I'm getting over a flu-like malady which I blame on the air conditioning system in our house. Confused by the sudden transitions between our lounge room, which has the aggressively cool air found on the balcony of an alpine sanatorium, and the street outside, which is hot and humid even when its potholes are brimming with kava-coloured stormwater, my body has been treating me to a strange mixture of flushes and chills.
I wandered down to the 'Atenisi Institute yesterday to apologise to the Dean for my recent lack of productivity. "I was sleeping all weekend", I told 'Opeti Taliai, "trying to get rid of this flu". 'Opeti was bemused by my confession. "I was sleeping most of the weekend too", he said, "but there's nothing wrong with me".
In New Zealand and in most other Western countries sleep is a state citizens are taught to resent and resist. We work overtime at the office, without expecting to sleep in the next morning; we stay late at a bar or party, yet rise early for a coffee date or a shopping trip. We limit the reach of sleep with alarm clocks, and regard the hours we lose to it as a wasted resource, like an overgrown section or unused air points. Kiwi families scatter into separate rooms before they go to bed, as though they are ashamed of what they are about to do. Many palangi associate unconsciousness with a particular pillow and lampshade, and are afraid of nodding off in public, for fear or being thought lazy, or drunk, or both.
In Tonga, though, sleep is considered a purposeful and honourable activity, rather than a state of frivolous non-being. Tongan families typically sleep together, on floor-mats or on mattresses pulled together. Tongans are also happy to loaf in the open air. Anyone who walks through the suburbs of Nuku'alofa on a warm day will notice people of all ages dozing on the verandahs and front porches of their homes, so that the wind which blows up from the city's harbour can cool their foreheads. Some of the daytime dozers are men who have stayed up late at the kava circles which convene almost every night all over Nuku'alofa. Like other narcotics kava can, when taken in sufficient quantities, induce a craving for sleep. Even suited and respectable Tongans can be found napping in the public gardens beside the Royal Palace, or on benches in the central business district. Tongans are so fond of public napping that every time I step into one of Nuku'alofa's banks I expect to see citizens taking a quick kip on the floor as they queue for service.
Tongan Sundays are dedicated to sleep as well as worship. The law forbids shopping, drinking, gardening, games, and travel on the Sabbath, so that there is little to do except attend church in the morning, eat a large and soporific meal of taro and corned beef for lunch, and sleep the rest of the day.
Despite or because of the efforts of Sigmund Freud and his successors, dreaming has become, for many Westerners, a disreputable activity. Dreams are considered either embarrassingly trivial or embarrassingly revealing, and anyone who relates the details of a dream at a dinner party or office lunch is likely to prompt groans or sniggers, rather than the earnest interpretation Freud championed. A politician who admitted taking guidance from her dreams would be voted out of office; a sociologist who footnoted a dream rather than a more ordinary text would be sacked for shoddy research practices.
In Tonga, though, dreams are the subject of continual serious discussion. Dreams are the places where the voices of distant ancestors and the recently deceased can whisper and scream, and where flickering trailers for the future run. In dreams and in waking trances, like the trances which the shamans of ancient Tonga induced by ingesting green kava and fungi, contact may be made with Pulotu, the land across the seas where the spirits of the departed dwell.
I discovered the seriousness with which Tongans regard the unconscious part of the mind a few weeks ago, when I ran a 'mental exercise' I learned from Jack Ross in my Creative Writing class at 'Atenisi. I asked my students to close their eyes, relax their postures and minds, and imagine themselves wandering beyond the ramshackle outer suburbs of Nuku'alofa into that region of dense plantations, relict rain forest, and isolated villages known on Tongatapu as 'uta, or the bush. I sent the students on a path across an unweeded field, through a grove of old banyans, and up a hill (by putting this detail into their waking dream I broke the rules of literal geography: Tongatapu's only hill sits close to the centre of Nuku'alofa. Despite the fact that it only rises sixty metres above sea level, this ancient fort is often called Mount Zion).
Eventually I asked the dreamers to imagine a clearing with a building in its centre, look through a window in the building, and open their eyes and write about what they had seen. I had worried that the whole exercise might seem contrived and ridiculous, but the class entered into it with an intensity I hadn't observed in New Zealand. Eyes opened slowly and unwillingly, and whole pages were hurriedly covered with writing.
During another Creative Writing class I read students one of the most famous passages from Epeli Hau'ofa's satirical novel Kisses in the Nederends
. Hau'ofa's protagonist wakes one morning with a bad pain in his anus, and consults, over the weeks and months which follow, a series of faith healers, gurus, physicians, and psychiatrists in search of a cure for his problem. In the passage I read aloud, the long-suffering hero is told about a dream which supposedly points to the nature of his pain. According to this dream, the human body is filled with tuktuks, tiny greedy creatures divided into two antagonistic tribes, whose occasional wars cause discomfort to their hosts. The upper tuktuks, or uppertuks for short, live in the brain, and both despise and colonise the lowertuks, who dwell in the body's bowels and erogenous zones:
It was the brain tribes who invented the ranking system, claiming that since they were the only ones who could see, smell and hear things outside their body-world because of their commanding proximity to its major apertures, and since that they lived in the loftiest territories, far above the muck in the abdomen and the filth in the anal region, they were the best and cleanest tuktuks of all. Uppertuks said that the worst, nastiest, dirtiest, smelliest, vilest and generally the most beastly tuktuks were those who occupied the largely swampy territories of the arse. The most degenerate, horny, porno-brained, disgustingly obscene, perverted and generally most licentiously abandoned and loathsome were tuktuks who lived in the genital region...
Kisses in the Nederends
is a determinedly symbolic work, and it is not too hard to interpret the conflict between the tuktuks of the north and south in historical and political terms.
When I told her that my reading from Nederends
had gotten only a muted response from the students, my wife explained that Hau'ofa wasn't really as funny as I thought, and suggested that the students probably saw me, in spite of my bald head and pedagogical pretensions, as a sniggering, dirty-minded schoolboy. That night Epeli Hau'ofa appeared in one of my dreams. When I woke up I wrote a poem to record what I imagined he had to say. Now I can't remember the dream except through the poem.
I Dreamed I Saw Epeli Hau'ofa Last Night
Don't tell me that literature isn't popular,
when every arsehole composes
on toilet paper. Keep a diary,
that's my advice. A diary is a tunnel
forwards through time, a slowly exploding star
whose light will wash over windshields
in six decades' time, when it is too late
to escape. I write what I like
about what I hate: potholed roads,
ministers in limousines, the cork-lined minds
of diplomats, the lead-lined minds
of economists, Rabuka playing golf
in his best khaki and boots.
Satire is slow unreliable revenge.
Nothing changes in Oceania.
The Americans land their fleet of mosquitoes
on one scummed pond after another.
In Tonga the nobles still point with their fists
at whatever they want. It becomes theirs.
On nights when the surf is loud
beyond my mosquito net, here on the eastern shore of Pulotu,
I dream of the Ashika
, its deck passengers thrashing
in a slick of moonlight, its hull swelling and splitting
like a rotten paw paw.
This is still the time for revenge.
Hau'ofa died in 2009, but my dream suggests that he has kept abreast of news from his beloved Oceania. He referred contemptuously to the way that America, under the supposedly progressive presidency of Barack Obama, has reopened many old military bases in the Pacific, as it prepares for a possible confrontation with its new rival China.
In Tonga China is now widely considered the world's number one superpower, and it is Chinese money which is underwriting the latest folly of the local ruling class. After being promised a twenty-five million pa'anga loan from China, the Tongan government recently announced that it was creating a new national domestic airline called Real Tonga.
The fledgling company decided to promote itself by staging a curious show on the streets of Nuku'alofa. Like hundreds of other bemused residents of the city, I watched from the front of my house as a group of young women dressed in red danced to loud pop music on a trailer pulled slowly past by a golf cart. Lumps of what looked like paper mache stuck to the doors of the cart; after a few moments I realised that they were supposed to be wings. Another, more rounded lump had been attached to the front of the golfcart; apparently it represented the front of an airplane. Like a casual litterbug, the pilot of the plane tossed leaflets promoting Real Tonga out of his open-air cockpit.
The strange contraption that laboured through Nuku'alofa's backstreets a few weeks ago is so far the only airplane that Real Tonga has launched. After hearing rumours of the advent of a state-controlled rival, the Kiwi-owned Air Chathams quit operations in Tonga, complaining that the country could only support a single domestic air service. When the Chinese-made planes it had talked of importing failed to show up, Real Tonga was forced to lease the vehicles of Air Chathams and hire the old airline's pilots.
This latest business venture from the elite that controls the Tongan state has brought back memories of the Princess Ashika
disaster of 2009. After noticing that a businessman linked to Tonga's pro-democracy movement had established a successful inter-island ferry service, Tonga's ruling class bought a rusty old boat and put it to work. The Ashika
wound up on the bottom of the ocean, along with most of its passengers. Although the ferry was replaced by a new and robust ship donated by Japan, many Tongans remain nervous about travelling by sea. Now the shambles that is Real Tonga is making them worry about taking to the air.
I hope Epeli visits me again, and brings happier news.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]