Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, The Frigate Bird, Heinemann Reed, 1989. ISBN: 0790000466
Reality, delusion, religion, belief. All are intertwined in Cook Islands poet Alistair Campbell’s first novel, The Frigate Bird. If we are given the name of The Frigate Bird’s narrator I’ve forgotten it already, and in fact it hardly seems to matter. Would it be real, and what would it signify? In this first person voice we have only our narrator’s view of reality, and if ever reality was subjective, it is in The Frigate Bird.
Our narrator knows that he is mentally ill and not coping with the world:
I was now in a state of panic—the rats were in the house. I had the heebie-jeebies. I was going nuts again. I was certainly not in the right frame of mind to fly to Rarotonga and from there take a boat to Penrhyn, my mother’s homeland. Only yesterday my sister asked me why I was going. Good question, I thought, but aloud I told her I had promised my editor a story about our childhood in the Islands.
And clearly he’s not in the right frame of mind. The boat journey to Penrhyn is a series of delusions, persecutions and paranoias, as our narrator’s mental state seems to continue to deteriorate. Despite his early clarity about his own condition, he seems no longer able to judge the motivations of those around him or to make sense of his own thoughts and feelings.
On Penrhyn he feels persecuted, with people following him, throwing rocks at him. His anti-depressant medication is running out, mosquitos plague, and there are rats in the rafters. He heads straight back home, spending time in the Banana Court bar in Rarotonga while he waits for a flight back to New Zealand, where he promptly finds himself in a mental asylum.
But what is real here and what is imagined? What can be attributed to the spirits, to God, and or to the unbalanced mind? For me this is Campbell’s achievement in The Frigate Bird, keeping the reader always just off-balance, always unsure of what to believe. He juxtaposes Polynesian and Christian beliefs beautifully, leaving us, perhaps, with the feeling that neither can be entirely relied on to explain our own minds to us, or the outside world.
On the boat to Penrhyn the narrator is overwhelmed by terrors:
God help me! There was a roaring in my ears, and I gabbled the Lord’s Prayer over and over, made mistakes and panicked.
Then I thought that the spooks were Polynesian and couldn’t understand English, so I babbled the Cook Islands benediction, Te Atua, te Aroha.
It seems obvious early on that these terrors are of his mind’s own making. While the narrator is sure that bad spirits are to blame, his cousin, who is hosting him in their grandfather’s house on Penrhyn, is puzzled:
There was a long silence, and then my cousin said, “No bad places here. No evil spirits. Nobody here throws rocks. Why would they throw rocks at you?”
Later, though, once we are in the habit of accepting our narrator’s madness, Campbell causes us to doubt ourselves, just as the narrator has doubts about his own mind. Back in Rarotonga, the crash of a frigate bird into the narrator’s motel window seems certain to be hallucination, except that his American neighbour has also seen it. In the asylum in New Zealand the spirit visit of his sister to his room at night can’t be real, except that a guard hears her voice: “You’ve got a sheila in here… I heard her speaking”. And, while the narrator’s stories of persecution seem confused and unlikely, some of the people around him understand them and their causes, while others harbour fears of their own, equally unlikely and unreal.
On the plane back to New Zealand a fellow passenger diagnoses his problems:
“I know your trouble,” she went on. “It is Tia’s also. Your soul is unhappy. That’s no good. Come and sit beside me. You change places with Ina.”
“You should listen more to your grandfather,” said Mere gently, as I settled into the seat beside her.
“Listen to Grandfather,” I mumbled, obtusely. “How can I when he’s dead?”
Mere sighed at looked at me. “I can’t believe you’re saying that. You are blood of the land. He isn’t dead. He’s reaching out to you, but you push him away, and that makes him sad.”
Just in case we are tempted to put such ideas down to outmoded ancient mythology, Campbell gives us other examples of similar, perhaps misplaced and confused, faith. Such as the child Cathy Linton and the farmhand Inchcliffe, who our narrator meets in the remote New Zealand high country, and their belief in the White Maiden. Such as Cook Islanders’ missionary faith in the power of prayer to prevent hurricanes.
Alistair Campbell’s mother was a Cook Islander, his father a papa’a. Both died when Campbell was young, and he grew up in New Zealand. Scholars have written about the autobiographical nature of The Frigate Bird, and there is much of the contest between one mode of belief and upbringing and another in Campbell’s book, and of finding a neglected identity. Straddling competing ways of life and faiths as Campbell does, The Frigate Bird suggests to me that finding a middle road between two lives is essential. Choosing one part of heritage and culture at the expense of another is not an option, because down that path madness lies.