Friday, 17 August 2012

#4: Vanuatu

Tales of the South Pacific
James A. Michener (USA, 1947)
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
"The island made no impression on me. It was merely a handful of sand and rock in the dreary wastes of the Pacific. I have since thought that millions of Americans now and in the future will look upon Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and Kuralei as I looked upon Midway that very hot day. The islands which are cut upon my mind will be to others mere stretches of jungle or bits of sand. For those other men cannot be expected to know. They were not there."
I'm growing increasingly interested in the ways cover art is used to deliberately mislead us, and the reasons behind it. It's foolish to think that we can avoid judging a book by its cover. What else do we have to judge it by, until we've read it? Well, hearsay. Reviews. Critical acclaim. But however much of this we're exposed to, it remains subjective and questionable information - the cover, however, is part of the book itself, whether the author approved it or not. We may look at the cover with a critical eye, but it still gives us a powerful and often lasting impression of the book's content.

I'm talking about the old order, of course. It rather baffles me that e-books have so far retained the good old rectangular cover art - I imagine that this is in the process of changing even as I type this. Still, as yet I haven't read many e-books, and since the book being dealt with here was penned long before their advent, I still take it as a point of interest.

So when I went to pick up Tales of the South Pacific from my university library, expecting the usual austere, sleeveless hardback, I was intrigued to find that it was actually, well, this:

As I see it, broadly, publishers approach the cover in one of two ways. There's the 'honest' approach; producing a cover that plays to the book's strengths, and ensures that it will reach an appreciative audience. Then there's the 'mass market' approach; use the cover to place the book in a convenient selling category, regardless of how well it actually fits it. This latter approach seems to have been used with my library's copy of Tales of the South Pacific.

So, what are we to expect? Well, if the cheery, open-shirted young Westerner leading a beautiful native by the hand (although I suspect the reason for the lurid orange overlay is to lend some ambiguity to her skin tone) doesn't give it away, the blurb will oblige:

"soldiers, sailors, and nurses playing at war and waiting for love in a tropic paradise."

A romance set in a colourful and exotic world, against the backdrop of a major war - what could be more enticing? An undemanding piece of escapism for the bored 1940s housewife.

It's sad that this has had such a lasting effect upon the perception of Michener's Tales. Joseph Heller covered himself against such possible misinterpretations; what little romance occurs in Catch-22 is as blackly cynical as the rest of the novel. The same could be said of All Quiet on the Western Front, a work whose dark humour is more subtle yet no less potent. But Michener makes the cardinal error of allowing romance to be a recurring motif in his novel. Never mind that it's one of many - it is, of course, the one that sells.

The Tales are really less a collection of short stories than a novel in patchwork. Much of the action is reported by an unnamed firsthand narrator who guides us through the strange world of the U.S.-occupied South Pacific even as he finds his own feet. While each story draws you in, making you care deeply about the character or landscape being explored, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a real feeling of completion to this novel, a satisfaction upon finishing that is rare even in undeniably great works.

And yet it is not a novel of romance. Quite the contrary: it is a novel of isolation. The romantic interludes enjoyed by the Americans rarely end happily. There is mental breakdown, rape, and of course death. It is near-impossible at any point to step back far enough from the darker themes to settle into a cosy love story.
"There is no other island in the South Pacific like Norfolk. Lonely and lost, it is the only island in the entire ocean where no men lived before the white man came. Surrounded by gaunt cliffs, beat upon endlessly by the vast ocean, it is a speck under the forefinger of God, or Admiral Kester."
If there is any romance to be found here, it is not so much of the man/woman variety (or any variant thereof) but in Michener's recollections of the landscape that are embedded in the text. Clearly - and unsurprisingly, given how soon after the war Tales was published - these memories are sharp enough to cut. He sees the coasts, beaches and headlands just as he sees his characters - painfully, vividly real, but each beautiful in its own tragic way. One wonders how much of the Tales is fabricated, and how much transcribed from direct experience.

Tales of the South Pacific presents a brutally realistic and humbling portrayal of the terrible loneliness of war, and the extremes to which ordinary men can be driven when forced to live in such an environment. It must have disappointed many readers over the years, who were hoping for something quite different from what they got - but Michener can hardly take the blame for that.

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