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Typee by Herman Melville (1846) 210 p.

The first novel by the famed author of Moby-Dick, Typee walks a fine line between fact and fiction. The author relates it as a true account of the several months he spent living amongst natives of the South Pacific; whether this is true or not is a matter of contention, and something that lingered in my mind throughout the book.

After six months at sea, the horrors of which are described in a very strong opening chapter, Melville’s whaling vessel puts into the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia to resupply. Unwilling to spend another stretch in the hellish conditions of the whaler, Melville and his comrade Toby jump ship and trek across to the other side of the island, seeking shelter with the natives in a valley called Typee. They are welcomed by the natives and treated like kings, before realising that the people of Typee have no intention of letting them leave. Melville is sick, and Toby attempts to leave and fetch help; he does not return, and his fate is not resolved until the end of the book. Melville spends three months living with ease amongst the natives in their tropical paradise, but this idyllic existence is tempered by his unease over what happened to Toby, his suspicion that the people of Typee engage in cannibalism, and his terror of being permanently imprisoned. He is perplexed as to why they are so determined to keep him there, and the islanders will not explain themselves; indeed, the reason for his imprisonment is never resolved.

As non-fiction, this book is excellent. It combines a tale of adventure with a first-hand account detailing the way of life of an average Polynesian tribe, something unheard of at the time. Unfortunately, according to most modern scholars, it isn’t non-fiction. Details are hazy, but the best records indicate that Melville spent less than three weeks living with the natives, and embellished his story with tales gathered from other Pacific sailors and explorers. And, judged as a story, it fails on a number of levels – it’s poorly paced, intersparsed with tedious details about the minutae of island life, and quite repetitive. None of this would matter if Typee were a work of non-fiction, but in a novel they seriously impair the narrative. This is an interesting book for somebody interested in the genre, or in the history of the South Pacific, but is otherwise not reccomended.

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