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Robert Barclay: Meļaļ

This one is a bit of a cheat, as Barclay was born in the United States and currently lives in Hawaii. However, he spent most of his childhood on Kwajalein and this book is most definitely about the Marshall Islands and its people. The Marshall Islands are little known to most Europeans and North Americans but are famous for the Bikini Atoll which gave its name to a piece of clothing but also was subject to compulsory evacuation and nuclear testing, along with neighbouring atolls. This is a key subject of this book.

Barclay tells several stories. Firstly he recounts some of the myths of the Marshall Islands. Etao, the trickster and his friend, the dwarf, Ņoniep are up to no good but are also being pursued by demons who may want to kill them. The second story concerns Jebro and his younger brother Nuke. Jebro had been away for two years and had only recently returned. He had just got a job at the sewage plant where his father works, so did not want any trouble with the authorities. However, he want so take his brother fishing and go to the atoll where his grandfather was buried and which was the ancestral home, but which was also out of bounds as it was used for US missile testing and the US flew helicopters over the atoll to make sure no-one was visiting there. So Jebro and Nuke”borrow” their father’s flimsy skiff and set sail. Also setting sail at about the same time time, though in a bigger boat, are three Americans who live on the island and make their living catching and selling fish. Boyd and Travis are old friends and do this frequently but this time they are taking another friend, Kerry, with them, who is prone to sea sickness. The three groups will meet with almost tragic consequences.

There is another story going on and, indeed, it is his story that we start with. Rujen Keju is the father of Jebro and Nuke and works at the sewage plant. The action of this novel takes place during one day and this day will be a very unpleasant one for Rujen. It starts with sewage being backed up in his toilet (ironic, as he works at the sewage plant). His seat on the ferry is taken, his work boots are stolen and his bicycle is damaged before the day has really begun. Things get worse for him He is a committed Catholic and on Saturday evenings (which this is) he works as an usher at the local church. He has a disaster there. In another incident, some American lads capture some dolphins and put them in a pool but there is a move to return them to the sea. This is considered bad luck by the Marshallese and Rujen gets involved with this issue, with not too happy consequences. Above all, however, Rujen, more than the others, is a foil for Barclay’s criticism of how the US treats the Marshallese. His name is mispronounced, he is patronised at church and generally treated as an inferior. He nearly loses his temper when a (US) policeman accuses him of trespassing. He is tempted to point out that the policeman, as a foreigner, is the one who is trespassing.

While telling a good though not great story, Barclay is at pains to point out how the Marshall Islands and the Marshallese are unfairly exploited and mistreated by the US, both as regards the nuclear testing and access to ancestral lands as well as the general way in which they are looked down upon and treated as inferior. In this respect, he does an excellent job. The subject of colonial powers mistreating and failing to understand the native population and culture is, of course, common. It is a key theme of African literature, for example. But it is nice to see it about a South Pacific nation and nice to see it written well by a representative of one of the colonial powers.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by University of Hawaii Press