Welcome to Lovely Fiji, Home of Gentle Coups

My flight to Fiji was almost all Westerners, but by the time I got on a bus from the airport to the capital, only three others came along–women, young backpackers. All the rest had headed for the resorts, to surf and dive. And before long, the girls went, too. They got out about two hours into the ride at a sign for the Beach-house. Dormitory lodging on the beach, it said. Vaguely hippie-ish.

It was four and a half hours to Suva. That’s where the coups take place in Fiji. One after another–they call it the coup coup. An Indian cabby took me around looking for a hotel, all the time railing against indigenous Fijians, who don’t like to work; they prefer to sleep. While the Indian works all day long. Of course.

“What do I owe?” I said when we had found a halfway-decent place. “What do you want to pay?” he said. “You tell me,” I said. He’d played me. Even as I gave him his money, I realized I’d paid as much for a bus ride across the island–$10 Fijian ($5 U.S.)–as for a cab ride up the hill.

The hotel was called Motel 6. Very clean, but not a Motel 6 Motel 6. I slept off the plane and bus ride and then walked down to meet my friend Jim, an expat.

The streets were sullen, lifeless. Indians carried on business right next to the burnt shells of stores as if nothing was the matter.

They had a coup in 1987, then one last May, when rebels took over the Parliament and held the Indian prime minister and a bunch of others hostage for nearly two months in the name of indigenous Fijians. This March has seen a sequel coup, actions by high officials to legitimate the May coup as being somehow constitutional. The Great Council of Chiefs said that it was O.K. to depose the old government. Then, as a jazz band played “God Bless Fiji,” the president dissolved Parliament and installed a prime minister given to nationalist statements.

Jim had said to meet him at McDonald’s on Victoria Parade. It seemed as if every white person in Suva had gathered there, around a statue of Ronald McDonald seated on a bench. A lot of international business has pulled out. These people were on aid or religious missions. They had open, sincere faces.

Jim came in. He’s from the Midwest but has gone somewhat native. He had on a New Zealand outfit, high socks and shorts, and spiced his speech with “Io”–Polynesian for “yes.”

We drove around town looking at golf courses and coup coup sites, and he told me the story of George Speight.

George Speight was the rebel leader. Jim used to play golf with him, and no one thought George had a political thought in his head. He was a short, thickly built man who was wrapped tight, never gave anything away. And a desperate character. Business troubles. He was on the national mahogany board and meanwhile cutting a deal to sell mahogany overseas. Conflict of interest, even in the Third World. When the Indian-run government found out and went after him, George Speight took hostages, then started slaughtering animals in the Parliament house to feed them, horrifying Hindus. Long-smoldering tension broke out in the streets. One of the first buildings to go up in flames was the one housing the mahogany board’s records.

Now George Speight was in an island prison in Suva Harbor. With a nine-iron, Jim laughed.

This is the kind of thing V.S. Naipaul used to write about when people read Naipaul. You could count on Naipaul to sort out the good people from the bad. But at Waterstone’s in LAX, I couldn’t find any Naipaul. It seems as if people have stopped having him explain the world. It’s probably a good thing. For all his fine literary qualities, he has a lot of secret Brahmin contempt.

I bought Robert Louis Stevenson books instead. Because my stop after Fiji was R.L.S. country: Western Samoa. I’d been there 23 years ago, and now I was headed back.

Jim drove me to the bus. I asked him what Polynesia was, and he said it was the light-skinned Pacific peoples as opposed to the dark-skinned ones, Melanesians …. “Huh, I never knew that,” I said. Though then I wondered if it wasn’t something I’d learned on my first Pacific tour and forgotten, then forgotten that I’d forgotten. That makes me a Mel-amnesian.

This plane was smaller and more interesting than the last. No surfers, but a young German couple with many small children and a sharp-nosed, wide-eyed woman in a straw hat who sat spread-eagled on the departure lounge floor, typing away on a laptop between her legs. Real writers will write in the back of a car. She was a real writer. If you’re a writer and you see another writer, the hair goes up on the back of your neck.

She got seated in the row in front of me, and I secretly read her screen from between the seat backs. Something about the World Health Organization. Another helpful type.

This plane was going back in time. We left Fiji on Tuesday, we’re landing in Samoa on Monday.

I opened a book and realized I’d never read Treasure Island . More Mel-amnesia: I just always thought I had because I stared so long at the N.C. Wyeth illustrations in the beat-up old volumes my mother bought. Someone ought to ban Wyeth and his thick-legged, literal, heroic, fife-and-drum American imagination.

It turns out Treasure Island is much more interesting without the illustrations, a weirdly detached fantasy of boyish empowerment. Nothing feels real. The marsh doesn’t stink, the murders pass by like a dream. There’s no stench of death, notwithstanding that just about everyone dies, all the bad guys. That makes for the only mystery. Is Long John Silver a good guy or a bad guy? Will he die? That’s the best part of the book, that he doesn’t die (sorry to give the ending away). The beautiful amorality of Long John Silver, off to find his Negress. I resented what I remembered of Wyeth’s Long John, thick and red-faced–Long Dong Silver was closer to the mark.

R.L.S. was on to something in Long John, and he knew it, something lawless and attractive. R.L.S. wanted out. When Henry Adams came to visit him in Samoa, he was shocked by the absence of soap and R.L.S.’s filthy linens and different-colored socks. R.L.S. had gone native.

We started to descend and I peered out the window, trying to see Mount Vaea, where Stevenson is buried. But I was on the wrong side of the plane, the west side. Then the plane turned and I got a good look at the big island, Savai’i, and of a village I visited when I was young, and the beach I swam on. I’m pretty sure of that. Welcome to Lovely Fiji, Home of Gentle Coups