Finding oneself stranded on the island in the South Seas may be a dream for some people. Melville certainly thought so, or so it seems at first. In Typee, which is largely autobiographical, the narrator is a crewman on a whaler, who has been out at sea for six months. Under the fist of a cruel captain, our ‘hero’ decides it best to jump ship while anchored at the Marquesas. He and a companion from the ship find themselves in the clutches of the Typee, renowned for their cannibalism. Yet the ‘savages’ turn out to be gentle and good-natured for the most part.
Melville clearly has problems with his own civilization. He compares and contrasts the so called ‘gentle’ behavior of the English against the ‘savage’ behavior of the Typee, and the Western society comes out looking the worse. His own experiences with the missionaries in the South Seas soured him on the belief that the societies could co-exist. In the end, however, the Typee are not the idyllic society as he first thought. The narrator realizes eventually that he is not permitted to leave—-no matter what (he has a very bad ailment that they cannot treat, but won’t let his companion return with medical help). Part sociological treatise on the daily life of the islanders and part journal of an escape gone wrong, Typee has an enduring appeal. One of the best reasons to read this book is to see the native islanders before Western culture has a chance to influence them too much.
The exoticness of the setting of the novel is what brought me to my next read. Well, that and the fact that I’ve been dying to read Graham Greene since I heard Michael Gorra and James Wood discuss him months ago. I chose to read The Heart of the Matter after learning that it takes place in an unnamed country in Africa (I often follow themes when I read on vacations. I read all of Dumas’ works while traveling through France years ago. That’s why I now have a cat named d’Artagnan). Set during WWiI, the novel’s ‘hero’ Scobie, assistant police commissioner, seems to get not pleasure from love. Married to Louise, who suffers from depression, his pity for her has replaced the love he once felt. When she leaves for South Africa (to get away from it all apparently), he meets Helen, recently widowed when her ship is torpedoed and sinks. They fall into love. But the love is reminiscent of the ‘love’ he feels for his wife. Meanwhile Wilson, new to the town, also in love with Scobie’s wife, keeps tabs on Scobie. And there is Yusef, the shady smuggler who blackmails Scobie. Weaved into the story is plenty of Catholic guilt.
The plot sounds complicated, but this amazing book has the power to hold you as you must find out what happens to all the flawed characters. No one comes off unscathed in Greene’s novel. No one is sympathetic. Rather, most are pathetic. But you can understand Scobie’s personal crisis. I am not doing justice to this great work. Another great thing about the edition I picked up was the James Wood introduction. I waited to read it after I had finished. It illuminated the novel. Adding more Graham Greene to my TBR list is a must.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the rest of my vacation reads!