A guest in paradise found asks, 'Can we live here or only visit?'
WORLD ELSEWHERE By Peter Brooks Simon & Schuster 224 pp., $23
If it sometimes seems that a vast amount of recent fiction is little more than thinly disguised autobiography, it's also true that we are seeing a lot of fiction with historical themes. Starting in the 1980s, writers as diverse as Norman Mailer, John Updike, A.S. Byatt, Peter Ackroyd, and Rose Tremain have revisited everything from the "Ancient Evenings" of Egypt to England's "Restoration." Perhaps some writers are finding greater inspiration in problems and concerns of bygone eras that seem to resonate with special meaning at this time.
In "World Elsewhere," Yale literary scholar Peter Brooks draws on his expertise in French cultural history to show us how a bright young aristocrat of the 18th century might have responded on encountering a South Seas island that seemed to embody Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideal of a primitive, uncorrupted society, close to nature.
Brooks bases his novel on the real-life adventures of Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen, who accompanied the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage to the island of Tahiti in the late 1760s.
The illegitimate son of a nobleman, young Charles is a lieutenant in the army. Like many of his fellow officers, he has been frittering away his youth on the usual diversions of Parisian upper-class society. Concerned that some of the young man's romantic indiscretions may land him in trouble, Charles's wise guardian suggests that he join Bougainville's expedition. Although sorry to leave his cherished mistresses, Charles understands the importance of doing something that will enhance his name and reputation beyond the confines of France.
The French expedition proceeds into the South Pacific. There they come upon the beautiful, fertile island of Tahiti, where they are welcomed by friendly, healthy, scantily clad natives, who lead what seems very close to an idyllic existence. Uncorrupted by notions of private property, they are free from the pride, envy, and avarice that mar European society. Untainted by the negative view of the body so prevalent in post-Augustinian Christian Europe, their sexuality is uninhibited in a way that Charles has not experienced in his amours with the worldlier ladies of Paris.
Charles falls in love with It, a refined and lovely young Tahitian woman. He seriously considers marrying her and staying on the island, rather than returning to France with his compatriots. But will it be possible for this young French aristocrat, no matter how much he admires Tahitian culture, to reenter lost paradise?
Charles and his compatriots are, for the most part, enlightened men: broad-minded, tolerant, reasonable. They are interested in what they can learn from other cultures rather than assuming an automatic superiority over them. But even with the best will in the world, they wonder if it's possible to "discover" another culture without changing, perhaps even despoiling it.
Looking back on his Tahitian idyll, Charles reflects that young, marriageable French women dancing at cotillions are engaged in a ritual very similar to the Tahitian mating dance: "Only [ours] are more hypocritical, veiling the ultimate object of the game.... No doubt our civilization needs this veiling.... We must take some kind of pleasure in our denials. But why? Isn't it somehow bound up with all our enmities and aggressions? Somehow, those battles I was to fight on the shores of the Black Sea were directly related to the cotillions of Versailles."
In this, his first, novel, Brooks offers a gracefully written, smoothly paced tale of adventure and romance that is also an engaging introduction to the theme of civilization and its discontents: a charming, lucid reworking of some classic themes already well-known to many readers. Although Charles discovers a new world in Tahiti, most readers are likely to feel they are revisiting somewhat familiar terrain. But their visit, at least, will be a diverting one.
*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.