Island of Shattered Dreams

This novel by Chantal T. Spitz is the January selection of the Goodreads group “Read Around the World Book Club”. It is set in Tahiti (French Polynesia) and is a translation from the French by Jean Anderson. It was originally published in 1991 and was the first novel published by a Mā’ohi writer. It shows the effects of colonization on the Tahitian society through the history of one family from diverse cultures.

The book contains many ancient myths and beliefs and the reader is shown how these ancient myths clash with the new religion and the new way of life brought by the colonizers. The clash of civilizations brings about unrest not only between the Europeans and the Islanders, but also between the Islanders themselves, as some of them align with the colonizers for various reasons, not least a desire for power and money:

Mā’ohi of today, you stand amongst
Those who do not think any more
Those who just follow orders

Those who copy others and reject their own identity
Those who kill their own souls and sell their Land
Those who sell off their homeland for as song
Those who admire the foreigner
And think their neighbour is the better man
Those who bow before injustice
Prostrating themselves before those who despise them.

Mā’ohi, what have they done to you?
Mā’ohi, what have you done to yourself?

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 243

2021_02_23

The novel contains myths and poetry interwoven with the story of the family. The family story starts with Tematua, who grows up traditionally on one of the islands. As a young man, he and some of his friends and peers are enticed away to fight in Europe in WWI (or maybe it was WWII? I’m not quite sure, the novel doesn’t mention details) for the French. Some of they are killed, and Tematua is traumatized on his return, although he finds healing of sorts on his island. Later, he falls in love and marries Emily-Emere, a mixed-race child whose mother is Mā’ohi and whose father is a rich English landowner. The love between her mother and father is doomed, because her father is already (albeit unhappily) married to a white woman. Tematua and Emere build a life that mixes Mā’ohi tradition and the European way of life. They have three children, who spend their childhood living on an island in the traditional way, but then move to the city for further schooling and to France to study. There’s the first-born boy, Terii, a daughter Eritapeta and Tetiare the third daughter. Sadly, all of them grow up to find it hard to reconcile their Mā’ohi background with their European schooling:

Emere and Tematua’s children, a mixture of two cultures, will never be whole. When their minds and spirits come to understand the world of the white people, their souls will cry out with the pain of their Land and their People. Eternal uprooting of the spirit. Immortal anchoring of the belly.

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 1043

Later on in the novel, Tematua and Emere lose their land to the French, who build a nuclear testing facility on the site. Their family tries to fight against this decision, but cannot prevail, as the land belongs to Emere’s father, who is keen on making money, and because the corrupt local government accepts money from the French authorities instead of supporting their own people and saving their own land.

The reader is shown how the nuclear facility is built and how the Europeans who run it are isolated from and look down on the original owners of the land. One of the scientists, Laura Lebrun, tries to build a relationship with the Mā’ohi and falls in love with Terii, who returns her love. But their love too is doomed, because Terii cannot live with a lover who is responsible for testing nuclear bombs. Neither of them can bridge that deep gap and so they part again. Meanwhile, Terii and Tetiare study and work to learn about their own Mā’ohi culture. Tetiare eventually wants to become a writer, to tell her people their history and give them back dignity and hope. Terii tells her (because she is having doubts about the writing):

“You have to publish your story. It doesn’t matter what the critics say, and they won’t be kind, you can count on that. The dream passed on by oral tradition is dying because we can’t remember, and we must bring it back to life through writing. Others after you will write a piece of the dream and in the end it will become a reality.”

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 2194

The novel ends on a sad note with the separation of Terii and Laura, but Tetiare’s writing gives hope that things may improve for the next generations.

The novel’s mixture of myth, poetry, political criticism and one family’s story is very creative and quite unusual (at least to me, I can’t remember having read a novel like this before). Very powerful and very moving and also differentiated, finding good and bad on both sides of the cultural divide. Very though-provoking. I found it tragic in places. The vision of hope at the end seems only tentative, but at least there is some hope.

Keep safe, world.

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