Sunday, December 04, 2005


Brief notes on Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu

On page 290 of the Houghton-Mifflin hardcover edition: "Many slow-speaking and stammering islanders were aggressive out of pure frustration. They squinted instead of replying, or grunted, or gaped like fish..." Somewhere else in HOTEL HONOLULU, Paul Theroux describes Hawaiians as aristocrats who have sold the castle and now scowlingly show the tourists about. Except, as he well knows, it wasn't like that. The castle was taken by force of arms in support of the powerful American investment interests, landgrabbers, developers, speculators, and the missionaries, who arrived before anyone else since they were "the cutting edge of trade".

Nevertheless, there is some aloha in this novel: in a local newspaper interview, Theroux said he feels sad everytime he takes off from the Honolulu airport. He does at least love the physical place, and part of his spirit seems to have settled there, and yet he continues his compassionless habit of trashing the indigenous people, so prevelant in his cold, and even despicable book, THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA. For one of America's most intelligent serious authors, acerbic sarcasm directed against native peoples is a disturbing artisitic trait, and a kind of intellectual neo-fascism, a defense mechanism at best, and it keeps Theroux from approaching greatness in his writing.

Most evident in Happy Isles, the "kind spirit" to quote from his own dedication in his early book THE KINGDOM BY THE SEA, A JOURNEY AROUND GREAT BRITAIN, is gone: irony turns to sarcasm and to a bitterness which only a new love in Hawaii seems able to heal. In KINGDOM he is still "on track" and his private life has not fallen apart. His invocations of Henry James in HONOLULU warn the reader against making false identifications; yet, there is no clarity of artistic distance, and the Polynesian people whom he trashes in HAPPY ISLES with scorn, he does feel a more positive emotion for, in spite of himself perhaps, in HONOLULU. A true memoir of what really happened to destory his London-based marriage and set him off to the south seas would be his deepest book. I doubt he could do it.

And a belated Mahalo as he himself wrote so often at the close of his shorter sports pieces set in the islands, to the late Dr. Hunter Thompson, one of our greatest prose non-fiction stylists.

He doubtless knew the tale of Princess Kaiulani, whose photo by an unknown photographer graces a card printed by Cool Breeze (P.O. Box 11421, Honolulu, 96828-0421) and sold in stores all over Hawaii. She left the islands as a young girl to be educated in England. When the U.S. government overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, she traveled to Washington, DC, to plead the case against this illegal action, but the territory was annexed and in Hawaii, less than a year later, Princess Kaiulani died at age 23.