- The Missing King by Moetai Brotherson
“Will you take me for a madman, a compulsive liar, or just a drug addict having hallucinations?” asks Moanam Vaki Heremanu Vaikau, the mute protagonist and narrator of Tahitian novelist Moetai Brotherson’s The Missing King. “I’ve tried to be honest with you. I’ve told you everything, everything that made my life what it has been, my few moments of happiness, and of great distress” (251). Vaki’s question about the reception of what he calls his “treasure,” “the story of my life, that I’ve been putting together since the age of seven” (246), attests to how mysterious and improbably calamitous his life has been. Indeed, when Philippe, a French psychologist, attempts to publish Vaki’s manuscript as a memoir, it is soundly rejected; after recategorizing the exact book as fiction, Philippe receives twenty-four publication offers. In its exploration of the boundaries around history and fiction, Brotherson’s novel thus reads as a metafictional engagement with the process of writing as a never-ending performance of identity in the French Pacific indigenous context.
Brotherson’s novel was first published in French in 2007 as Le roi absent (Papeete: Au Vent des îles), and this 2012 English translation is by Jean Anderson, who brought fellow Tahitian author Chantal Spitz’s Island of Shattered Dreams (2007) to anglophone readers. The language of The Missing King comes across as one of this translation’s most engaging aspects; it is a testament to Anderson’s range and dedication to the cultivation of Tahitian literature that these two novels are vastly different in tone and style. Indeed, with this author and translator, I was reminded of an interview with the father of contemporary Tahitian writers, poet and author Henri Hiro, whose literary provocation centered the place of writing in an age of vital renewal: “For this renewal to continue, Polynesians must write. … It doesn’t matter what language they use, whether it’s reo mā‘ohi [Tahitian], French, or English. The important thing is that they write, that they do it! And I think that in a short while we will have Tahitian authors—authors free of insecurities and able to express who we are!” (Varua Tupu: New Writing from French Polynesia [2006, 72, 81]).
The reader will be charmed by Vaki as he stumbles through life with his muteness, which he fervently refuses to see as a disability. Faced with abounding adversities, he responds in earnest with naive methods of inquiry, which often lead to surprising discoveries. For instance, when diagnosed with asthma, Vaki turns to one of his favorite authorities, the Larousse French Dictionary: “I looked up asma, azma, assma, all in vain, and then by accident I came across ‘asthma.’ What [End Page 245] little I understood of the explanation didn’t match up with anything about me. Who was lying, then, my father or the big book?” (6). In overcoming obstacles with genius and resourcefulness, Vaki exposes the stories hidden behind authoritative texts.
It is easy to forget at times that the narrator is mute, but Brotherson makes it apparent at certain moments when the fluidity and verbosity of Vaki’s novelistic discourse are juxtaposed with the complications of his communication with other characters. After a “conversation” with Philippe, Vaki reflects, “We talk for about half an hour, me with my pen and paper, him directly. Sometimes I envy people who talk. But all too often the immediacy, the direct availability of their expression, its spontaneity, makes them say stupid things” (71). Vaki’s position as a Tahitian who can only communicate by writing literalizes the call by activist Hiro—who appears as a character in the novel and gives Vaki a Bible in reo mā‘ohi—for Polynesians to use written language to create, preserve, and share their stories.
Though it makes some striking twists, connections, and ambiguous suggestions, Brotherson’s novel keeps the reader searching, questioning, and reexamining hypotheses. The most intriguing example of the work...