A Lapse of Memory

Victor Segalen

translated from the French by Rosemary Arnoux
Boombana 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 http://dannyreviews.com/
Written in 1907 but set a century earlier, and only now translated into English, Segalen's novel A Lapse of Memory (Les Immémoriaux) depicts the destruction of traditional religion in Tahiti with the advent of Christianity. Writing at a time when blinkered stereotypes of the primitive were still rampant, Segalen displays a remarkable sensitivity and feeling for Tahitian culture. However accurate his picture (I'm no Polynesia expert to be able to judge its finer details), the important thing is that we experience it from the inside — from the opening pages we are plunged into a world in which it is the behaviour and ideas of the Europeans which are bizarre. Segalen has an unusual way of mixing narration of individual thoughts and actions with those of a generalised "cultural consciousness". Though this occasionally results in awkward or artificial passages, it does enable him to impart large amounts of ethnographic background information without interrupting his narrative for long discursions. He even manages to give some feel for the cultural variation between different areas of Tahiti and between Tahiti and other islands.

The protagonist of A Lapse of Memory (as much an anti-hero as a hero) is a Tahitian "night-walker" named Terii who makes a fatal error in a ceremony and leaves the island as a result. For decades Terii works on European ships and learns European languages (but somewhat implausibly doesn't learn anything about Christianity). On his return to Tahiti he finds a largely Christian population, with British missionaries in charge and those loyal to the traditional religion (and some Catholic converts from an earlier round of missionary activity) being persecuted. At first uncomprehending, he soon realises the benefits of compliance and ends up becoming a deacon, in the process betraying his teacher Paofai, who has remained faithful to the old ways.

Arnoux suggests in her introduction that A Lapse of Memory "speaks to the post-modern mood of disenchantment" and that "the problematics of culture implied here resonates with aspects of contemporary philosophy and literary theory". If this is true that is just more evidence that there's nothing original about postmodernism, but anyone wanting to build complex theoretical edifices on Segalen's work will presumably want to read him in the original French anyway. For me the most important thing is that A Lapse of Memory works as a novel. It will certainly have a special attraction for those interested in the history of European contact in Polynesia (or in colonialism more generally) and for anyone who enjoys ethnographic fiction, but there is no reason for it to lack wider appeal.

As well as Segalen's own notes, this edition contains a glossary of Tahitian terms (which he uses without explanation), a chronology of Segalen's life, and a bibliography of books by and about him; it is a scholarly volume. It is also an attractive one, with a nice reproduction of a painting on the front, high quality paper, and crystal clear type.

January 1996

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com
Related reviews:
- Victor Segalen - René Leys
- more French literature
- books about Oceania + Pacific history
- more ethnographic fiction
- more historical fiction
- books published by Boombana
%T A Lapse of Memory
%A Segalen, Victor
%M French
%F Arnoux, Rosemary
%I Boombana
%D 1995
%O paperback, introduction, notes, bibliography
%G ISBN 0646246909
%P 287pp