paul theroux

‘ai kapu – the eating taboo – was also severe: women were forbidden to eat bananas, for example, among many other prohibitions. The dispute over

A View from the Beach

Exactly a year ago I set up my folding chair on a beach on the North Shore of Oahu, in Hawaii, and sat down to read The New Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West. I had scarcely read a page when a big blue policeman approached me and said, ‘Show me your ID.’ I asked him why. He said I was breaking the law by sitting there. I indicated to him that there was no sign anywhere saying it was forbidden. ‘The governor made a statement,’ he said. I told him I hadn’t heard it. He handed me a ticket, with a date to appear in court. ‘I’m a kupuna,’ I protested, using the Hawaiian word for a respected elder. He laughed and walked away. My court date was moved twice because of the backlog of cases – over five thousand people ticketed for sitting on a beach. Four months after the ticket was issued, my case was heard by phone. I pleaded ‘no contest’ and was fined $200.

The beaches were open by then, as they are now, with people sitting on them, social distancing. But because of the downturn in tourism, the beaches and car parks are emptier, and people have begun to realise that the ten million tourists we had annually before the pandemic was perhaps too many. The pace of life now much resembles the way it was when I moved here thirty years ago – sleepier, slower, less traffic, more aloha. And my dayto-day routine is unchanged: writing in the morning, beach in the afternoon – paddling my outrigger canoe or swimming or reading, or all three. We cook more at home, perhaps drink a little more, and now and then get a takeaway from restaurants for dishes we can’t cook: Chinese jiaozi (‘pot stickers’), Malaysian laksa and spicy tuna poke bowls.

I had planned to travel now – to Mexico, where my novel The Mosquito Coast is being made into an Apple TV series. The adaptation is by Neil Cross, that clever man who wrote Luther, starring Idris Elba, and the narrative has been updated. I wrote it in the late 1970s, years of low morale, high unemployment and the Arab oil embargo – a distant echo of today’s crisis, when global economies look like twitching corpses and flight to a tropical jungle, like the one in The Mosquito Coast, seems like a good idea. I’m happy, though, to postpone travel. It was travel, after all, that made the coronavirus outbreak a global crisis.

this belief system underlay a battle that was fought at Kuamo‘o, at North Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii towards the end of December 1819. The old gods were overthrown and there was no veneration. But – behold! – three months after this battle, in March 1820, the first missionaries came from New England, with Holy Bibles and a new god to worship.

Today, we have our own taboos. I’ve followed coronavirus news via the excellent reporting of Donald McNeil, who was until February the chief science correspondent of the New York Times. He is in line to receive a Pulitzer Prize for his work. But he was forced to resign recently, not for anything he wrote but for what happened when he was a chaperon on a student trip to Peru in 2019. ‘In the context of a conversation about racist language’ (as he described it) he used the N-word as an example of hate speech. Some time afterwards, a few students said that hearing him speak the word, among other allegations, made them uncomfortable. This became an issue at the New York Times and a group of journalists called for his resignation. McNeil found he had few defenders on the paper; its executive editor issued a statement saying, among other things, ‘We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.’

‘Regardless of intent’ presumably means that the word cannot be spoken or written in any discussion, even academic analysis. But, of course, it is used liberally in many contexts, sometimes as a term of affection, by black Americans. I discussed this at length in the chapter ‘The Taboo Word’ in my book Deep South. My intention was to show its many definitions, its tangled history, the paradox of it being embraced by some and others being penalised for using it. Black Americans have limited power and are underrepresented in many American institutions and spheres of life. So they have taken possession of this word. At a dinner for two thousand people for President Obama in 2016, the comedian Larry Wilmore used the word to describe his passionate affection for the president. Not a single white person at that dinner could have uttered the word. It has become the most explosive (and in a way the most powerful) word in the English language.

The word ‘taboo’ originates in Polynesian culture. In Hawaii it was taboo for a commoner to walk in the shadow of a chief. The penalty was death. This taboo and others gave chiefs great power. Among the ali‘i – the nobles – of Hawaii, certain modes of speech that they used in normal discourse were forbidden to the lower orders, the maka‘ainana.

The biggest cloud on my horizon – bulging with fury, a towering cumulonimbus – is my eightieth birthday, on 10 April. I’ve always hated birthdays and have usually celebrated them by taking the day off, not answering the phone, going for a long bike ride or vanishing into the bundu. The pandemic will offer some relief from people slobbering over me, offering insincere congratulations

The Hawaii variant of ‘taboo’ is kapu. In the early 19th century, after centuries of strict observance, two chiefs who were cousins fought over it. One cousin, Kamehameha II, was determined to end the ancient system that regulated traditional customs, the veneration of gods, the conduct of eating, and much else. The other cousin, Kekuaokalani, was a traditionalist with a sacred shadow. The

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and tasteless jokes. But in other respects, all is well. I am happily engaged in writing a novel; The Mosquito Coast series starts soon; and my new novel is about to appear. Set in Hawaii, Under the Wave at Waimea is about an older surfer, feeling his age, funnily enough, and wondering if he still has his mojo – the eternal question.

april 2021 | Literary Review 1