Friday, April 26, 2013

Omoo by Herman Melville

Adventures in indolence
Omoo, originally published in 1847, was Herman Melville’s second book and the sequel to his smash hit Typee. Like Typee, Omoo is an autobiographical though somewhat fictionalized account of Melville’s own adventures in the South Pacific. This book picks up exactly where Typee left off, with Melville being rescued in the Marquesas by a whaling ship, the “Julia.” He agrees to serve on its crew until they reach the next port, but his injured leg prevents him from taking much of an active part in the sailing duties. There is a great deal of unrest among Melville’s crew mates on the “Julia.” Conditions are poor on the run-down vessel, the captain is a weak leader, and the mate maltreats the men. When the captain falls ill and must go ashore for medical attention, the crew sees his absence as legitimate grounds for releasing them from their contracts of service. The mate disagrees, and wants to continue the whaling voyage under his own command. The dispute is brought before a British consul, who rules that the crew must remain with their ship. When they refuse, they are branded mutineers and confined to a Tahitian prison.

These are but the first few links in a chain of events that Melville relates in the book. I use the word “events” rather than “adventures” because there’s little action or suspense in the book. Melville and his newfound companion Dr. Long Ghost wander the villages of Tahiti and its neighboring islets, their sole goal being to impose on the hospitality of the natives as much as they can while doing as little work as possible. If they happen to catch the eye of a few of the native damsels, so much the better. The romance of traveling through exotic, unspoiled locales is often lost in the daily monotony of trying to fill one’s belly. At times the chapters read like a string of dinner menus, and the villages tend to blend into one another indistinguishably.

As in Typee or Moby-Dick, Melville breaks up the primary narrative by inserting periodic essays on diverse subjects related to the tropical islands of the Pacific, such as geography, botany, or politics. For a white man writing over a century and a half ago, Melville displays an astonishingly enlightened attitude toward the Pacific islanders. He expresses great admiration for the natives, and thinks they would have been much better off had they never encountered white men. However, the point is not pressed as strongly here as it was in his first book. In Typee, the corruption and exploitation of the natives is a major theme; in Omoo, it is merely an accepted fact lurking in the background.

The lazy ramblings of Melville and his physician sidekick would be a total bore were it not for Melville’s prodigious talents as a storyteller. Those hoping for a rollicking tale of adventure on the high seas will be disappointed by the lack of action, but there is a definite pleasure derived from living vicariously through these two tropical vagrants. Melville peppers his stories with bits of arcane knowledge and a wry sense of humor. Reading Omoo is like listening to the dubious recollections of the resident windbag at your local pub. The entertainment value of the tale comes not so much from its vitality or its veracity, but from the amusing eloquence with which it is told.

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