Two Tales of the South Seas

While much of Jack London’s more famous work is set in the North, he has a body of work set in the South Pacific, also.  I recently read his short story “On The Makaloa Mat”.  The story uses a device that I’ve found in many short stories:  in the present time, one character tells another a story that took place in the past.  As with most devices, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  With this story, Bella, a woman in her 60’s tells her sister, Martha, about the men with whom she was involved in her youth.

Both women are partially Hawaiian and London goes to great lengths to indicate what percentage of Hawaiian blood makes up these two ladies as well as other family members.  Bella’s story contrasts and sometimes conflicts the cultural divide between the “haole” or white man and the Hawaiians.  (A thank you to Jim who pointed out what “haole” meant in a comment he made on this post). Bella’s husband, George Castern, is a frugal, hard working white man who is pulling himself up by his bootstraps on an Hawaiian farm.  The apparent true love of Bella is Hawaiian Prince Lilolilo.  While Castern is gone for a few weeks, Bella is the guest of Prince Lilolilo at a progress – a long party or celebration.  She is asked to sit on the Makaloa mat – a place for a guest of honor.

In much of London’s work, his ability to describe natural landscapes and natural elements captures his brilliance. In the case of this story, I found it interesting that he describes the women, themselves, in very similar fashion to the way he describes landscapes.  And he manages to do it in very tastefully!

While I’ve read and posted about Jack London frequently since I started blogging, I haven’t posted about another South Seas writer, Joseph Conrad.  When I was in high school, I had to read Heart of Darkness – as I remember finding it rather difficult to get through, I’ve never bothered reading anything else by Conrad.  However, “Freya of the Seven Isles” was recommended to me (another thanks to Jim) and I’m very glad I read it!  

The story takes place during the Dutch control of the Indonesian islands.  While Freya is the focus of the story, Jasper Allen, a British merchant with a rebellious reputation (at least to the Dutch) fascinated me the most of all the characters.  He is madly in love with both Freya and his ship, the Bonito.  While he knows the difference between the two, they are both intricately linked to his plans for the future.  He dreams of carrying off Freya as his wife to live with him on his ship.  Freya, just as much in love with Jasper, needs to deal with her clueless father who has misgivings about Jasper because of his reputation with the Dutch.

The story spins into tragedy of Shakespearean proportions with personal jealousies and international politics taking its toll on the characters.  From a literary standpoint, this is probably the best short story I’ve read this year.  I remember learning in high school that Conrad wrote in English as a second language (as did Jack Kerouac).  Perhaps that is the reason his writing style has a certain freedom about it – not a willy-nilly freedom, but a freedom of a train on the right track.  More Conrad stories are going to have to be on my agenda for the future.

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