Andrew O’Connor. Tuvalu. Allen & Unwin, 2006. ISBN: 9781741148718.
When you search Amazon’s Kindle store for the word ‘Tuvalu’ you get nine results. Most of them are travel guides. One, called The Best Ever Book of Tuvaluan Jokes, apparently substitutes Tuvalu for every other disparaged group used in an off-colour joke. Now you are able to tell your racist joke about Tuvaluans instead of Jews, and so, claims author Mark Young, those jokes are suddenly funny again. Awesome.
The first on that list of nine is Andrew O’Connor’s Tuvalu.
‘Everyone has a place like that. A dream land or life they’re working towards, however vaguely.’
‘Because without it we realise we’re obliged to die wanting.’
‘You don’t think you’re being just a tad melodramatic?’
‘Am I? Some people probably have more than one Tuvalu in a life. It changes as they grow. Or maybe they get to the first and find it’s nothing like they imagined and need a new one. You must have had at least one?’
In response to Tilley’s challenge, Noah can only come up with Tokyo. And it’s a pretty lame response, because he is already in Tokyo, and the life he’s living is hardly a dream. He’s eking out a living teaching English to listless Japanese youths, living in Nakamura-san’s cockroach infested, cat surrounded hostel. He’s starting to suspect that he won’t be seeing the large amount of money he loaned to fellow hosted-dweller Harry any time soon. He is without direction or ambition, without a Tuvalu.
Fellow English teacher Tilley is Noah’s girlfriend, but somehow he’s also got himself entangled with the unfathomable heiress Mami Kaketa. They each for a time seem to be his only points of reference, although each pulls him on a different track. When they both disappear from his life, Noah seems to slowly disintegrate, like his parents’ marriage, like the hostel around him.
Tilley’s Tuvalu isn’t real. She’s never going to get there. Tilley’s Tuvalu is only possible while she knows relatively little about the actual Tuvalu. While Tilley insists that her Tuvalu is not merely a dream, neither is it a tangible place where real life happens:
‘I’ve never been anywhere near it. I’ve never even studied it. For all I know is might well have sunk. But that one word’s taken on a meaning all of its own.
…There is no perfect place to live. …And knowing that, in order to keep Tuvalu I have to keep away from it. Anyway, if I really believed I was going there, going to find a Tuvalu, I’d never live. I’d live only in waiting.’
Information abhors a vacuum, and if you leave people without any good solid data about a subject they’ll make it up for themselves. Perhaps that is what has happened to Tuvalu. With seemingly no written fiction of its own to give to the world, the rest of us make up our own stories about Tuvalu. If we were left with only The Best Ever Book of Tuvaluan Jokes it would be a sad thing indeed. But luckily we have O’Connor’s Vogel’s award winning novel. This Tuvalu doesn’t try to give us a picture of what the real Tuvalu is like, but lets us come up with our own version, and our Tuvalus can be whatever we want or need them to be. One day soon I hope there will be Tuvaluan writers to tell us what their Tuvalu is.