The Alternative, John Selwyn Saunana
- Solomon Islands, #4
- Borrowed from San Francisco State University, via SF public library
- Read September 2016
- Rating: 1.5/5
- Recommended for: petulant opportunists
This is another book I would never have read if not for this project, and in this case that isn’t a good thing. If I were to follow Nick Hornby’s guidelines from The Polysyllabic Spree (which is one of my favorite works of literary criticism and always makes me want to read more) and only write positive things in my reviews, this is what I would have to say about The Alternative: it introduced me to Solomons Pijin, the lingua franca of the Solomon Islands. Pijin is untranslated in the text (though it appears rarely and isn’t essential to the plot–such as it is–so there’s no real need to understand it). Written, it seems as incomprehensible as any foreign language. But it’s actually a pidgin of English, and when you speak the words aloud, they magically resolve themselves into sounds that are largely comprehensible to English-speakers. That was cool, and prepared me to encounter large swaths of Tok Pisin in my Papua New Guinea readings (though those were mostly translated and I, being lazy, generally just skipped to the footnotes and didn’t bother to puzzle it out).
Luckily, I am not bound to be entirely positive about my readings, and so I can write something further about The Alternative. I find it highly unlikely that any readers of this blog are going to also read this badly-written and difficult-to-find novel (really, please don’t) (unless you’re reading it far in the future when I’m a celebrated author/artist/biologist, and you’ve been assigned to read all the books I covered in my seminal early 21st-century blog, in which case I invite you to just read this review and pretend you’ve read the book. You’re welcome, future scholars) so I’m not going to try to make this a spoiler-free review.
This is the confused and confusing story of Maduru Buru, a Solomon Islands schoolboy expelled from his selective boarding school (“the Eton of the Pacific”) for organizing a student protest, ends up unemployed, and then drunkenly stumbles into fomenting an independence movement. Maduru’s characterization is inconsistent to the point that I got to the last page of the book without being certain whether he was supposed to be a hero, anti-hero, or cautionary tale. On balance I guess we were supposed to be rooting for him, but he’s a tough character to root for: misogynistic, arrogant, and vindictive. Of course, these could all be accidents of storytelling, for the author doesn’t really seem to have thought much about what Maduru is like as a person. He’s a loner and an outcast, but also the best soccer player in the school, and able to lead most of the student body on a walk-out that could have disastrous consequences for their future careers. When he returns to his village from primary school, his neighbors despise him for his arrogance and his exaltation of European values; yet when he heads off to boarding school at the end of the holidays they love him and are sad to see him go.
Mostly I think we are supposed to root for Maduru as a sort of Solomon Islands freedom fighter, but all of his resistance is either accidental or motivated by petty reasons. His school rebellion is sparked by his refusal to apologize to the headmaster’s wife; he doesn’t want to apologize to her because she’s a woman, and it is beneath his dignity to apologize to a woman. It is a failing of European culture, the narrator implies, that women are treated with respect or even reverence (whether European women are so treated is a debate for another time, but Maduru is very clear that equality of the sexes is not something for which to strive). Later, Maduru organizes a student walk-out in his prestigious prep school, an action which is portrayed as an instance of native solidarity against European imperialism. But Maduru is solely motivated by his dislike for one of his teachers; he has little thought of fighting cultural imperialism, he just wants to get the guy fired. Similarly, after he’s expelled from school, when he organizes a sit-in in a segregated bar, his anger is mostly motivated by the fact that he was arrested in the bar for drunkenly breaking shit and puking in a trash can. As revolutions go, it’s not terribly high-ideal. And at the very end, when he reluctantly agrees to run for public office, his reluctance is not motivated by any sense of honor or unworthiness–it’s just that he wants to be able to hang around drinking with his unemployed friends and he’s afraid he won’t have time to do that once he’s involved in politics.
Now, it sounds like this could be a clever social satire, a vicious look at the roots of the Solomon Islands independence movement, and perhaps an argument against home rule. But it’s not. If you don’t want to read the novel to find out for yourself (and believe me, you don’t), you’ll just have to take my word for it–that amount of thought has not gone into creating this novel. It’s poorly constructed (there’s a scene where Maduru meets up with a girl and has sex in the woods in the middle of the night; I kept waiting for it to tie into the story in some way, for the girl to reappear or for there to be some consequences, or at least some other romantic incident so that it was at least thematically relevant, but no, it never comes up again, nor does Maduru date anyone else or, apparently, think of the girl to whom he lost his virginity. It’s like the author thought, well, first-time sex is important for a coming-of-age story, so I better stick it in. Or else it’s to impress us with Maduru’s prowess with women, his attitude toward girls as disposable even as he is getting off with them, and make us like him more…and I’m inclined to think that’s it, but it’s not something that works with the psychology of an American woman, or at least not this particular one, and it just made me a little bit disgusted with him). It’s full of clichés; witness this speech by Maduru’s elementary school headmaster to his wife: “Honey, I’ve got a real load on my plate this time…These damned boys are getting on my nerves. Fancy them trying to tell me how to run my school. Me of all people! Honey, I’m going to hit hard this time, and I mean hard. I won’t have my students mucking me around like this…And when it’s all over, I won’t be renewing my contract. The sooner we shake the dust of this place from our feet, the better. And back to good old London as soon as we can.” Again, it reads like satire, but honestly the whole book is like that. All the dialogue is stilted and hackneyed and the narrative isn’t any better. And most of all, it’s boring.
The original selection for my list was Saunana’s longish poem Cruising Through the Reverie, which I replaced with The Alternative (ha ha) because I’d rather read novels than poetry (although in this case that might have been a mistake). I did end up finding Reverie in the depths of the world wide web, and I was…confused. Like, maybe it means something? But it kinds of reads like it was written in code. Here’s an excerpt:
“Hi, Ambition! I’m Expectation!”
“Jesus, the name sounds familiar. Where did we met before?”
“Hey, are yer putting on a show?
to say that yer never heard of yer tutor!”
“I only know that I am in the blue . . .
and have no time for K Arthur,
and the K’s of the Round Table!”
I don’t know, maybe Saunana’s a genius and I’m just missing the point entirely. On second thought, ignore the warnings in the first couple of paragraphs. If somebody else wants to read these things and tell me why I’m wrong, you have my blessing.