The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux is a fascinating synthesis of travel writing and history seen through the eyes of an acerbic narrator. Theroux documents his trip by kayak through the Pacific, from New Zealand and Australia all the way to Hawaii. But it’s the stops in between, in places like the Trobriands, The Solomons, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti and The Cook Islands that really make The Happy Isles of Oceania so special.
Don’t expect a shiny-happy travelogue that makes every place visited seem like a must visit destination where there is no trash, no crime and the sun shines all the time. Nor should you expect the feisty Theroux to think kindly about most of the people he meets on his trip. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.
Instead readers are treated to what I expect are far more accurate views of these destinations, both in terms of the scenery but also the culture and local life. Theroux goes a step further by unearthing the history behind many of these places and it’s these sections that stick with me long after finishing the book.
For instance, Theroux does a splendid job of explaining and analyzing the Jon Frum Movement in Vanuatu.
Was Jon Frum a friendly American pilot who had brought supplies here and shared them around? And perhaps he had said, I am John from America. And then had the war convinced the villagers on Tanna how wealthy America was?
It hardly mattered now. The dogma of the movement seemed to suggest that Jon Frum was a sort of John the Baptist, preceding the savior which was a redeemer in the form of cargo-every nice and useful object imaginable. And the important aspect was that it had come to the island directly, without the help of missionaries or interpreters. No money, no tithing was involved; no Ten Commandments, no Heaven or Hell. No priest, nor any imperialism. It was a Second Coming, but it enabled the villagers to rid themselves of missionaries and live their lives as they had before. It seems to me a wonderfully foxy way of doing exactly as they pleased.
Theroux has done his homework on these anthropological studies. He’s done the required reading. What’s impressive is that he then strolls right into these villages to do his own first hand research. This isn’t always the safest thing to do! First, lets remember that he’s paddling a kayak between most of these destinations. And the natives can be welcoming, indifferent, unsettled or even aggressive.
But that’s the other context to The Happy Isles of Oceania. Theroux is at a crossroads in his life. He’s recently parted ways with his wife of 25 years and is awaiting the results of a cancer test. Theroux runs, or paddles, away. His mindset of impending doom makes him both a bit reckless but also more open than he might have been previously.
Other reviewers have said Theroux found happiness on this trip. I can’t say whether he did or not. He still seems hyper-critical and skeptical of the motives of others but there is a greater sense of peace as he ends his journey.
The Happy Isles of Oceania is also notable because of who Theroux meets on his journey. He never seems to actively seek out these notable personalities, and yet there they are, bumping into each other half way around the world. In that way, there is a pleasing juxtaposition between the foreign nature of the surroundings and the ‘it’s a small world after all’ mantra.
I highly recommend The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux for anyone with an interest in travel, history or anthropology. Not only will you enjoy the trip but you’ll learn a thing or two along the way.