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Chantal Spitz: L’île des rêves écrasés (Island of Shattered Dreams)

This is, apparently, the first ever novel written by an indigenous Tahitian, at least so it is claimed. Spitz tells the story of four generations of a family, living on the fictitious island of Maeva, against the background of events in Tahiti, particularly French colonisation and what it has done (and is still doing) to the Tahitians. However, though it clearly is a political novel, with a strong point of view, particularly as relates to French nuclear testing, it is also a tale told in fable form about the family and their strong attachment to their land and their family. It also tends to take a very black and white approach, with most of the Tahitians being good and most of the foreigners, primarily the French, being bad. She uses not only the fable form but also interjects a fair amount of poetry and quotes various traditional fables, including their creation myth, according to which the Polynesians preceded the Europeans.

We start with Tematua, son of Maevarua and Teuira. He becomes a young man. A man arrives from the main island to tell them that the Motherland needs help because it is fighting Germany, which has invaded them. The people are bemused as they have no idea what the Motherland is, or what Germany is. Why should they help defend a country they do not know and have barely heard of? Why did he say that they were children of the same nation when clearly they are children of a very different nation? And, finally, why was it wrong for Germany to invade this Motherland, when the foreigner invaded their country? Despite this, Tematua and sixteen other young men go off to France. Only five come back, including Tematua. Meanwhile, on another island, Toofa, an attractive woman, is seen by Charles Williams, an Englishman, who is rich and married. William manages to seduce Toofa and, as his wife cannot have children, he is very happy when she becomes pregnant. However, the child, a girl that he names Emily but she names Emere, grows up more attached to her mother but still fond of her father and seeing him regularly.

Williams builds a large house for his daughter and when, inevitably, she and Tematua get together, that is where they live. Tematua does not like it, preferring the small, Tahitian-style houses he grew up in, and so, with Emere’s agreement, he builds a Tahitian house for them. The couple have three children: Terii, a boy, Eritapeta (Elisabeth) and Tetiare, a girl. Terii is a calm child, taking in the world that surrounds him with an insatiable appetite, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for understanding. However, when he goes to high school he has to go and live with his grandmother, as there is no high school on the island where they live. It is here where he struggles with his identity, part white, part Tahitian. Eritapeta, a lovely child and young woman, has no problems with her identity. However, when she meets Tihoti, a young man to whom she is attracted but who comes from a poor neighbourhood, she is conflicted and cannot fully accept him as a person. Tetiare is a dreamer and lives as a Tahitian, wanting no part of the white world.

Everything changes when the Motherland decides to locate its nuclear missile defence system on their island. Charles Williams is happy to sell the property to the government for a large sum of money. The whole family, except for Eritapeta, is devastated and are united in opposition but opposition is futile. (Spitz herself was very much opposed to it and fought against it.) The local government, which is broke, is very keen to agree in exchange for money, despite promising to help the local people. The people do take up the fight. However, things become more complicated when the French woman appointed to run the system, Laura Lebrun, starts an affair with Terii.

This book is fairly straightforward, clearly, in part, autobiographical and also very political. Spitz does not conceal her opposition to French rule and not just because of the nuclear installation. It is an interesting read, not least to see the culture of the Tahitians, which clearly is under threat from the temptations of the West, a point Spitz makes very clearly. Indeed, she has said that this book was not originally written as novel but as testament for her children to read.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Les Éditions de la plage
First published in English 2007 by Huia, Wellington
Translated by Jean Anderson