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The Happy Islands of Oceania by Paul Theroux

Another world awaits.

The Happy Islands of Oceania or Paddling the Pacific is a masterpiece from Paul Theroux, perhaps even eclipsing Dark Star Safari. The tale begins with Theroux in London ending an unhappy marriage and an uncertain diagnosis of a possible skin cancer. Miserable, alone and worried for his life, Theroux accepts an offer to do a book tour in Australia and New Zealand and from there begins a meandering life of traveling from Pacific island to island with his kayak in tow, spending as much time on the water as possible and not even sure if he’s writing a book or just disappearing from the world altogether.

On one island he has a mournful dream of one of this children writing a story that began:

‘Long after he died – for weeks, for months – we kept receiving postcards from Dad because he had traveled so far and to such small and insignificant places.’

Theroux oscillates between his biting misanthropic wit and joy at finding island paradises everywhere under skies whose stars are so bright that he can read at night. As usual, Theroux is adept at summing up his experience of a culture in a single phrase.

‘And maybe Australians talk a lot louder because they are so far away from the rest of the world. How else will anyone hear?’

And after he’s been threatened a few times in the traditional Australian manner, he observes that the forced cheerfulness of the Australians hides another impulse:

‘ feeling, or to be more precise, my fear, was that they were not being polite to me but simply restraining themselves. Nothing personal. They just wanted to hit me.’

Theroux gives us another 100 pages of cultural surgery on Australia which leaves room for another 650 as he gives the Troibands, the Solomons, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, Easter Island and Hawaii, amongst others, their turn under the writer’s microscope. But this isn’t journalism, Theroux is mainly concerned with navigating between island chains in his enormous kayak, leaning the local words for ‘sweet potato’ and ‘canoe’ to see if there’s any linguistic continuity in the Pacific and generally getting pleasantly lost.

Oceania would seem to be in another world living on the flotsam and jetsam of the modern age. Most villages are happy to make use of imported modern goods but have no interest in the world beyond their village. Fragments of news reach the Pacific but the people have no way to understand them; the Gulf War breaks out and in the Solomons they’re convinced the fighting will centre around them, just as it did in the second world war.

But most startling is how the modern world has changed the Pacific Islanders. Once the most amazing navigators the world has seen, the Polynesians are now invariably seasick when they get on a boat. Once living from the ocean that surrounds them, the islanders now live largely on a diet of tinned fish, chicken imported from America and corned beef, the latter, according to a pet theory of Theroux, because it resembles human flesh the most.

Stories of cannibalism pervade the history of the Pacific Islanders and are a magnet for missionaries and Theroux observes how the various Christian sects succeeded in taking all the fun out of life on the islands. He’s particularly taken with the happy marriage that cannibals and evangelists make:

‘Rumours of cannibalism are like catnip to missionaries who are never happier than when bringing the Bible to savages. Missionaries and cannibals make perfect couples.’

But whilst The Happy Islands of Oceania is Paul Theroux’s travel writing at its best, it’s also a very personal tale of a man looking to rebuild his life after it had all fallen apart. His intense interest in the quirks of humanity allows him to escape his own gloom as he peers into the worlds of beachcombers, yacht owners and tribal chiefs, but it’s also the intense solitude as he paddles out to untouched island paradises and then gets rained on all night that bring the book alive.

At other times Theroux delights in the paradise he has made for himself, paddling around untouched coasts, spending days on beaches looking watching crabs scuttle around, a world away from civilisation. Yet he ‘almost felt selfish’ as he enjoyed these stunning locations by himself, ‘something was missing; a woman.’

Theroux ends the book by staying for some nights in a luxury bungalow in Hawaii where he pays $2500 a night, a price which he’s told ‘includes continental breakfast’. It seems he partakes of this high life after his year or so of camping it just to observe the corrupting effects of luxury on his soul. The price cuts the study short and then he sees how happy he’ll be a couple of miles down the sands living on $2.50 a day. Who else but Theroux would do something like that?

Paddling the Pacific is a travel book that saves you from actually going there and getting robbed, bullied, ignored, pestered, irritated and taunted by the locals. Unless of course you want to and then Theroux gives you an idea of the beauty, the ideosyncratic culture and the overwhelming isolation that awaits the traveler in the largest mass of water on earth.

From Australia to the Solomons, from Easter Island to Hawaii, no one has mapped the modern Pacific better than Theroux.