Here am I, your special island

Monday Book Review

May 13, 1991|By Myron Beckenstein

THE EDGE OF PARADISE. By P.F. Kluge. Random House. 244 page. $21.95.

MICRONESIA -- "if your finger landed there, in a game of spin-the-globe, you'd spin the globe again," writes P.F. Kluge. But Kluge was not an armchair traveller. He went to the islands as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, left, wondered if he regretted leaving, and returned time and again to the islands he had come to care about and the people who had become his friends.

There is an fascination with the Pacific and its islands. Herman Melville. Gauguin. Robert Louis Stevenson. Nordhoff and Hall. Rodgers and Hammerstein. It is the place that is always being described as never being quite as nice as it used to be, which means it always is better now than it will be tomorrow, so see it while you can.

Micronesia (the place of little islands) is one of the Pacific's broad areas, Polynesia and Melanesia being the others. In Micronesia, in Kluge's words: "There were three main groups of islands -- the Marshalls, the Marianas, the Carolines -- over 2,000 islands in all, half the land mass of Rhode Island, scattered over an area the size of the continental United States. A population of less than 100,000 that could be comfortably seated in the Pasadena Rose Bowl."

In 1988 one of Kluge's friends, Lazarus Salii, who had become president of Palau, killed himself. Kluge returned once again to the islands, to find out what had happened to his friend and to write a book. "The Edge of Paradise," subtitled "America in Micronesia," is the result.

After World War II and the expelling of the Japanese, the United States took possession of the area under a UN Trusteeship. One by one most of the islands have found their own post-American role in the world and the question is, are they the better for the U.S. relationship?

His conclusion, sadly, is predictable for a place that suddenly (let's say inside of 60 years) found itself no longer isolated but a part of a unified globe that valued economics more than most bTC other things. Paradise, instead of being the place people are trying to get to, has become the place people are trying to escape from.

Considering the lure of tropical Pacific islands, an author who already has written several good novels and the author's rare familiarity with the subject, the result could have been a highly readable book. It isn't, unfortunately.

"The Edge of Paradise" is not a travel book, it is not political science, it is not anthropology and it is not a good mixture of all or some of the above. What it most isn't is the book it could have been.

Sometimes Kluge's skill with words comes across and you savor a sentence or description. Sometimes he paints a fine picture of a place. Take Guam:

"Guam appalled me, though for reasons that reflected as much of me as it. I dismissed it as a sleazeball garrison island, a B-grade back-door California, the very image of what I hoped the rest of Micronesia would not become.... Coming in from the districts, I could have fun on Guam. But I hated myself in the morning....

"Guam was the future, paradise American style, improved, paved, air-conditioned. But I was proprietary about Micronesia. One of the last beautiful places, small, remote, and all that: could we please not f--- it up? Next question, though: what if the people wanted to f--- it up? What if they voted to do so, in one of those democratic elections we were so proud of importing?"

But too often the story fails to hold the interest. It all becomes a blur in which names like Saipan, Tinian, Polycarp Basilius and Yap become like so many small islands briefly encountered in a )) sea of words, falling slowly astern without leaving any real impression.

The problem seems to be in the approach. Kluge chose to personalize the subject, trying to tell the story of the islands by telling the story of his return, of what he saw and thought. But the story of the islands becomes lost in the story of his trip.

Which is a shame because Kluge knows and cares about the subject and has an interesting story to tell.

Surprisingly, there is no map in the book. Surely one is needed, just as the use of f--- words isn't.

Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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