Kava in the Blood: Who knew a coup could be so boring?

Kava in the Blood, Peter Thomson, 1999

  • Fiji, #5
  • Paperback, $12 from Amazon.com
  • Rating: 2.5/5
  • Read: February 2016
  • Recommended for: People with better attention spans than mine

San Francisco, 2016

It took me three weeks to read this book, mostly because I kept falling asleep as soon as I picked it up. Granted, this may be partly due to the fact that I was five months pregnant and ready to fall asleep any time I stopped moving, but on the other hand in the interlude between starting and finishing Kava I managed to re-read three Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries without succumbing to slumber. I conclude then that at least part of the responsibility for my temporary narcolepsy must be borne by the book. I was determined to get through it because after The Wounded Sea I was interested in another perspective on the coup, and given that the racial makeup of Fiji is primarily Indian, iTaukei, and white, I thought it would be good to include one white writer for the sake of different viewpoints. Plus, Ann Morgan liked it. But I found it a struggle.

San Francisco, 2017

The book opens with the first coup, in May of 1987, and ends with the second, in September of the same year. Between these two upheavals, Thomson acted as the permanent secretary to the governor general (later president), Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, who attempted to restore order to the fractured political system. Thomson alternates incredibly tedious and repetitive accounts of the political intricacies of the inter-coup period with memories from his idyllic Fijian childhood. Thomson warns us, in his Foreword,1 that the book is disjointed. “It has been suggested to me,” he writes, “that I should have written two books rather than the one that is presented here.” I thought this was authorial modesty when I read it but he’s not kidding–the two halves of the book don’t come together in any way. That being said, I was glad for these nostalgic intervals, non sequitur though they generally were, because they tended to be slightly more interesting than the deathly dull political chapters.

Granted that political history isn’t exactly my cup of Kava, I still think that more skill on Thomson’s part could have livened it up a bit. Part of the problem was a lack of characterization: Thomson might write that “so-and-so was a good man” or “so-and-so had a mischievous sense of humor” but there’s very little dialogue or description to back it up. He seems more concerned with justifying his actions, and those of Ratu Penaia, than in telling a story that can be read for its own sake. I think if you were already familiar with the events and main characters of the coup it might be more interesting and easier to follow, but as it is, for the reader without a background in Fijian political history, it is an unnavigable morass of names and meetings and political squabbles.

Then, too, Thomson seems unaware of his own privilege or how economic inequality may have contributed to the coup. He writes of his childhood on expansive estates, vacationing with his family on private islands and being sent away to boarding school in New Zealand, but he doesn’t seem to connect these events with the impoverished lives of ordinary Fijians or to understand that such economic injustice could have served to exacerbate racial tensions. Certainly most of the iTaukei acquaintances of his youth, being mainly government officials and the social equals of his parents, were also economically and socially privileged. It is clear from the previous books I’ve read for Fiji, and from Thomson’s own remembrances of his early government roles working with the Fijian people, that his experience was far removed from those of most Fijians, especially non-white Fijians. Yet he is quick to blame the coup on racism and the impenetrable insularity of the iTaukei, without examining the role that the unequal distribution of wealth and power played in the societal breakdown.

San Francisco, 2017

1. Side note: typing “Foreword” just now is literally the first time I have noticed that it is a completely different word than “Forward,” which I had always supposed it to be. I mean it makes sense–it’s the word that come before the book, and really “Forward” wouldn’t make any sense as the heading of a book section–but it’s one of those moments that make you wonder what else you’ve been blithely wrong about for your entire life.

4 thoughts on “Kava in the Blood: Who knew a coup could be so boring?

  1. Your side note gave me a laugh of recognition! Not the same word, of course, but “those moments that make you wonder what else you’ve been blithely wrong about for your entire life”? Oh yes! I’ve had my blitheness knocked out from under me enough times, it’s astounding that the thing still blithes -at all-…

    Liked by 1 person

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