Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Typee by Herman Melville

Nuee Nuee Motarkee! (Very, very good)
These days Herman Melville is famous as the author of Moby-Dick, but during his lifetime he was renowned as the author of Typee. This book—his first, originally published in 1846—became an overnight sensation and instantly made Melville a household name. Typee is a semi-autobiographical work based on Melville’s travels to the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific, and his life there amid a much feared tribe of cannibals.

After months at sea aboard a whaler, the narrator (presumably Melville himself, but only referred to in the text as Tom or Tommo) decides he’s had enough of the substandard living conditions and abusive treatment on board ship. When the vessel docks at the island of Nukuheva for supplies, he decides to go awol and hide in the jungle until the ship leaves port, thus freeing himself from his servitude. He is joined by a fellow crewman, Toby, and the two climb up into the mountains of the island, hoping to bask in a tropical paradise. They soon discover, however, that island life can be surprisingly harsh. After a few days the two are on the verge of starving, and the narrator has a mysterious and painful swelling in his leg. The two decide to throw themselves at the mercy of the natives, hoping to meet up with the friendly Happar tribe. Instead, they find themselves captives of the dreaded Typees, a tribe renowned for their hostility, ferocity, and cannibalism. It soon appears their fearsome reputation is undeserved, however, as they treat their captives with the utmost respect and benevolence, at times coddling the injured narrator as if he were an infant. Despite their kind treatment, however, for some unknown reason they absolutely refuse to let him go. Are they so obsessed with hospitality that they feel compelled to keep the white man as some kind of tribal mascot, or is there a darker, hidden motive behind their actions? Could they be fattening him up for some cannibal feast?

Typee provides tense moments of gripping suspense interspersed with interludes of comical culture clash. The enjoyment is heightened by Melville’s prose, which is a pleasure to read for its shameless verbosity. His sentences are simple and brisk, yet it’s as if he’s consulted a thesaurus for each noun and verb. College fraternities could make a drinking game out of Typee, downing a beer every time he uses the word “verdure.” The keg would soon run dry.

Given the fact this book was written over 150 years ago, Melville exhibits an astounding degree of racial sensitivity. He shows great respect for the natives and their culture, even going so far as to assert that the islanders of the South Pacific would be far better off had they never encountered a single white trader or Christian missionary—surely an unpopular notion for his time. He clearly feels that the “civilized” tribes of Europe and America could learn a thing or two from the simple and honest lifestyle of these people so unfairly dubbed “savages.” On the other hand, Melville does not shy away from portraying less flattering aspects of native life, thus stopping short of perpetuating the stereotype of the “noble savage.” Though not an entirely factual memoir, Melville’s narrative nevertheless has an overall ring of authenticity, objectivity, and sincerity. For anyone who’s ever dreamed of traveling to a remote, exotic land to immerse oneself in a foreign culture, this delightful hybrid of adventure novel and travel memoir provides a welcome dose of escapist adventure and educational enlightenment.

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