ON FIJI ISLANDS by Ronald Wright


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Wright opens his book--a pastiche of travel writing and ethnology--with a paragraph that's a sure-fire ""grabber."" ""In the Fiji Museum,"" he writes, ""there is a curious wooden artifact with a carved handle and four sharp prongs. Beneath it is the short but eloquent inscription FORK USED IN EATING REVEREND BAKER."" Unfortunately, what follows (for 225 pages) fails to live up to the promise of those opening lines. Not that there aren't many riveting pages to be found in Wright's account of months spent exploring the Pacific Islands. His recital of the history of Banaba is a case in point. In 1900, when the British discovered that the tiny island was composed of phosphate of lime, a mineral that could be easily converted into valuable fertilizer, they calmly carted it off, shipload by shipload, to spread on the fields of Empire. As Wright points out, ""Many peoples in the world have been driven from their lands, but the Banabans were the first to have their country dug from under them."" His descriptions of the gradual ""Christianization' of the islands, of the eradication of cannibalism and of the current racial and political tensions found even in this remote outpost are equally revelatory. It is when Wright attempts to incorporate his own travel experiences into the historical/ethnological/political material that he runs afoul. The seedy hotels, even seedier bars, the whispering palms and flaming sunsets, the rum-sodden fellow travelers, saucy hookers and dignified village elders have all been around since Maugham sketched them far more successfully several generations ago. Wright hasn't been able to view the milieu with as fresh an eye as, say, Paul Theroux brings to his similar material. For a concise and well-written overview of the history and the current state of this little-known corner of the Pacific, then, Wright's book is highly recommended. As an example of evocative, freshly observed travel writing, however, it's advisable to wait for another, more imaginative guide to the local sights.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1986
Publisher: Viking