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  • Une pirogue pour le Paradis: Le culte de John Frum à Tanna (Vanuatu)
  • Carlos Mondragón
Une pirogue pour le Paradis: Le culte de John Frum à Tanna (Vanuatu), by Marc Tabani. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 2008. ISBN 978-2-7351-1193-0, 254 pages including photos, figures, bibliographic references, map. €20.00.

John Frum first appeared on the Vanuatu island of Tanna in the late 1930s. Since then, successive generations of ethnographic observers have contributed to a voluminous literature dedicated [End Page 389] to the "longest-lived cargo cult" in the Pacific. It therefore comes as no surprise to discover a new author—French ethnologist Marc Tabani—who has taken on the challenge of producing a definitive exploration of the John Frum phenom. Tabani's main ambition is to capture the previously marginal Tannese voice, thereby offering a presumably more authoritative—because "indigenous"—set of statements which are meant to unveil the inner workings and contradictions of this most persistent of Melanesian mysteries. As he states, "I will seek to show, in the following chapters, the mystic air that this vision [the John Frum movement] retains seventy years after its initial inspiration" (151).

On balance, this objective falls flat because factual ethnographic accuracy becomes a mistaken substitute for analytical rigor. Like many of his predecessors, Tabani fails to transcend the tired tropes of "cultic" mystery and ethnographic discovery that have become inseparable from the John Frum storyline. Before delving into his text it is worth remembering Lamont Lindstrom's observation, "The John Frum archive is predominantly a Western achievement. Few Tannese voices are recorded directly therein. . . . Some Melanesian movements . . . have produced their own sacred texts. John Frum, however, still awaits his Saint Paul" (Cargo Cult [1993], 135–136).

The wait, it would seem, is over. Tabani's purpose is to revisit, often in quasi-positivist detail, the origin, history, and most recent crises of the John Frum movement as reconstructed from foreign texts and key local informants. Consequently, principal among the attractions of his book are the extensive transcripts of interviews that Tabani held with well-known John Frum personalities. These materials, "in the raw," can provide certain insights into the ways Tannese interlocutors interact with and present themselves to outsiders in search of John Frum; whether they constitute authoritative narratives about how most Tannese conceptualize John Frum, however, is an unanswered question that lingers uncomfortably between the lines.

One of the more problematic aspects of these transcripts is that they have been translated and rendered exclusively in French, thereby occluding some of the original nuances expressed in Bislama. Moreover, in regard to linguistic accuracy, it is also telling that, presumably for reasons of ethnographic effect, Tabani peppered his text with terms in Kwamera, one of several Tannese vernaculars, but it is clear that he is not conversant in this or other local languages.

More importantly, all of the persons interviewed are men, and prominent men at that: chiefs, pastors, prophets. Tabani tirelessly hunted down the best-known stars of the John Frum theater over a decade of successive visits to Tanna. The consequent absence of women's perspectives is only one of the various signs that alert us to the fact that we are being offered not so much an insight into broader Tannese values associated with John Frum, as a heady selection of "insider" autochthonous data couched in a tone of discovery and purported analysis that is consistently ambiguous and even contradictory.

To take one prominent example, the introduction offers an uninspired overview [End Page 390] of the anthropological literature on cargo cult, in which Tabani takes previous authors to task for employing terms such as "millenarianism," "prophetism," "nativism," and "revivalism." By contrast, he offers to provide new insights by way of in situ observations focusing on the phenomenon of "radical social change" (changement social drastique [26]; also processus de changements drastiques [240]). This catchphrase is never really worked out, however, and throughout the rest of the book Tabani's admonitions are forgotten as he lapses once and again into a style reminiscent of journalistic description rather than thoughtful anthropological reflection. John Frum thereby becomes a multiple phenomenon, ripe with "millenarian...


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