Les Immémoriaux (A Lapse of Memory), Victor Segalen, 1907
- French Polynesia, #1
- Kindle, french edition, free from amazon.com
- Read July 2015
- Rating: 3/5
- Recommended for: scholars and cynics (and cynical scholars)
I’m not really sure how this book got on my list. Victor Segalen was a French naval doctor who lived in Polynesia for two years, and began writing Les Immémoriaux after his first month in Tahiti. He seems to have been an intriguing character (Wikipedia says that he died “under mysterious circumstances and reputedly with an open copy of Hamlet by his side”…though according to this short biography, it seems likely that he hurt himself hiking and was reading Hamlet to pass the time while he slowly died of exposure, which is tragic but not terribly mysterious), but if I were going to choose a European writer for French Polynesia, it seems like Gaugin would have been a more obvious choice.
So I don’t know what I was thinking, but whatever my reasons for choosing it, I’m glad I did. Despite the short lead time, Segalen did extensive research and managed to write a pretty convincing narrative from a Maohi (indigenous Tahitian) perspective about the seminal episodes in the history of Tahitian and European contact. The story, which follows the life of Maohi priest-in-training Térii over a period of about twenty-five years, introduces many of the events and themes that would crop up again and again throughout my French Polynesia literature list: the arrival of Captain Cook, marking first European contact with Tahitians (and Térii’s earliest memory); the arrival of an English ship full of missionaries; the Tahitians paddling out to welcome them with gifts and being rebuffed because it was Sunday and trade was prohibited; the welcome given by Pomaré, who became the first king of Tahiti with the help of European guns; the subsequent inroads of conversion, colonization, and disease that caused the collapse not only of the indigenous population but also of traditional Tahitian culture.
It’s a strange and ironic book, with a dim view of human nature and a dry distance from all its main characters. Térii is particularly unsympathetic: selfish and lazy, without apparent human sympathies or emotional bonds, he is motivated solely by the desire for an easy life. He enters the priesthood in order to gain prestige and access to food and sex without having to work for it. Later he pursues Christian baptism for much the same reasons, and eventually even becomes a spy against his own people in order to curry favor with the missionaries and rise more quickly in the European-driven power structure. Nor is he alone in his stupidity and avarice. Pomaré, a regional chief at the story’s outset, sells out his people and his traditions to the Europeans in order to expand his realm and solidify his power. His chief priest, Haamanihe, does the same. And the English missionaries are just as ignorant, misguided and hypocritical as the Maohi characters. They manipulate and lie, taking advantage of Polynesian hospitality in the pursuit of their own inscrutable aims. Religion is a farce, and humans are essentially grasping and selfish.
Despite the satirical tone, the book manages to convey a distinctly anti-colonial sentiment and to treat the central historical tragedy with a surprisingly deft touch. Segalen’s distance from his characters helps keep him from exoticizing them or indulging in cultural chauvinism, and allows the reader to believe in Térii’s perspective. We see the travesty of one culture forcing another to adhere to its inappropriate societal norms, of foisting a foreign morality onto a people who were happier before its introduction. The picture that emerges is of a complex and richly storied civilization, destroyed by the fundamental failings inherent in human nature.