Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Island of the Absurd, Part II

We continue where we left off in Part I

Cleveland-born Robert Dean Frisbie (1896-1948) headed out for Tahiti aboard a steamer in 1920. He would spend the rest of his life in the South Pacific. For several years in the 1920s, he lived on the little atoll Puka-Puka in the Cook Islands.

There he ran a small trading store for the Line Islands Trading Company. Frisbie was the only white man on the island. He sought to escape the “noisy clamor” of modern life and wanted to write the next Moby Dick. While he never wrote his Moby Dick, he did write about his experiences on Puka-Puka. These pieces were collected in a book title Puka-Puka: a Lone Trader on a South Sea Atoll, published in 1929.

We read this book recently – it is nice light summer reading and very entertaining. We were struck by the many absurd episodes and ideas he encountered in Polynesian culture.

Frisbie himself is something of an absurd man, though he seems more driven by escapism. “At Puka-Puka – there surely I could be as indolent as I pleased, as lonely as I pleased, never disturbed by the hateful thought that it is my duty to become a useful cog in the clockwork of ‘progress.’”

And this: “Here no officious relatives or friends would cry: ‘Young man, you are wasting your life! Here you are, nearing thirty, with nothing accomplished, with no plans for the future, with no bank account! It is your duty to keep the wheels of industry moving! Abstain from alcohol and tobacco! Join the Church!”

But he also doesn’t attach any importance to anything he’s doing. Of his written accounts, he writes, “I know how trifling they are.” He is Godless, though very tolerant of such beliefs in others. He lives very much in the present. And he never imparts greater meaning on anything that happens on Puka-Puka. He seems to take things as they come, enjoying the experience of living on that island.

At Puka-Puka Frisbie finds contentment, even though he is without most of the comforts he has grown accustomed to. He adapts to its slower paced life, a life with hours spent doing little of what we would consider work. He sleeps in the hot afternoons and goes swimming a lot. The food practically falls off the trees. The islanders bring him fish. There is sometimes a pig to slaughter.

The Puka-Pukans people challenge his western notions of what life is about. They are the ones who bring out the absurd in the book. We won’t go through all the episodes, but we were particularly intrigued by their carefree attitude toward death.

They don’t seem afraid to die and seem to relish their brushes with danger and death.

At one point, Frisbie is out fishing with some of the men in a canoe and they have to brave fierce breakers on their way in and out. The giant combers are deadly if they catch you, because they will drive you down into the sharp coral and you’ll be shredded to bits.

The canoe has a very close call on its way in. After a narrow escape, Frisbie writes, quoting one of his fellow fishermen: “If we had been a foot closer in we would have all been killed,” Benny shouted with a laugh.

(This reminds us that Puka-Pukans favorite word is “if.” Frisbie writes: “Every day one continually hears phrases such as “If I had gone fishing I would have something to eat”; “If I had put a new roof on my house – if I had done this, that and the other.” Something about that strikes us as absurd. The absurd man knows things could always easily be otherwise, a sense captured by the word “if”…)

These kinds of episodes, where a Puka-Pukan laughs off danger, are common. These are a people who joyously compose death songs for each other while they are living. These are songs they intend to sing over the fallen. Frisbie at first finds it a bit gloomy, but comes to understand that the Puka-Pukans view death as naturally a life and they feel no compunction to hide the fact that they will all die one day. (In a similar way, they are very open about their own bodies and free with sexual favors).

This point of view gives the Puka-Pukan some mighty psychological armor. “When one believes death is inevitable,” Frisbie writes, “one is indifferent to everything.”

Near the end of the book, Frisbie has his own near death experience when he is caught by crashing waves and barely escapes. He has to put quite a fight to stay alive in the violent waves.

One Puka-Pukan says of Frisbie. “He is superman! A Puka-Pukan would have been killed by the first wave!”

Frisbie writes: “He was right: a Puka-Pukan would have philosophically allowed the first wave to kill him, not being sufficiently egotistical to make a final grandiose gesture in the face of death.”


  1. how did you get hold of the book? every Frisbie book i've found since reading your article has been 500 pounds and upwards! also what was the title?


  2. Yeah, they are tough to find. After some searching, we finally just sucked it up and bought a used copy for $68 on Amazon. The title is The Book of Puka-Puka: A Lone Trader on a South Sea Atoll.

    Our writing about it here may make finding copies harder for a bit. There were only a few copies at $68 and they quickly escalated from there.