Once Were Cannibals
The stories in Once Were Cannibals take place on a small island in a Maori community during the second decade after WWII. The author uses the voice of a ten year old to explain weddings, dances, funerals, and other daily life. The islanders’ behaviors seem strange until the author relates them to human feelings such as kindness, greed, fear, status, and (most of all) laughter; seeing the motivation for their actions, it is easy to move past our own mores and enjoy the people and stories. The author’s voice in some of the stories changes to that of an adult observer poking fun at situations from the inside; why islanders laugh at foolish neighbors vying for status or copying some other culture. There are stories in which the author is an historian, looking at the wholesale death and enslavement of his people and the destruction of their gods. But the gods are not really destroyed, just driven into the trees where they continue to wield influence. This is the heart of the book, a people in transition from the old ways, two or three generations removed, moving into a world not relevant to their daily situation, yet oddly, that very world seeking the meaning they tore from the Maoris. Thus a story where a modern couple seeking “oneness with the primitives” finds out that food is what the primitives usually seek and value most.
The dialogue is sometimes bullet fast, with zingers firing so quickly it is easy to miss what is happening, as in the story when a German U-boats land. Other times, it is achingly poignant as philosophical ideas get explored. A lot of the time it is just plain funny, and has to be read aloud to enjoy the puns or sly twists such as the name of the Second in Command. The author is the boy, the man and artist all at once, a combination of innocence, factual observation and wonder at the community and people where he lived.
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