I didn’t know much about Samoa when I started reading this. I had come across parts of Margaret Mead’s 1928 anthropological study a long time ago, a study that was later proven to be inaccurate and misleading. And Robert Louis Stevenson spent his last years there. In short, I knew nothing about the country itself, just romanticized glimpses through the eyes of foreigners.
This is exactly the kind of half-knowledge that Albert Wendt set out to correct in writing Leaves of the Banyan Tree. It spans New Zealand’s colonization of the country (the Germans had been there before) and ending after independence in 1962. Although it covers three generations, the story is focused on one man, Tauilopepe Mauga, the head (matai) of his aiga, the extended family. Tauilopepe is ambitious for his aiga and single-minded in his pursuit of “God, money and success”.
He starts by clearing his part of the forest for a plantation, leaving in place a single banyan tree, after which he names his plantation. The book follows him as his fortunes grow and he becomes one of the richest men in the area. Oddly enough, it is at this point that Tauilopepe is at his most vulnerable. In his obsession with wealth, he has lost the people closest to him: Toasa, who is like a second father, Lupe, his wife, and Pepe, his only son. The arrival of a mysterious young man into the village brings events to a head.
The world of The Leaves of the Banyan Tree is very much a man’s world, and even the stronger female characters like Lupe and Masina, Tauilopepe’s mother, stay in the background. The main characters are the men: Tauilopepe, his son Pepe who rebels against his father, resenting him for the way he treated Lupe, and Taosa who tries to keep the old ways alive but realizes he is fighting a losing battle. Tauilopepe is memorable—you may not like him, but he towers over the book like the banyan tree.
I learned a lot about Samoa, and how the country changed and modernized (Wendt is ambivalent about whether this is a good thing). He has some sharp observations about the relationship between the papalagi, or the white colonizers, and the Samoans. Something that did surprise me was how Christianity had taken root, thanks to colonization and missionaries. There seems to be very little of the old religion left.
The book took me a while to get into, but eventually I was hooked. The narrative is driven by conflicts: between Tauilopepe on one hand, and his father, Taosa, Lupe and Pepe on the other; between tradition and modernity, commerce and religion, the city and the countryside, and living in harmony with the natural environment and exploiting it.
I’ll end with a passage that seems to sum up several of these conflicts. Taosa is with the men as they are clearing the forest: “With the missionaries, these papalagi settlers shattered the tapu that had ensured the survival of that cycle in which man had respected all other living things. Now Toasa was witnessing his own people continue the destruction. … In that slow walk across the clearing he had finally accepted the inevitable. …To Tauilopepe, the past had no real meaning. … The world [Toasa] was trying to prop up would sooner or later collapse completely.”