Piety parodied

That the people of the Pacific islands were not passive spectators in the face of European imperialism has long been established by Greg Dening, Nicholas Thomas and numerous others. The exchanges—political, amorous, sometimes violent—of Polynesians with British and French seafarers were complex, and not one-sided. The late Rowan Metcalfe’s Transit of Venus is the story (historically based, but cast in the form of a novel) of her ancestors: Mauatua, a young woman from a chiefly Tahitian family; and Fletcher Christian, with whom she sailed to Pitcairn Island along with the other Bounty mutineers. The story begins much later, in 1831, when Mauatua—now a grandmother—is being repatriated to Tahiti on the missionary ship Lucy Anne.

This is a tale of cultural incomprehension, and curiosity. The Tahitians marvel at the animals and equipment of the expedition of Cook (or Tute) in 1774. However, one who has been to Britain informs them of the hypocrisy and cruelty there: ‘I saw strangled men hanging from poles, and women too.’ Hard to manage is the registering of Tahitian wonder at the strange people who have come among them and who might be a source of power (in intertribal warfare, perhaps) or of destruction. But when does the initial naïve response become a mockery of itself? Indeed, that question points to the central problem of the novel, and one that Metcalfe did not have the prose resources to resolve, for all the patent, and portentous, earnestness of her intentions. How can piety avoid the slide into parody?

To write from the point of view of a people who could be colonised, but are at the stage where they believe in the possibility of their continued independence, is a signal challenge. To a vital extent it must be met at the level of the language given to these people in the narrative, in this case the Tahitians. In her attempts Metcalfe is sometimes sententious: ‘The white men will be back. With all their trouble.’ Many Polynesian words are used, but the effects can be coy and contradictory. In one sentence the phrase ‘stomach and ure’ translates one word into English but not the other, which happens to mean penis. Why not both, or neither, since a glossary of Maohi words is part of the apparatus of the book? This is unhappy, especially when there are a couple of unfortunate ‘tool’ double entendres elsewhere. Too often the native language sounds comically synthetic, as the author strives too hard to make it dignified: ‘Does the spirit of Tautoia return? Is he released at last from the sorcery of Vahiatu’s evil doers?’

There is much more in the same vein—‘Hiti a Reva Reva, Border of Passing Cloud, we set foot upon you at last.’ Metcalfe, writing of the confusions inherent in cultural collisions, commits the fallacy of imitative form by bringing her own confusions to the task. Too often Transit of Venus cajoles with proper nouns rather than quickening with verbs. The book’s failure is salutary in showing the need for, but the creative limits of, cross-cultural sympathy in acts of the historical imagination. 

Transit of Venus, Rowan Metcalfe. Pandanus Books, 2004. isbn 1 740 76144 8, rrp $29.95 

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.

 

 

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