So I finally got myself to a library and read this book, widely known now as a modern classic of Pacific Literature.
It’s about this seriously ambitious man, Tauilopepe, who decides that he’s going to turn his family’s matai land into a business – just like the Palagis do with their plantations. In his unfaltering drive for money and power, he betrays all the people who love him, loses his children – his only beloved son, even, rebels against him in a massive way – and spends the rest of his life in a painful battle to hold on to the status and material wealth he’s won for himself.
The story itself is important to Samoans for a number of reasons.
The way our land relates to our titles is the foundation of our matai system, which in turn is the backbone of our Fa’asamoa. Tauilopepe’s manipulation of matai land for his own benefit is a metaphor for the evolution of our culture under the influence of Christianity and The Palagi who introduced it.
Prof. Wendt also casts a harsh spotlight on some pretty unflattering imperfections in the way we as a people live – adultery, rape (of the night crawler type), violence, alcoholism, an overall lack of integrity – criticisms that I have heard, so often, echoed in the way that we as a people talk about each other.
This book is also important because it delves into the intricacies not only of the Fa’asamoa, but of life in Samoa, without being precious about the way we might be judged as a culture. In other words, Wendt tells it like he sees it – flaws and all.
I learned a lot about Samoa in this book, especially the Samoa of a few decades ago.
That’s not to say that I enjoyed the education.
The characters in the story served their purpose – to illustrate Wendt’s opinions about what’s going on in Samoa – but I wanted to feel a stronger connection with them, to really understand why they did the things they did and to have more empathy for them as complex people in complicated situations.
And then the ending? Don’t even get me started on how random that felt! It had me wrinkling my eyebrows going, huh?
The book reads like ponderous, macabre poetry. I didn’t mind its slow pace so much – I like to be able to drink in the moments – but it was like an eloquent, 700+ page song about the woes of a people corrupted. After a while, you either hate all Samoans or begin to believe that Albert Wendt does.
I have had the privilege, though, of meeting Prof. Wendt a few times (most recently last month at a Pacific Literature symposium) and of interviewing him once, years ago. I remember asking him then who he writes for, as in, who is his audience.
He said that he writes for himself… and I can see that in ‘Leaves of the Banyan Tree’. It was probably the only reason I made it to the end of the book. I kept reminding myself that this was most likely his way of exorcising some of his own demons about experiences he’s had with our people and way of life.
It was kind of like listening to your mum badmouth an uncle you happen to love. You might not agree with the things she’s saying – because you don’t have the same perspective as she does – but what can you do?
How about write your own book about Samoa.