- Island of Shattered Dreams
How difficult it is to assess a pioneering literary work. It is ahead of its time when it appears, marks an awakening occasioned by things already past, and yet is so much of its time that later readers can have trouble appreciating its significance as a contribution that cleared the way for the works and cultural conditions with which audiences today are more familiar. Chantal T Spitz is a pioneer of indigenous fiction from Tahiti, and the French version of this book, L'île des rêves écrasés (1991), created a scandal in Papeete for blowing apart the myth of happy egalitarianism under French assimilation; for openly criticizing the complicity of local elites in the destruction of Mä'ohi culture and self-respect; and for attacking France's nuclear testing in the Pacific. A text conflicted in its own workings and centrally engaged in the social conflict of the times, the novel charts the path to a younger generation of politically aware Islanders equipped with the skills and confidence to write about their troubled worlds.
Island of Shattered Dreams tracks the love affairs and family generations of Tahitian and mixed-race people within a colonial color hierarchy, showing the struggle to maintain cultural continuity and a sense of belonging in the face of growing alienation of soul and separation from land. It moves in a present-tense flow interspersed with poetic outpourings at moments of emotional stress (births, separations, realizing new loves) and takes as its historical beginning the departure of the son, Tematua, to fight for France in World War Two. This and the subsequent movements of Tematua's children are framed by competing epigraphs: the Polynesian and Biblical creation stories, and a historical prophecy about the "fatal impact" of colonial contact.
The importance of names is highlighted by the narrator, making clear the impulse to employ allegory, both in the sense of the central couple representing Tahiti as a whole, and individual characters (eg, Tematua as strength) acting parts in what amounts to a morality play. This is consistent with Pacific theatrical conventions and helps novice readers faced with a groundbreaking text to see the significance of the plot. In retrospect, and from the outside, it can also make the book seem a bit contrived. This is not helped by the narrator "loading the dice" with regular commentary: "The descendants of the former royal family are proud to donate a few hectares of their ancestral lands to the Central Administration, a first sign of the bankruptcy of a people that loses its soul when it sells its land" (60; reviewer's italics). Hostile responses to the original work (in part because characters were recognizable from real life) may well have been aggravated by this insistent, strident style, though it was possibly necessary at the time to shock readers into action. There are echoes of the rhetorical violence of John Kasaipwalova's protest poem from Papua New Guinea, "Naked Flame" (including the hot-cold imagery of [End Page 190] native passion versus Western leaching of pride) in conformity with the early protest phase of literary production in a decolonizing country's cultural politics. This imagery of explosively hot feeling serves as a link to the nuclear testing in the second half of the novel, and while its positive Tahitian aspect is at odds with the disastrous French intervention, the human associations of the former make the latter seem an unnatural travesty of civilized values.
Robert Nicole has noted that Spitz names one character, Terii, after the lead figure in Victor Segalen's Les Immémoriaux, an outsider's 1907 novel of the tragic impact of European culture (and print media) on Tahitian oral and priestly culture (Nicole, The Word, the Pen, and the Pistol: Literature and Power in Tahiti [2001, 196]). One of the points here is to highlight the fact that, contrary to Segalen's nostalgic clearing away of the romantic past...