Or, Tahiti as It Was: A Romance

By Wilkie Collins

Princeton University Press. 205 pp. $24.95


By Peter Brooks

Simon & Schuster. 224 pp. $23

It is no wonder that Wilkie Collins's first novel languished for 154 years before finding a publisher. It is a truly awful book. Its amateurish melodrama, cheap hooks, long ungainly sentences and mawkish characterizations all mark "Iolani" as the unedited work of a 20-year-old dilettante, which it is.

Even the introducer, Ira B. Nadel--an English professor at the University of British Columbia, whose efforts in bringing this lost novel to light suggest that he's an admirer of Collins's work--will not commit to actual praise. He merely suggests that the work is "the embryo of Collins's later fiction" (which includes such classics as "The Moonstone" and "The Woman in White"), that it "provides a glimpse of the method and materials he will later elaborate."

The story of the book's disappearance and rediscovery is far more compelling than "Iolani" itself. Collins wrote it while an apprentice to a London tea concern. After being rejected by two publishers, the manuscript vanished until 1900, when it was purchased at an auction. After that, it bounced around considerably among private collectors until resurfacing in 1992, when its owner, who remains anonymous, offered it for publication.

If this lends the manuscript an alluring, romantic hue, like a foolscap "Maltese Falcon," consider the disappointment of cinematic bird-chasers Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre upon learning that their prize is a fake--17 years of hard work and thousands of dollars all for nothing. Even this cruel twist of fate does not come close to approximating the sense of wasted effort I experienced after completing "Iolani."

Briefly, then, "Iolani" is the story of Idia, a young Tahitian woman who flees her village rather than submit her newborn to the practice of infanticide. Iolani, the villainous high priest, gives chase. Civil war, betrayal and death follow.

Collins had never been to Tahiti when he began to write the book. The South Seas were enjoying a literary vogue, as novelists and explorers and missionaries painted native Tahitians alternately as wanton, amoral heathens and noble savages living in a state of grace. Collins preferred the Christian explanation to the romantic. His knowledge of Tahiti was cribbed largely from "Polynesian Researches" by William Ellis of the London Missionary Society; Collins went so far as to take his characters' names from Ellis's book. This accounts, too, for Collins's nearly unreadable topographical descriptions, so minute in detail, so lacking in vitality.

As if an antidote to Collins's smug, middlebrow moralizing, Peter Brooks's "World Elsewhere" is a truly lush, sensual, wondrous account of Tahiti as it appears to fresh, inquisitive eyes. Like Collins, Yale critic Brooks is indebted to a particular observer of Tahiti, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who visited the island in 1768, a year before Captain Cook's famous voyage, and captured his travels in journals.

Brooks's novel is the story of Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen, a dissolute and debauched 21-year-old French nobleman whose web of romantic entanglements and diminishing inheritance prompt the youth's uncle to volunteer him on Bougainville's ship, the Boudeuse. Young Charles is unaccustomed to the hardships of sea travel. He's so at home in the salons and boudoirs of Paris that he considers the flaccid, slender thighs of his lover as "a kind of final realization of French civilization." But it doesn't take long for him to slough off the cloying sterility of his upper-class upbringing and embrace the innocent sexuality and egalitarian humanism he perceives among the Tahitians.

Charles's reaction to the Tahitians is, at first, erotic astonishment. Brooks, a first-time novelist, takes unabashed delight in portraying the tawny limbs and dusky aureoles of the free and easy island girls and Charles's sexual romps with Ite, a young Tahitian woman. As Charles notes, "I took sex to be my contribution to our mission of exploration. I couldn't leave that to the forecastle of the Boudeuse."

The sexual adventurism dovetails with the more crucial inquiry into the nature of man. The novel is a stage for a debate between the Enlightenment of Voltaire and Diderot and the romanticism of Rousseau. The ship's naturalist, Commerson, takes Charles under his wing as they puzzle over this island Eden.

"Could we Europeans ever be innocent again? Were we truly fallen creatures?" Charles wonders. No, the Panglossian Commerson suggests, "men could be governed in a way that does not suppress and pervert their natural goodness."

The plot, a trifle that hinges upon the killing of some natives by errant sailors, brings the debate to a head as the dark side of Tahitian culture--human sacrifice, infanticide--is exposed. These revelations suggest that the utopia the explorers have alighted on is merely a projection of their imaginations, that, sadly, "the true paradises are perhaps only those we have already lost."