The New York Times Book Review
World Elsewhereby Peter Brooks
World Elsewhere tells of the sea change of young 18th-century French nobleman who embarks on a high-seas voyage that will alter dramatically his notions of humanity and civilization. Based on actual historical events and contemporary diaries, the novel takes us from a Paris of gilded royalty, casual decadence, and love affairs on an odyssey to exotic lands and/i>… See more details below
World Elsewhere tells of the sea change of young 18th-century French nobleman who embarks on a high-seas voyage that will alter dramatically his notions of humanity and civilization. Based on actual historical events and contemporary diaries, the novel takes us from a Paris of gilded royalty, casual decadence, and love affairs on an odyssey to exotic lands and foreign cultures, leading eventually to the South Pacific. At the novel's center is Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen, a young captain in the French army. To flee financial embarrassment and an impending romantic scandal, Charles joins the frigate Boudeuse, under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, as it sets out on a voyage around the world - headed first to the tip of South America and then into the open and uncharted waters of the South Pacific. The discovery of Tahiti brings both radical change and new challenges. Charles and his companions believe that they have stumbled upon a true earthly paradise: an island fringed with magnificent beaches, lush with exotic vegetation, inhabited by people who appear both physically and spiritually beautiful and who have put erotic love at the heart of existence. But after an idyllic beginning to their stay on the island, the French explorers begin to sense that Tahiti may have a darker side: There are signs of bloody combat with other islands and hints of ritual human sacrifice. And after three native men are killed during a quarrel with some undisciplined French soldiers, the remaining Tahitians vanish into the mountains, leaving Charles and his shipmates fearful that the seemingly gentle islanders have now become their deadly enemies and that an attack is imminent. The sudden and frightening change in their situation brings new responsibilities for Charles as he struggles to reconcile his duties as a Frenchman and a soldier with his growing love for Ite, a young Tahitian woman.
The New York Times Book Review
Brooks has chosen, probably wisely, to use a European to tell his story, and an oddly engaging character he is: The young Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen, impecunious scion of one of the 18th century's innumerable German states, is a soldier by profession, in the service of the King of France. It is 1762, and with no war in prospect the handsome, amiable prince keeps busy in the manner of his day and class, by seducing beautiful Parisian women. But he is rather too successful as a lover, and soon he must leave town for an extended period.
Lacking ideas of his own, Charles accepts his guardian's proposal - to accompany, as a volunteer, the French circumnavigational expedition headed by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. It's not an ideal solution: Though the prince is wholly unconcerned by his own complete ignorance of seafaring or exploration, he's nervously aware that his new commander may resent the prince's having stolen a beautiful actress from under his nose.
So far, Brooks's story might be Dangerous Liaisons Goes to Sea, but then the young soldier-prince begins to encounter a world that European world-liness hasn't prepared him for. In South America the expedition stops long enough to give the young prince closeups of Spanish colonialism and of natives in a state of Hobbesian primitiveness. Though Prince Charles is no social thinker, the import of these experiences isn't lost on him.
When Bougainville's two ships finally anchor inside the Tahitian reef, the place seems to all hands a veritable paradise - just as it would to countless visitors over the next two and a half centuries. To the dazzled explorers the physically beautiful Polynesians seem, in fact, to exemplify a completely idyllic state of nature.
Thanks to Bougainville's civilized attitude, the first meetings between the two peoples are free of untoward incident, though it's clear that beneath the veneer of friendship, deep misunderstandings are all too possible. Prince Charles, lacking useful skills, is largely free to follow his fancy. And that fancy leads him ashore and into the arms of the beautiful Ité, who introduces him to all the charms of Polynesia.
Brooks's picture of the island landscape is immensely attractive, but no more so than his portraits of the Tahitians themselves. It's all so much like Eden that we're not surprised that the prince decides he will remain behind when the ships sail on. When you come right down to it, the prince fits right in - he's at least as much a noble savage as his hosts are.
When, despite Bougainville's care, violence breaks out between the French sailors and the Tahitians, the young prince is dispatched on a mission of conciliation to the Tahitian leaders. He stumbles across a marae with two sacrificed bodies and abruptly discovers another face of Tahitian society.
It's perhaps inevitable that the prince will return with the French to his own world - more inevitable than the reader knows: The prince was a real person who became a renowned European soldier and left his own memoir of paradise, one of many accounts that Brooks has used to good advantage.
Fascinating as a view of Polynesia before its subjection, World Elsewhere has its faults as a novel. Especially toward the end of the book, the characters tend to summarize in dialogue the lessons they've learned about the problems of an idyllic, largely defenseless society facing the unthinkingly predatory Age of Exploration. We don't need the author to explain the moral of his tale - he's told his story well enough so that we've already got the point.
But this is a quibble: Anyone who wants to know how Polynesia appeared to its first Europeans, and why it had no chance against the men who followed, can hardly do better than to read World Elsewhere.
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.91(w) x 8.77(h) x 0.82(d)
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