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Albert Wendt: Leaves of the Banyan Tree (US: The Banyan)

One of the key themes of this book can be found in many other books written by novelists from post-colonial countries, namely the idea that arrival of the colonial power changes everything and that some people (generally the younger generation) embrace these changes while others (generally the older generation) resent them and feel that a way of life is being destroyed. There is another, related, key theme to this book, namely the opposition between just enjoying life and the desire to make more money, even if it means sacrificing family life. The story is also a family saga, telling the story of three generations of people in the village of Sapepe but particularly the aiga (meaning extended family or clan) Tauilopepe.

Tauilopepe is thirty-five when we meet him. His aiga is the main one in Sapepe. His parents had wanted him to train as a priest and he had gone to theological college but it had not worked out, not least because he did not want to become a priest. He had shown more interest in and aptitude for farming and mechanics. When his father died, he became family head but had not made much of himself. His father was close friends with Toasa, who is now the village elder and to whom Tauilopepe looks up, even though Toasa cheats at cards. Toasa is the representative of the old ways and pushes Tauilopepe and others to stick to the traditional way of living. Tauilopepe is married to Lupe and they have three children, two daughters and a son, Pepe. Though Tauilopepe is the head of the oldest aiga and Toasa the village elder, the most influential man in the village is Malo as he owns the only shop. Everyone is in debt to Malo, including Tauilopepe, and they pay off their debt by selling him copra, though what they receive barely seems to cover their debt. Tauilopepe is having an affair with Moa, Malo’s younger wife, as much for the financial benefit that gets him as for any sexual reasons. Malo had married late and only because he felt that he should have a wife.

However, things are starting to change. Malo is ambitious and wants to develop the uncultivated land around the village but can only do so with the agreement of the council of maitas (maitas are the heads of the aigas). Tauilopepe is opposed to the idea, as he feels that, as maita of the main aiga, he should be entitled to most of the land and he wants to develop it. Though many of the maitas owe money to Malo, Tauilopepe manages to get a large amount of the land awarded to him and he starts developing it. Eventually this becomes an all-consuming passion and he ignores his family, particularly his wife and son who feel very much neglected but, with the help of his aiga, manages to develop a lot of land and makes money out of growing bananas and copra.

The second part focuses on Pepe, who is now older and unwell. His life has not been good. He has rebelled against his father and all he stands for, been in prison, had a son, following a casual affair, married the mother but not had a happy marriage and generally led a not very happy and dissolute life. When the two rocks in his life, Toasa and Lupe, die, he feels even more bereft. The final part is about his son, Lalolagi, who is brought up by his grandfather and his grandfather’s young wife, after Lupe dies. Lalolagi is spoilt and arrogant but is sent off to school in New Zealand to get the education that his father and grandfather never had. Meanwhile the Malo clan has returned to Sapepe and everyone wants to know how Tauilopepe will react.

Wendt’s themes are clear. There is no doubt, for Wendt, that the old ways were better and that the new ways, brought by the foreigners, have had a detrimental effect. These include greed, ambition, rampant capitalism, alcohol and a move away from traditional values. But Wendt is a good enough writer not to let his novel become didactic. Inevitably, those that go astray tend to be the better rounded characters while Filipo and Simi, the good priests, are frankly less interesting, at least till Filipo, too, goes off the rails. The development of both Tauilopepe and his son, Pepe, are very well done and the story is certainly not predictable, right up to the end. But, ultimately, Wendt is clear that Samoa has gone to the dogs.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Paul Longman