Suremada: Faces from a Solomon Island Village, Rexford Orotaloa, 1989
- Solomon Islands, #5
- $20, alibris.com
- Read August 2016
- Rating: 1.5/5
- Opening line: Anaibolafafawa was the village Big Man.
- Recommended for: Rambling internet commenters
Suremada takes the form of a series of encounters or conversations between the narrator, a boy on the cusp of adolescence, and various characters from his village. Except that makes it sound way more coherent than it actually is.
Reading this book feels like you’ve been dropped, blindfolded, into the late stages of a conversation between a bunch of people you don’t know. It’s like listening to someone mumbling half-intelligibly to himself after his sixth beer. It’s like reading a transcript of someone’s attempt to record overheard dialogue, but they can’t write fast enough to keep up, so big chunks of sentences are missing and the punctuation is all over the place. It’s a mess, is what I’m saying. It’s just this dense word salad filled with undifferentiated dialogue with little indication of who is speaking or when one speaker ends and another begins. Here’s a sample paragraph so you know what I’m talking about:
“Oh, man tell me the story of Ikwa. What did the ghost do to him?” “You must give me one tafuliae (red shell money) before I finish the story. Well, well, they took the most notorious culprit to the village court.” “Who was it?” “Maboto – sometimes called Gosile (the man-eater).” “Why?” “Have you got ears?” “Tell me.” “I am tired to talk to a man who does not understand things. Don’t you get a good memory? I would not spend a cent to buy your memory.” “No, but I want to know what happened to Ikwa?” “Now you still don’t understand the story. Does your father tell you evening stories? I am dubious of your position. Don’t hunt girls at the markets. Spend some time in the houses of the old men who will help you to know some of the customs.” “The old men are not gods.” “You must tell them that you want to know things before they tell you. And what happened in the end to Ikwa?” “Oh! man you haven’t yet drawn your own conclusion? What type of man you are? Whose son are you? And what’s the name of your mother?…”
That’s about a third of a paragraph, exactly as it’s printed (and if you made it all the way to the end of that, congratulations). The words are English, but I can’t make heads or tails of them.
There are some preoccupations (I hesitate to qualify them as anything so deliberate as “themes”) that emerge from this collection. Conflict between whites and Solomon Islanders recurs frequently, most memorably in the first story, wherein several men are hanged after performing a tribally-sanctioned ritual murder to restore peace between two warring groups. If they had known the white men were coming, the narrator tells us, they would not have carried out their own traditional justice (the author leaves it up to us to decide whether such easy capitulation to foreign customs would have been a good thing). Religion is also important, with many flavors of Christianity and the traditional animist religion all being viable options; occasionally they are set in opposition to each other but more often they seem to coexist peacefully, even within a single mind.
There is also an alarmingly high incidence of rape, incest, and domestic violence; though these acts don’t go entirely unpunished, for the most part they are treated lightly (one man who beats his wife is ostracized by the other villagers until he commits suicide; rapists, on the other hand, are merely fined, if they are punished at all). I thought, while I was reading, that it might be a reflection of the narrator’s adolescent preoccupations, or an unskilled author attempting to inject titillation into his manuscript. A modicum of googling, however, reveals that physical and sexual violence is shockingly, gut-wrenchingly prevalent in Solomon Islands society (content warning at that link for rape and domestic abuse), so I guess its incidence in the manuscript is just reflective of the society as it is…which, to my mind, makes the nonchalance with which it is treated by the author all the more disturbing.
It’s too bad this book is so awful, because Rexford T. Orotaloa has to be one of the all-time greatest names for a writer.
(To compensate for this disappointing reading experience, here are some pretty pictures of lights:)