Though the book, with its extensive footnotes and abundant new material culled largely from interviews, has a scholarly meticulousness likely to please the most rigorous historian, its primary strength lies in the way in which it views history through the eyes of a novelist. There are the memorable images, such as the likening of the coup to a tapeworm growing in the brain; there are the rounded and psychologically probing portrayals of the book’s protagonists; and there are passages with the gripping narrative power of detective fiction. Above all, there is an artistic clarity of vision capable of containing the multiple subtleties of 23 February within what Cercas calls a ‘triple symmetry’.
The coup, as Cercas persuasively argues, was not one but three different coups reflecting the respective attitudes of its three protagonists. Tejero, the main proponent of a ‘hard coup’, was a fanatical Francoist determined to bend reality to his ideal of a rigidly disciplined society under ‘the radiant rule of God’. Supporting the coup from Valencia was the ar istocratic and much older General Jaime Milans del Bosch, another stalwart of the Franco regime, but someone whose personal experience of the Civil War and of a Spain other than Franco’s made him more realistic about the timescale in which a right-wing utopia could be realised. Finally, there was General Alfonso Armada, a monarchist and an advocate of a ‘soft coup’ that would make him the leader of a government not initially too dissimilar from the preceding one. On 23 February this three-headed coup was in direct confrontation with the only three members of the parlia-
I T ’ S JUST NOT K I R I K I T I ISLANDERS: THE PACIFIC IN THE AGE OF EMPIRE
By Nicholas Thomas (Yale University Press 336pp £25)
THE INVADERS’ FIREARMS made them irresistible. They marched through the island, according to a British official’s report, ‘curtly informing the inhabitants that their land had been taken and that they were now the newcomers’ subjects’, whom they killed and enslaved at will. Their victims were the native Moriori of the Chatham Islands, the remotest outposts of the Polynesian world; the year was 1835; and the invaders were Maori, seeking an empire o f t heir own i n apparent imitation o f European methods. European romantics represented the Pacific as paradise. But Paradise seemed misplaced in an ocean that environmental overkill had already depleted and traditional violence bloodied. Europeans’ bad example, limited adaptability and ruthless depredations did ment to refuse to be intimated by Tejero’s bullets: Suárez himself, his right-hand man Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado (who bravely stood up to tell Tejero to desist), and the elderly head of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo, who, after an initial moment of hesitation, followed the prime minister’s example and remained resolutely seated. For Cercas these three men were the true and virtually sole heroes of 23 February, if heroes of a peculiarly modern kind. Despite differences in ideology, they were united by a realpolitik and by their betrayals of the ideals they had slavishly served in their youths. Gutiér rez Mellado was a renegade Francoist, while Carrillo was a Communist who eventually rejected revolutionary principles to embrace democratic socialism.
But the ‘worst, the total traitor’ was Suárez, whom Cercas had always dismissed as a ‘Falangist upstart’ but who emerges f rom this book as a t rag ic f igure of Shakespearean propor t ions. After betraying those ‘Francoist leaders and barons who trusted him to prolong Francoism’, he went on to antagonise just about everybody. Yet, for Cercas, the image of Suárez seated in isolation in the parliament, ‘a politically finished and personally broken man’, stoically ready for a bullet to kill him, is one that is eloquent of democracy itself, with all its uncertainties and complexities.
The Anatomy of a Moment is not only essential reading for anyone interested in modern Spain. It is also an absorbing testament to the machinations of politics and the vagaries of political reputations. To order this book for £15.19, see LR Bookshop on page 10
not start the degradation, but made it worse. In his new book on the nineteenth-centur y Pacific, Nicholas Thomas quotes a young participant in a doomed colony in the New Hebrides in 1881 – a Belgian for whom ‘Paradise’, he later recalled, ‘became a hell.’
Thomas is aware of the mutual hatreds and conflictive customs that made islanders kill, exploit, and eat each other. He tells fascinatingly gruesome stor ies of their internecine wars. His vivid account of a massacre of socalled insurgents under a glimmer ing sky in New Caledonia in 1878 demonstrates that intertribal rivalries, not resistance against French imperialism, motivated the warriors. A couple of years earlier, the Viti Levu War in a remote part of Fiji exemplified the way traditional conflicts took on anti-colonial airs as some native factions enlisted European help. Thomas has few romantic illusions about Easter Island, which he sees as an instance of how Pacific cultures ‘have frequently been imagined via spectacular instances rather than contextualized histories’. He describes how Marist missionaries gave up their efforts to convert the people of San Cristóbal in Melanesia in the 1840s because of the intractability of the islanders’ violence against each other. When conversion worked, as it did in a small way for Methodists on
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011
Fij i in the 1830s, i t was because, a s a local chief observed, ‘Your muskets and gunpowder are true, and your religion must be true.’ The surest way to succeed in evangelisation or empire-building was to equip native collaborators to fight their neighbours more efficiently.
Towards the end of the book, Thomas returns to the image of Tahiti, where so many romantic myths were born among late eighteenth-century seamen intoxicated by the ‘Cyprian Isle’. He reverts for a moment to nostalgia for a pre-colonial order in which warfare was relatively ‘occasional’ and eco-friendly natives were content with ‘subsistence’. Meanwhile, he sees Christian missionaries as profiting from islanders’ ‘depopulation and malaise’. He includes a moving passage of his own observations of the degradation of the Marquesas Islands in the 1980s, where a prosperous ‘soundscape ... of footfalls, pigs grunting, raucous cocks, and people talking’ disappeared from once populous valleys. In late nineteenth-century Fiji he records ‘cool’ colonial ethnocide displacing traditional violence ‘mainly delivered in heat and rage’, while disease, negligently spread through administrative incompetence, depopulates the island. His phlegmatic and shocking pages on the labour trade are an effective indictment of the malign effects of European intrusions: Easter Islanders, ‘wild with fear’, abducted and enslaved to dig guano in Peru; cynically casual shipboard massacres of recalcitrant recruits for plantations in Fiji in the 1870s; headhunting contracts, like those made in the Solomon Islands in 1872, according to which a chief ‘enters into an agreement with the master of a ship, that if he will supply him with so many heads of his enemies, which they keep as trophies, he will give him an equivalent in men, to be sent away for labour’. On the other hand, Thomas realises that empire could be constructive, even creative. It stimulated ‘multicultural engagements’, especially aboard ships, where islanders were often happy to serve as crew. It produced new kinds of culture – new languages, new var iants of Christianity and paganism. In Samoa, it produced a new game: kirikiti, a locally evolved descendant of cr icket with teams up to 100 strong ‘and a distinctive style of bat, closely resembling a type of ancestral club’. Kirikiti helped to deflect traditional r ivalr ies into a bloodless course. Before empire, Pacific i s land communities included some of the world’s most cunning shipwrights and most accomplished practitioners of celestial navigation. But opportunities for unprecedentedly long-range travel and trade transformed the ways in which they understood the world and negotiated their places in it. Even the labour trade had ‘modernizing’ effects. In short, according to Thomas, empire was ‘a cosmopolitan arena, which extended and elaborated upon the deeply inter-social character of ’ the pre-colonial Pacific.
His effort to foreground native stories and write ‘history shaped by Islanders’ largely f ails in the f ace of defective sources. Natives dominate only three out of twenty-five pages in the f i r s t chapter. The l ive l y vignettes are of Europeans who went native in varying degrees, or embraced martyrdom, or took to drink, or indulged their cruelty in the labour trade, or struggled with their own ignorance in attempts to make empire work. Hongi Hika, the politically inventive Maori chief, appears only as an appendage to the travels of Dumont d’Urville. We get a wonderful picture of Tem Binoka – the compulsive collector of European curiosities who ruled Kiribati in the Gilbert Islands in the 1880s – but the picture is Robert Louis Stevenson’s. Thomas misses an opportunity in barely using the good sources available in the case of Ta’unga, a mid nineteenth-century native missionary from the Cook Islands. The book’s major defects are the strangely selective and unsystematic coverage, which leaves most of the ocean out of account, and the surprising near-innocence of anthropology – the discipline in which the author was formally educated. It is impossible, however, to be unsmitten by the delights. Who could resist Nicholas Thomas’s accounts of the French on New Caledonia in the 1870s, struggling ‘to keep up with Paris fashion’ in ignorance that the Kanak people even existed, or of the Fijian cult of the 1880s that represented Jesus and Jehovah as Fijian gods, ‘who had sailed their canoe to the land of the white men’? To order this book for £20, see LR Bookshop on page 10
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LITERARY REVIEW February 2011