This was another recommendation from The Modern Novel – and a welcome one too, given that the list entry for the Solomon Islands was ominously blank. There just seemed to be nothing out there from this tiny archipelago hovering some way above Australia in the big, blue Pacific.
So when my copy of John Saunana’s 1980 novel The Alternative arrived from a bookseller in Spain, I was interested to see that when it was published it had been held up as the great white hope of literature in the region. ‘At a time when contemporary Solomon Islands writing is growing in scope and depth, this novel will stand as a signal achievement, as a challenge to other Solomon Islands writers,’ proclaims the blurb, while the flyleaf boasts the support of a range of illustrious organisations.
I couldn’t help wondering where the fruits of this apparent late 20th century burgeoning of Solomon Islands writing had got to. As far as I’d been able to find out, those looking for written work in English from this Commonwealth nation would find very little alternative to, er, The Alternative.
Exploring the effects of colonialism, the novel tells the story of Maduru, an intelligent boy forced to inhabit two universes. Singled out for education at an exclusive, British-style boarding school, dubbed the ‘Eton of the Pacific’, he finds himself pulled between the culture he was born into and the one that has been imposed on his island home. At last, as British decolonisation sets in and old certainties begin to crumble, he is forced to choose between his place in the world and his sense of self.
The novel is strong on its depiction of the way colonialism seeps into and warps an individual’s sense of identity. Portraying Maduru’s moments of wishing to be white and his contempt for the ‘bush kanakas’ in his home village, as well as his internalisation of Western attitudes, Saunana is skilled at showing how subjection spreads its roots through everyday life. Perhaps the most powerful example of this comes in the early chapters, when Maduru, indignant at being cast as the Virgin Mary in a school play, rebels against his teachers in his mind: ‘if I were Samson I’d tear you to pieces like the lion, and pull down this chapel like the Temple and kill everybody in it,’ he thinks, unaware that his choice of imagery betrays exactly how deep into his consciousness Western culture has sunk.
Saunana’s anger at the injustice and discrimination of the colonial regime comes across clearly too. At times, this takes the form of highlighting the absurd reality of living in a ‘colonial relic’, subject to decisions taken by penpushers in a drab, rainy country on the other side of the world. Elsewhere, it is expressed more extremely, as when the headmaster, driven to distraction by Maduru’s unionisation of the student body to get a teacher removed, gives vent to a rant about ‘this God-forsaken place’, which lays his prejudices bare. There is also the interesting decision to put some of the later dialogue in Maduru’s mother tongue, excluding English language readers from understanding the full meaning.
Without doubt, this is a novel of its time. Some of the attitudes, in particular Maduru’s unashamed sexism, read oddly in 21st century London.
There are also some pacing problems in the narrative. Saunana has a strange habit of spending the last pages of a chapter building a dilemma for his hero, only to diffuse it and sweep it away in the final paragraph, leaving the reader nonplussed. Digressions – some delightful, some downright odd – are rife and there are moments of hyperbole, which teeter on the verge of the ridiculous in the school context, although they work better if understood as metaphors for a wider national struggle.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, strange and engrossing book. Anyone with an interest in colonial and post-colonial literature will find much to chew on here.
And if you do know what happened to all those other Solomon Islands writers of the early eighties, leave a comment and let me know – it’d be great to hear of any more works out there.
The Alternative by John Saunana (University of the South Pacific, 1980)