himself as a travel writer in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson; while much of The Island of Desire focuses on observations of Pukapukan culture and society, it is written from a very western perspective, from the viewpoint of a man who believed he was escaping from “civilization”, and it reveals as much or more about Frisbie’s own preoccupations and preconceptions as it does about the inhabitants of Pukapuka.
I have found it impossible to write about this book without including a fairly major spoiler. I’ll give you lots of warning, and put it after a nice big photograph so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to navigate away before you get to it, but frankly I would suggest just going ahead and reading it, because first of all I don’t think knowing this plot point will ruin the book for you, and secondly because it’s probably not worth your time to read this book. That sounds harsh. It’s not a bad book, and I would go so far as to say that I moderately enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to a friend unless that friend was looking for something very specific. If you came to me and said, “I’m looking for something kind of like The Swiss Family Robinson, except less cheerful and also with less enslavement of indigenous people and/or wanton animal slaughter (or at least a narrower range of slaughtered species)” or, “I’m really interested in reading personal narratives about surviving hurricanes on small uninhabited atolls,” or, “I wonder what it would have been like to run a trading station on a remote Polynesian Island between the World Wars,” I might suggest you give The Island of Desire a whirl. But even then I couldn’t recommend it wholeheartedly; I would tell you that it’s pretty good, but not as compelling as those descriptions might lead you to believe.
Of course, you might love it. It doesn’t have a lot of reviews on goodreads, but its average rating is four stars, and several readers gave it five (though it’s worth mentioning that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has an average rating of 4.54, while Beloved gets a 3.74, so it seems like we might all be working with different scales here). I would consider it a solidly three-star book; but of course we are all spoken to by different things. I had a boyfriend in college whose favorite band was Boston (not that there’s anything wrong with Boston, per se, but are they really worthy of favorite band status?) and I myself have a shameful preference for Aunt Jemima over real maple syrup (and yes, I know exactly how much high fructose corn syrup it contains). It takes all kinds, is what I’m saying.
OK, spoiler in the next paragraph, so stop reading here if you don’t want to know what happens.
The book is in two parts; even though both parts relate episodes from Frisbie’s life in the Cook Islands, they’re really more like two loosely connected novellas than halves of the same story. The first part is a very light-hearted and satirical tale of his time as a young man on Pukapuka and his courtship of the girl he calls Desire. The prose is careful and eloquent, his insights often keen and witty (albeit fairly racist and condescending by modern standards–perhaps not as bad as one might expect from a book written eighty years ago, but still cringe-inducing at times). The second part of the book describes surviving a hurricane with his children on the uninhabited atoll of Suvarrow. But the second part is lacking the ease and wit of the first, and the reason seems apparent: in between these two halves, acting as a sort of fulcrum on which the whole narrative turns, is the death of Desire.
She died of tuberculosis, which she most likely contracted from Frisbie himself. He was only diagnosed years later, so it seems likely he didn’t know or hold himself responsible for her death. Nevertheless, her loss seems to have broken him in some profound and irreparable way. Though he tries to deploy the same wry humor to narrate his adventures on Suvarrow that he used to skewer the inhabitants of Pukapuka, there is a sadness, a sort of secret heaviness, to his writing that keeps it from attaining the same careless buoyancy as the first half of the book. When he turns up later in other people’s books–as a minor character in Doctor to the Islands and as the main focus of his daughter’s memoir, The Frisbies of the South Seas–the portrait that emerges is of a haunted, restless man, a frustrated writer desperate for greatness and recognition that continually elude him. It is hard not to contrast this sickly shell with the happy and confident narrator of the first half of The Island of Desire, and hard not to attribute this dramatic change to the major loss that occurs between the two portrayals.
If he could have recognized the impact of this loss, engaged with it, been braver in writing about it, the book might have come out better. As it is, in some ways this seems like a book without a heart. Desire should be its heart, but Frisbie never allows us to know her well enough for her to really fulfill that role. While all his other acquaintances are caricatured and captured with humorous exactitude, Desire is a vague, sweet blank. I was tempted at first to put this down to Frisbie not really knowing her himself (she was, after all, sixteen to his early-thirties when they married, and a member of a race and culture that he described as “primitive” and childlike). But I got the feeling–from the brief glimpses we get of her independence and spunk, from their surprisingly egalitarian interactions, from his total devastation at her loss–that it was Frisbie’s attachment to her that prevented him from describing her more fully. He couldn’t bear to turn her into a caricature, and so she is barely even a character.
This limitation, this self-consciousness, is I think why this book is not more successful as a piece of literature. Frisbie is concerned at all times with being a Writer (and a Great Writer at that), and it imposes a certain distance between himself and his subjects that also serves to keep the reader at arm’s length. The prose can be too careful, too precise, slowing the pace of the story and inhibiting the reader from being fully engaged with the story. Even though the events of his life seems thrilling at face value, he is unable to perform the essential alchemy of transmuting that excitement to the page, of making the story realer than life, of enabling the reader to share in his adventures as he lived them. He seems to have been throttled by an inner critic that he was unable to silence long enough to write freely. His constant awareness of himself as a writer and his driving desire to attain greatness, are, ironically, the things that prevented him from ever being really great.