Friday, 22 June 2018

Book Review: Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz beauty and wealth especially of tropical islands always attracted adventurers, fortune-hunters and eventually colonists from other parts of the world, ancient cultures thriving there were – are? – quite routinely written off as savage and worthless. Thus many non-European civilisations have disappeared since the great age of discoveries. Colonial powers imposed their own culture and language on people thus imbibing the autochthones with a feeling of inferiority that made them loathe the assumedly primitive traditions of their ancestors and look down on those who refused to adapt to the new ways stubbornly holding on to their old ones. Tahiti in French Polynesia was no exception there as shows the novel Island of Shattered Dreams by Polynesian writer Chantal T. Spitz. It’s the story of a Tahitian family in the twentieth century that within only three generations loses its identity and even its ancestral lands to be swallowed by Western civilisation.

Chantal T. Spitz was born in Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia, in November 1954. She grew up in a European-style environment, but her family of mixed origins instilled in her pride of her Tahitian heritage . After a stint abroad, she returned to Tahiti for good and eventually embarked on a career in education as a teacher and later as a consultant in the Ministry of Education. In 1991, she made – as first Polynesian writer ever – her successful debut as a novelist with highly controversial Island of Shattered Dreams (L’île des rêves écrasés). It was followed by two other novels since, namely Hombo, transcription d'une biographie (2002 ; trans.: Hombo, Transcription of a Biography) and Elles, terre d'enfance (2011; trans.: They, Country of Childhood). She also wrote articles for periodicals and brought out two volumes of short stories titled Pensées insolentes et inutiles (2006; trans.: Insolent and Useless Thoughts) and Cartes postales (2015; Post Cards) respectively. Chantal T. Spitz lives in Huahine, Tahiti, French Polynesia running a small hotel with one of her sons.

In the 1920s and 1930s Ruahine is not yet a Tahitian Island of Shattered Dreams because Western influence is almost limited to Christian faith. Tematua (meaning “strength”) grows up in the loving care of his parents and with the assuring traditions of his Polynesian ancestors. The idyll is disturbed when along with other young men he is drafted into the French army to fight in World War II. He returns home from Europe safe and sound, but refuses to talk about the experience. Five years after Tematua, Emere (local variant of Emily) is born on the main island. While her Tahitian mother works hard as a teacher in the capital to ensure that Emere can take her place in influential European and mixed-race circles, her caring and rich English father, who is married to an Englishwoman, teaches her his culture. Coming of age Emere decides against studies abroad and her father offers her land on Ruahine. During her first visit there, Emere meets Tematua and love strikes both like lightning. As soon as possible, Emere returns to Ruahine to start the island’s first school and to become Tematua’s wife. Before long they have a son and two daughters. Unlike the oldest, Terii (meaning “prince”), who like his parents tries to combine European and Polynesian ways of life, his sisters turn out culturally biased. Eripatea (local variant of Elisabeth) disregards her Polynesian heritage and Tetiare (meaning “flower”) feels uncomfortable with Western lifestyle. They are all grown up, when despite protests France begins to build a nuclear testing site on Ruahine of all places and flies in specialists among them engineer Laura Lebrun. The open-minded woman of 40 roams the island and is intrigued by 28-year-old Terii, who devotes his career as archaeologist to Polynesian history. The two fall passionately in love…

Evoking the lives of three generations of Tahitians, Island of Shattered Dreams is touching family saga as well as first-hand, though fictionalised chronicle of French Polynesian life from the mid-1920s through the 1980s. It illustrates in sad detail the detrimental effect that about two centuries of Western influence or really cultural hegemony had on well-functioning traditional societies in the region and on individual self-esteem. As shows the novel, the result is a spiritual as well as natural paradise lost to the requirements of survival in a globalised and ruthlessly competitive world that annihilates or at least impoverishes whoever isn’t fit or willing to follow its rules. The children of Emere and Tematua embody possible ways to cope with the situation, namely to blend autochthon and imposed cultures in daily life or to choose one and dismiss the other. Either way it’s a difficult strife for identity and equal social standing that the author tells – at least in the French original – in an unpretentious, and yet lyrical language spattered with Tahitian words and clearly inspired by the oral traditions of her country. To emphasise the protagonists’ strong emotions and connection to ancestors and land she also interweaves the prose with poems.

To read Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz has been an extraordinary experience and pleasure for me. Most importantly it was a very welcome change to see Tahiti through the eyes of a critical and notably dismayed insider instead of through the rose-coloured spectacles of the more or less interested visitor from Europe or America who stands in too much awe of the beauty of the landscape to take in anything else. In the slim volume the picturesque as well as peaceful scenery is put against the ugly backdrop of foreign rule and home-made politics that go hand in hand in leaving out of account needs, wishes and even wellbeing of the indigenous population. More universally, it’s a story about the boundless arrogance of rulers in the twentieth century… and not just in colonial or overseas territories! In a nutshell, it’s a novel that I whole-heartily recommend.


  1. I don't think I have read a novel set in Tahiti. This one sounds like a good one with which to start. Thank you for your review.


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