THIS CAN’T BE TAHITI
Theo and Lucas disembarked to find themselves smothered in flowered leis. They set out to find lodging.
There were only two tourist-type hotels on the waterfront, and these were clapboard, two-story buildings right on the quay. Theo and Lucas picked the Pacific Hotel, run by a Frenchman who had spent thirty years on Tahiti. He was taking his mid-morning nap when they checked in. His twelve-year-old daughter, a pretty half Tahitian girl, pointed to the key box.
“Take a key, any key you want,” she said giggling in French and then went about her business, playing with the cat. Theo took Room No. 1, and Lucas. Room No. 2. It would be another two days before the Frenchman brought the register for them to sign. The rooms had no bathrooms; the public WC was down the hall, and rooms had no running water or plumbing. There were washstands with basins and large jars with water that had to be dipped out into the basins. There was a bucket under the washstand for dirty water. A ceiling fan was suspended from a beam running across the center of the room. Theo turned it on to test it only to learn it shook the room as it twirled round and round. There was a mosquito net drawn up at the head of the lumpy bed. The net had several patched holes. What was most odd about the rooms was that the walls ran only two-thirds the way up to the ceiling. Theo was told this provided a free flow of air, and what they didn’t tell him that privacy was not on the menu. You could hear the guy snoring in the next room, or doing whatever he was doing. Theo checked out the WC. There was no tub and in place of a shower was a shanghai jar with a coconut dipper hanging on a nail on the wall.
“You okay?” Lucas asked when he heard Theo over the wall unpacking his easel.
“Yea,” Theo replied. “How do we get a drink?”
“Ring for the chamber maid,” Lucas answered sarcastically. “Salute,” Theo said. “Let’s go find a bar.”
They didn’t need to go far to find a bar. There were three or four bars in Papeete and there was no trouble finding them. You could hear them a couple blocks block away. Being boat day, the place was packed with customers. They soon learned when a boat arrived in Papeete-sometimes a month apart-it was a call for everyone on the island to come to town.
The bar they liked best was the loudest and most crowded, and the liveliest. It was run by an American named Mike Quinn and his Tahitian wife, Marcelle. Mike had turned a bamboo grass hut with plaited pandanas walls into a Wild West saloon to which he added the touches of a Dixieland cabaret, like those in New Orleans. The music was good, Western mostly but with a Tahitian twang. Theo was beginning to wonder if Tahiti wasn’t an American colony rather than French for almost everyone he met upon arrival was American.
At Quinn’s the dancing was ferocious and the partying was wild. Gendarmes lingered outside the two swinging doors but seemed reluctant to enter even when a fight broke out, which was every few minutes. Nor, while Theo and Lucas stood in awe, did the gendarmes do anything to stop a drunken French plantation owner from riding his horse though the front swinging doors and out the back door. Some drinkers, sitting at the bar swilling down Hinano beer, didn’t even notice the horse and his drunken rider go galloping by. The place was that chaotic.
The next day the scene changed. Astrolabe departed for Noumea and the town became deathly still. It was not only still, it was dull, the dullest town in the South Pacific the old timers claimed. For anyone craving excitement, there was absolutely nothing to do. Theo was dumfounded. He became half angry to find that Tahiti, after all, was a real place and not a pantomime. And the Tahitians were real, with problems as everyone else might have any place around the world. He began to wonder if paradise was nothing more than an illusion of the mind of the beholder. Was Tahiti really something it was made out to be?
Theo had expected one thing and found something else. He was like a drunk riding high on a glow and the bubble burst and the hangover set in. Tahiti was not what he imagined it to be. He expected to find an old way of life, at least some of the culture left, but it took him only a short time to figure out that the French had destroyed all that. Maybe he was echoing the sentiments of Gauguin who loathed Papeete. What both Gauguin and Theo found was exactly what they had attempted to escape from bureaucracy
In a letter back home to Helga, Theo scribbled out his thoughts; “My feelings at stepping ashore at Papeete are difficult to describe. Guadeloupe and Martinique were thriving commercial centers trading in sugar cane, pineapples, copra and rum. We weren’t disappointed when we saw them. They were exactly as we imagined colonial life to be. Tahiti, on the other hand, was known to the world as the idyllic South Sea island paradise described by Captain Cook, immortalized in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and brought to our eyes in this century in the paintings of Paul Gauguin. I expected natives to be living confirmation of Rousseau’s “noble savage” theory. How wrong I was.”
Theo could understand now why Gauguin wrote what he did about Papeete. “Imagine our disenchantment, then, when we found that Papeete was just another colonial town,” Gauguin wrote in Noa Noa. Now it dawned on Theo why Gauguin had written such gloomy letters home to his friends, complaining of bourgeois colonials and petty government bureaucrats, why he fled from Tahiti altogether and took refuge in the Marquesas Islands. Theo figured out that Gauguin’s poetic saga Noa Noa was nothing but a fantasy, like The Marriage of Loti -written not by Loti but Julien Viaud-a French sailor who had spent only a few weeks in Papeete. His romance with Ranthau was fiction. Gauguin’s Noa Noa was his vision of what the islands should be and not what they were. Theo was discovering rapidly that man isn’t a noble savage after all; he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, and unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved. He found this to be true when he and Lucas took their letter of introduction to the governor. It proved to be colonial snobbishness at its worst. The governor had no time for the two outsiders, and definitely did not want another painter in his midst. “Who was this English writer who came to Tahiti looking for lost Gauguins, wrote a fictional story about his findings and caused all kinds of havoc for new comers to the island,” the governor said to Theo and commented that he hoped Theo was not like him.
Theo didn’t want to admit it, but he secretly hoped that he might find a Gauguin, not for its real value but for its intrinsic worth, which was what he wrote to Helga. Somerset Maugham had been somewhat successful in his search.
Maybe Theo would be too. At a bookstore in town he found a copy of Maugham’s A Writers Notebook. Maugham had written at length about his search for lost Gauguins.
“‘The widow of a chief lived in a two-storied frame house about thirty-five miles from Papeete. The chief who received the Legion of Honour for his services in the troubles at the time the French protectorate was changed into occupation; and on the walls of the parlour, filled with cheap French furniture, are the documents relating to this, signed photographs of various political celebrities, and the usual photographs of dusky marriage groups. The bedrooms are crowded with enormous beds. She is a large stout old woman, with grey hair, and one eye shut, which yet now and then opens and fixes you with a mysterious stare. She wears spectacles, a shabby black Mother Hubbard, and sits most comfortably on the floor smoking native cigarettes.
She told me there were pictures by Gauguin in a house not far from hers, and when I said I would like to see them called for a boy to show me the way. We drove along the road for a couple of miles and then, turning on it, went down a swampy grass path till we came to a very shabby frame house, grey and dilapidated. There was no furniture in it beyond a few mats, and the veranda was swarming with dirty children. A young man was lying on the veranda smoking cigarettes and a young woman was seated idly. The master of the house, a flat-nosed, smiling dark native came and talked to us. He asked us to go in, and the first thing I saw was the Gauguin painted on the door. It appears that Gauguin was ill for some time in that house and was looked after by the parents of the present owner, all ten of then. He was pleased with the way they treated him. In one of the two rooms of which the bungalow consisted there were three doors, the upper part of which was of glass divided into panels, and on each of them he painted a picture. The children had picked away two of them; on one hardly anything was left but a faint head in one corner, while on the other could still be seen the traces of a woman’s torso thrown backwards in an attitude of passionate grace. The third was in tolerable preservation, but it was plain that in a very few years it would be in the same state as the other two.
The man took no interest in the pictures as such, but merely as remembrances of the dead guest, and when I pointed out to him that he could still keep the other two he was not unwilling sell the third. ‘But,’ he said, ‘I shall have to buy a new door.’
‘How much will it cost?’ I asked. ‘A hundred francs.’
‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ll give you two hundred.”‘
Theo was also influenced by Maugham’s fictionalized account of Gauguin that he published in his book The Moon and Sixpence that caused a stir in Europe and brought the name Gauguin to the fore.
Probably what disappointed Theo more than anything about Papeete was that it had become a hangout for lost Americans, or as Gertrude Stein called them, the Lost Generation. While many writers were flocking to Paris like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dos Pasos, others had discovered Tahiti. Papeete was, in fact, closer to San Francisco than to Paris. The Matson Line was the connection. Tahiti was becoming, after World War One, another home for the Lost Generation in the South Seas.
The islanders called them something else-White Shadows. In the years immediately following World War One, Tahiti was deluged by a great number of visitors-writers, artists, businessmen and yachtsmen, all who were trying to escape from the stresses and strains of a war-shattered world. Most of them, after spending their money or losing their illusions, disappeared again, leaving not a trace behind. Theo disliked being called a White Shadow and was ready to punch anyone who did.
Although Theo was truly disappointed with Papeete, he didn’t give up hope. Perhaps rural Tahiti and the other islands would not be the same. It didn’t take a scholar to determine there was nothing “native” about Papeete. Were Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin all correct in their thinking, as they claimed, that Tahiti was spoiled? Throughout the years, Tahiti’s isolation, far removed from the world’s trade routes, had kept her more or less unspoiled. Not all of the island could be ruined by the evils of civilization, Theo thought. His mind to explore rural Tahiti and some of the neighboring islands.
Although Theo found Papeete not to his liking, he did meet many interesting characters that he came to know. There was Harry Pidgeon, the second solo sailor to circumnavigate the world, after Joshua Slocum, and the first person to do so twice. On both trips, he sailed a 34-foot yawl Islander with long stopovers in Papeete. Theo found Pidgeon agreeable and sat with him aboard Islander drinking Hinano.
Aside from the yachtsmen there was a clique of American writers that Theo met and at times joined in their fun. Robert Dean Frisbie was from Cleveland. Theo admired him greatly, mostly for what he stood for. Frisbie arrived in 1920 and went to live in Puka Puka in the remote Cook Islands. He became a trader and storekeeper, married a local girl and wrote a book about his experience. The Book of Puka Puka, published in 1929, related the tale of his eternal search for solitude on the far-flung atoll of Puka Puka.
It was on Puka Puka that Frisbie met 16 year-old Ngatokorua. They married and she became the mother of their five children. In 1930, the family sailed back to Tahiti and Frisbie started working on his second novel, My Tahiti, and worked on another book, A Child of Tahiti, which was never published. Theo did enjoy Frisbie’s company, and he even considered taking a trading schooner to Puka Puka to visit the island. He definitely would, he promised Frisbie, on his return to Tahiti.
The most interesting characters Theo met were Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall. Everyone on the island knew them. They were writing a book on the HMS Bounty mutiny. Everywhere the authors went they were greeted by: “Hey, how’s the book doing?” Nordoff and Hall were wartime pilots who met in Paris in the autumn of 1918. Both were members of the all-American Lafayette Squadron, and both had been flying more or less continuously since the beginning of the war. They were waiting orders from home when the founder of the Lafayette Squadron called them into headquarters, introduced them to each other, and asked them to write a history of their corps. The two pilots agreed, and thus began a most remarkable partnership. Both Hall and Nordoff had taken island wives.
It was the complete disappearance of all Polynesian culture that had disturbed Theo the most. Everywhere Theo went in Papeete there was a feeling of disillusionment and emptiness, brought in part by the over-zealous missionaries and by the prohibition in America that had done the rest. Tahiti became a smugglers’ port and the amorous services of the vahines were paid for in bottles of whisky. Theo began to meditate on this sorry situation.
“Let’s go to the end of the world,” he exclaimed to Lucas.
“Let’s go to the Marquesas Islands.”
Theo’s experience on Tahiti was a dichotomy of emotions. He wrote in his journal there were hardly enough colors on his palette to do justice to the richly colored beauty all around, but in truth it was more than beauty that he sought.
Theo did love many things about Tahiti though, and these he remembered. There were the smells, the sweet smell of copra drying in a shed, or when the wind shifts, the scent of fresh coffee coming from a plantation. And the fragrant scent of flowers, frangipani and the Taire Tahiti. They were everywhere. There were sounds too, sharkskin drums and wood blocks that filled the air.
All of this, the combination of sounds, smells, sights, affected Theo greatly. They awakened all his senses, and he wanted to imbibe in them, like a savage, in its wild and wonderful madness. Sometimes the beauty of Tahiti-maybe the mist, the way it hung over the mountains in the morning, or maybe the sinking sun at dusk, dropping over the edge of a reef-sometimes the beauty became so overpowering Theo felt he might die right there, instantly, contented. The French had not changed that.
Theo had to flee from Papeete. He left Lucas in his hotel and set out for the countryside where he hoped he could find the noble savage. He went to Punhaauia to seek out the house where Gauguin had lived. Gauguin had found a new vahine, half-French, half Tahitian girl named Paura. Theo located the house, now in ruins with only the foundation still remaining. When he talked to the Tahitians who remembered Gauguin, they said Paura left Gauguin in the Marquesas when she became pregnant and returned to Papeete. She gave birth to a son which she named Emile. Theo returned to Papeete determined to find Emile whom he calculated to be in his late 60s. Theo found him. He hung out around the Cathedral in downtown Papeete.
Emile had become grossly fat, not much different than his fellow Tahitians, and he eked out a living making fish traps for tourists. He had no abode and lived on doorsteps. He knew nothing about his father.
Theo had Bed from Europe but he couldn’t escape the depressing news that came from the continent. The German Third Reich was bringing defamation. Helga wrote to tell Theo that Nolde’s paintings had been confiscated from the museums and his work was labeled Entartete Kunst or “Degenerate Art.” Theo was deeply saddened at this news.