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.
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