Leaves of the Banyan Tree

Leaves of the Banyan Tree, Albert Wendt, 1979

  • Samoa, #1
  • £0.69 from alibris.co.uk
  • Read December 2015
  • Rating 3.5/5
  • Recommended for: 10th grade English classes

It seems like almost every book I’ve read since The Whale Rider has either been about white people having romantic adventures in the South Pacific, or about Pacific Islanders dealing with the devastation wrought by colonialism. I thought at first that this was going to be another book in the latter category; on the novel’s first page, as his mother leads the family in prayer from “the Bible which had been in her aiga [a Samoan word for the extended family group that forms the basic unit of traditional society] since the missionaries came,” Tauilopepe Mauga daydreams about the twenty pounds profit he might earn from selling copra the next day: thus introducing us to some of the book’s primary tensions, between the twin imported values of greed and Christianity, between respect for family and tradition and the younger generation’s ambition and desire for change. Tauilopepe aspires to live a palagi (white) lifestyle. He wants a European-style house in town and to send his son to a European school. He wants more than anything to be wealthier than his neighbor and rival, Malo.

Berkeley, 2014

White authors from Captain Cook to Robert Dean Frisbie to the loathsome Paul Theroux have stereotyped Polynesians as lazy: happy-go-lucky innocents with no ambition or work ethic. Wendt turns that stereotype on its head and asks us if ambition, that supposed European virtue, might just be another name for greed. And greed, as Wendt portrays it, is a particularly European vice. So it is a book that grapples with the destructive influence of European cultural chauvinism; and yet, greed is perhaps not Tauilopepe’s fatal flaw. Pride, instead, is his downfall. It is his pride, and his unwillingness to abase himself even to save his wife and infant son, that sows the seeds of discord which ultimately poison his life and the lives of his descendants. And his pride is not European. It is human.

So it turns out that Leaves of the Banyan Tree is primarily a family saga, about the perversion of love and the failure of fathers to pass on their values to their sons, about relationships poisoned by personal pride. In this way, though the setting is Samoan, the book is universal; the story, with some superficial tweaks, could take place in almost any country. It’s an ambitious and well-crafted book, but I found it hard to connect with–centering, as it does, around three generations of horrible men. We are meant, I think, to find Tauilopepe and his son Pepe somewhat sympathetic, and thus to find their downfalls tragic, but I found them thoroughly reprehensible pretty much throughout the book. There’s a significant amount of sexual assault perpetrated by these two supposedly complex characters, which pretty much killed any sympathy I might have had for them (and whether Wendt intended their acts to be so unforgivable is up for debate; certainly marital rape, which Tauilopepe commits against his wife Lupe in the book’s opening pages, was explicitly legal in Samoa until 2013, so societal views on consent in 1979 are likely to have been rather dim). By the time we get to the third generation, Pepe’s son Lalolagi is so spoiled and narcissistic and annoying that, when an evil stranger turns up with the intention of destroying Tauliopepe and his family and all his works, I wanted to give a little cheer. It’s hard to pull off a book where the readers don’t much care whether your main characters live or die; I don’t think Wendt quite manages it. There’s plenty of fodder for discussion, lots of meaty stuff about the nature of morality and greed and humanity, but there’s nothing hopeful to hang onto in this story, nobody to root for, and I have to admit that I was a little bit bored.

Los Angeles, 2005

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