by Robert Dean Frisbie
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.50]
THE Golden Age of Tahiti had passed many decades before the arrival of Mr. Frisbie in 1920, but a few lost years remained for him, a few districts uuscarred by barbed wire, a few old natives whose dreams retained the glow of the past. And among them Mr. Frisbie lived, a wise young man with a liking for solitude that since has driven him farther and farther to sequestered islands, as readers of his Book of Puka-Puka will recall.
Here he has returned to those earlier years, to chronicle an idyl that can now be duplicated only, if at all, among the remoter islands of Polynesia. Tuahu, his Tahitian ’father,’ guided him through the intricacies of life in a native village, taught him to fish expertly, to find and carry the mountain bananas (though craftily helping him, to convince the villagers that his ‘son’ was a champion), and, most difficult of all, to buy land that was usually owned in common by a hundred natives. Little Terii shared his happiness in the bamboo hut, and old Mama-Reretu trusted him literally with her honor, for when he explained that April First was ‘ Lying Day,’ when lies were venial in America, she bought furniture on false credit and was promptly arrested.
Mr. Frisbie bail as little use for the Chinese storekeeper of Vaitii as for the rest of his coolie tribe throughout the islands. They were creditors, all of them, ‘trusting’ the naïve native until his debts became so great they could seize his land. Nor was the missionary much better. Old Solomon and his sort of automobile, the ‘lightning wagon,’ which was usually drawn by Boulgasse, the horse, gave color if nothing else to the little community. And far inland, their houses perched on mountain peaks, their vision restricted by orange beer and a blank horizon, lived the gentle, psychopathic nature men.
These, with a few others, are the characters of a delightful book, and the scenes which Mr. Frisbie has loved so well that he has drawn and fused them from his experience in other islands, Moorea certainly, and more than likely his own PukaPuka. But they depict the Tahiti of his time as few books have done. The episode of the cinema is Tahiti still: there was more gossip than cinema on that famous night; the strangely casual and yet intense spirit of the village swung worshipfully around Mr. Frisbie when he was discovered cheek by jowl with W illiam Cowboy (né William S. Hart) on the antique ‘flicker’ film. The ethical problems raised by that movie were and still are real to a people but indifferently Christianized; when the villain was pushed over the cliff why was n’t the poor man buried, and prayed for, too? Did the hero marry the heroine? One could n’t be sure.
With the rest of his rich material Mr. Frisbie has included myths and legends which are amusingly, if not always strictly, retailed. He has presented a round picture of those years lost from the Golden Age, and I don’t think it rash to say that Oliver Goldsmith in the South Seas, writing a ’Vicar of Vaitii,’ would have portrayed no more sensitively the good folk there.