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“Life’s too odd, too unpredictable to warrant explanations. You do things, and sometimes that’s all you can do.” Hardly light reading, these words from a man whose unfaithful wife is killed by a drunk driver could be an anthem for the characters in Titaua Peu’s Pina.
Like so many of the writer’s creations, he is broken and exhausted. For Peu, much of whose work deals with the impact of colonialism on Polynesia, this is the perhaps the point of her book, at least in the earlier stages. Translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Pina, which won the 2017 Eugène Dabit Prize, is a rebuke of the romanticised ideals of Tahiti and its golden sands. The world portrayed in the novel couldn’t be further from the westernised stereotype of laidback lifestyles, luxury hotels and exotic residents eager to please European visitors.
Frequently shifting narrative perspectives, Pina states in its opening lines that: “Every story begins with a family story. Every family has its people bound by blood, no question of that. Some families, though, their fates go every which way.” The family at the centre of this story are Ma, Auguste and their nine children, of whom Pina is the second youngest. The blood that binds them together is not only their family line, but the violence and brutality enacted by Auguste against his wife and children.
Haunted by addiction, mental health issues, and brutal domestic and sexual abuse, the family lives in a dilapidated shack in which nine-year-old Pina is stuck in a life of domestic drudgery. At best, she is ignored by her parents. At worst, she is despised. This loathing goes back to before her birth. After been told by a mystic that her next child would be a boy, Ma (whose full name is never revealed) experienced “hate at first sight” upon seeing Pina:“For weeks, Ma didn’t feel a shred of warmth for the baby. She could go and cry in her filthy, soaking diapers −and so she did.”
Fans of Alice Walker are likely to find something familiar in Pina’s portrayal. From the early stages, the character takes on the qualities of Celie in A Colour Purple, as Peu laces suggestions that her protagonist ought not be underestimated. Although everyone thinks Pina is stupid, she becomes a sphinx, Peu teases.
Other siblings include Junior, (who would be considered homeless in other cultures), exploited sex worker Rosa, Pauro who hides his homosexuality from his family, and Hannah who fled Tahiti for France and has a body “hurting all over from too much lovemaking without any love in it.”
The darkness haunting this family is brought to the surface when a drunken Auguste causes a car accident in which he kills another driver. After being left comatose, he awakens filled with religious fervour and a belief that he is responsible for cleansing his country, and his people. Even his nurse comments that he doesn’t seem remotely happy to be alive.
From a plot perspective, the story has enough thrust to holder the readers’ attention in its early and middle stages, as we become intrigued by the extent to which Auguste’s mind will unravel. As the novel reaches its conclusion, however, it does perhaps begin to rely a little too heavily on coincidence.
For me, it is in the portrayal of its characters that the novel is less convincing. While all the family members are interesting individually, they can feel a little too emblematic when considered as a whole, with many of them seeming to represent a particular vice or social issue. However, this could be Peu’s way of demonstrating the extent to which life in Tahiti has broken down. This is, after all, a world in which young women are drugged in order to take part in orgies.
Where Peu does excel is in her depiction of disordered thinking as she deftly takes us inside the mind of the increasingly unstable Auguste. The reader can just about hold onto his thought process as he lurches from one violent encounter to the next.
Something else you can’t help but notice when reading Pina is the amount sex in the novel. It is almost as if the characters’ experiences of sex become a yardstick to judge their moral worth. Pina approvingly describes hearing her beloved aunt Poe (arguably the warmest and kindest character in the book) screaming in ecstasy when making love to her husband. This is in harrowing contrast to the passages in which Auguste sneaks into his daughter’s bedroom, smelling of alcohol, and masturbates.
In one of the most vividly portrayed scenes in the novel, Pina also masturbates for the first time:“She let a thousand little things whisper and a shiver as big as the ocean ran through her, from head to toe, and died out in a spasm that had her all tensed up and then freed.”
Ever the confrontational writer, Peu immediately follows Pina’s moment of pleasure by having her wonder why Auguste would choose to do the same thing in front of his child.
Despite Peu’s unflinching portrayal of the effects of colonialism, there are moments of joy of in which her love for the country drips through the narrative. Opening the novel with a note on the pronunciation of Tahitian words, Peu ensures that a sense of place saturates her narrative and that she honours the communities she is describing.
It is in the later parts of the book that its political themes become overt criticisms of colonialism. A boyfriend of Hannah describes Tahiti as a “playground for idiots looking for something exotic.” He writes:
“Colonialism, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes, is limited to no era, to no age. It’s simply there. It’s simply always been there. It’s changed a bit over time, but fundamentally it’s all the same.”
It seems unnecessary for Peu to openly express these views through her characters’ dialogues and monologues, as their experiences in the novel make the point forcefully enough. For me, the overtly political tone of its later portions can make the book feel uneven. However, it is perhaps unsurprising that Peu has taken this approach. Her first novel Mutismes also caused controversy for its frank portrayal of racism.
Given the novel’s willingness to confront unpalatable themes, it does perhaps feel that the final pages wrap up the characters’ fates a little too neatly. And, while for me Pina sometimes lacks the subtlety that I like to see in a piece of fiction, it has a great deal to offer to those who enjoy an uncomfortable and brutally honest read. And the novel is likely to force many of its readers to re-evaluate the truth behind colonialism, and its impact on the people it touches.
By Titaua Peu
Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Restless Books, 320 pages
Katy Ward is a freelance journalist from Hull. Her work has appeared in The Metro, The Overtake, LoveMONEY and Independent Voices. She has a BA in English from Oxford University and a postgraduate diploma from City University.