I first recall becoming aware that Herman Melville apparently wrote a good book about a south Pacific island when my ship the brig Pilgrim moored up beside the San Diego maritime museum, which at the time contained an art exhibit on the South Pacific. It quoted Typee extensively, conjuring great descriptive images of both landscape and anthropological observations, and given the credence given them by the museum, apparently exhibited a high degree of accuracy.
But I had already read Moby Dick, and like nearly everyone who has read this ponderous book, I had found while it provided an unparalleled view into 19th century whaling life it was also a leviathan of a book that could have seriously benefitted from a proactive editor with e flensing hook to render away excess verbosity. Melville certainly accomplished making reading a book about a two year whaling voyage feel like a two year whaling voyage. Sure maybe Typee is good but who has time for a second Moby Dick?
Much more recently it was brought back to mind as I read Paul Theroux's Paddling the Happy Isles of Oceania on kindle during my vacation. When he was in the Marquesas, where Typeee is to be found, he referenced it extensively and positively.
As an aside, in reading this Theroux book I almost fell out of my chair to read references to his beehives. My favorite author has apparently taken up beekeeping in his retirement! It's quite entirely possible, if he, like many American beekeepers, receives the American Bee Journal, he may have read ME.
Since I enjoy to travel thematically through my reading, I next took up The Cruise of the Snark, in which Jack London cruises the South Pacific in a ketch he had had built, named the Snark, and writes snarkily about it. As an inveterate traveler and former crewmember of a large ketch, I enjoyed this book too, though the specific audiobook version I was listening to had apparently thought it would be a delightful lark to overlay sound effects over the first few minutes of every chapter making it almost impossible to make out the narration, and as well employed a narrator who read the book in a breathless ranting manner that made it a struggle to appreciate the book until I got used to it. Celebtrated author Jack London also seemed to regard Melville's Typee in the very highest of esteem. And so I finally decided to turn to Typee next.
I highly recommend sitting on a tropical beach whilst reading about tropical beaches
Typee is Melville's semi-autobiographical account of, having skipped ship from a whaler, finds himself captured by and living among the reputed cannibals of the valley of Typee in the Marquesas. This tribe is so feared that they have little contact with the outside world, in his characteristically enlightened style centuries ahead of his time, finds them to be, and accurately describes them as, actually a very human society with a great deal to appreciate about them. This was Melville's first book, one can imagine him, a mere sailor, setting down the story simply because it's too good not to tell, and then having discovered a gift for writing going on to continue his writing career. Also throughout the book I kept finding myself rooting for him NOT to leave the island, but then thinking but wait if he did there'd probably have been neither this book nor any of his future writing.
The book combines his astute anthropological observations, vivid descriptions, insightful wit, as well as skillfully balanced suspense (one is left wondering throughout if the locals are in fact just waiting for the best time to eat him, and how and why does he escape??). Altogether I found it be an excellent book, a classic I think should get more recognition than it does -- I liked it much better than the more famous Moby Dick.
Another thing that I greatly enjoyed is that the audiobook version I listened to employed a narrator (George Guidall) whose elocution perfectly conveys the story in a serious manner while rendering witty asides as hilarious deadpans without at all seeming to try. It actually sounded a bit familiar ... and then I realized, this was the same narrator whose version of Don Quixote I had "read!" Once I realized that, it was hard not to picture Melville and his companion as constantly about to do something hilariously ridiculous. And in fact, shortly after I came to this realization I came to this passage:
I suppose the old gentleman was in his dotage, for he manifested in various ways the characteristics which mark this particular stage of life.
I remember in particular his having a choice pair of ear-ornaments, fabricated from the teeth of some sea-monster. These he would alternately wear and take off at least fifty times in the course of the day, going and coming from his little hut on each occasion with all the tranquillity imaginable. Sometimes slipping them through the slits in his ears, he would seize his spear—which in length and slightness resembled a fishing-pole—and go stalking beneath the shadows of the neighbouring groves, as if about to give a hostile meeting to some cannibal knight. But he would soon return again, and hiding his weapon under the projecting eaves of the house, and rolling his clumsy trinkets carefully in a piece of tappa, would resume his more pacific operations as quietly as if he had never interrupted them.
But despite his eccentricities, Marheyo was a most paternal and warm-hearted old fellow...
Cannibal knight! Don Quixote indeed! This eccentric patriarch makes periodic appearances throughout, casually smoking at the top of a palm tree and exhibiting other silly or inexplicable behaviors, but always described sympathetically as Melville clearly felt a great fondness for the old man. Altogether the cast of characters is so thoroughly human you know they can't but be real people Melville knew and loved (and yet how could he leave the beautious island damsel Fayaway?), and this book, far from the crude imaginings of "island cannibals," one encounters in most mediums, is a masterful and accurate work the author poured his heart and soul into.
And so, in conclusion, I heartily recommend you read Typee.
And now, continuing on the theme, I'm on to Peter FitzSimmons' version of Mutiny on the Bounty.