1 May 2013

Albert Wendt: Sons for the Return Home (1973)

 Albert Wendt's Sons for the Return Home is what I like to call an anonymous novel: not in that author has no name, but in that the characters have no names. In fact Wendt really goes out of his way to give no one a name here, which for me (at the beginning at least) made it less than easy to follow: in one example, is the narrator talking about the protagonist's grandfather or his father? Ah yes, he's speaks about his 'oldest son', and his father only has two sons, so it must be his grandfather. Mercifully, such initial confusions disappear, although we do seem to be in the realm of Oulipian constraints with this novel, but then that of course is all part of the alienation that is the central theme of this book.
It is divided into three parts, the first approximately half of the book, and the other two parts of about equal length. In Part I, we learn of the progress of a young Samoan student in New Zealand through an intense relationship with his paheka (or palagi) rich student girlfriend up to the point of her dilemma: she is pregnant by him, and has to decide if she wants to marry him or not. In Part II, in which the couple's problems are measured in relation to their parents' reactions, the girl leaves for Australia, has an abortion and decides to end the relationship. By chance, 'he' sees in a bar the man who humiliated him at a party he and the girl attended – and with whom the girl had her first relationship – and he follows him into the toilet, knocks him out, batters his face and (the reader assumes) castrates him. Part III sees his return, with his parents and brother, to Samoa, and from there his return alone to New Zealand after failing to find peace.
Early in Part I there are various flashbacks in which we learn of his parents' early desire to leave Samoa for New Zealand essentially in order to forge an educational future for him, their younger son. Throughout the novel, various forms of alienation are manifested, but particularly in relation to race: the school makes the boy feel ashamed of his parents as they don't speak good English, there are conflicts between 'his' reality and that of the girl's, between her parents and the boy, between the boy's parents and the girl, between their peer groups and their relationship, etc, etc.
One of the final ironies about the young man's twenty-year preparation in New Zealand for a highly prestigious position in Samoan society is that he (whose education has (no matter how indirectly) taught him to be an atheist) returns to a country where religion is of vital importance, and where 'he' feels an overwhelming sense of exile: this is a foreign country, and he is as a paheka/pagali in the Polynesian island of his birth.

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