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I am
in Punaauia, Tahiti, in a thatched bungalow with a twenty-four foot
ceiling. My bungalow sits at the end of a clattery wooden walkway,
built over Punaauia's perfect blue lagoon. The South Pacific, here
in its gentlest mode, laps a few feet below my bed. In effect I
sleep on the most soothing of water beds, one whose blue waters
slap and sigh, untrapped.

The artist Paul Gauguin lived in Punaauia for a short time in the
1890's, on the second of his forays into Tahitian life. Earlier,
not long after he had arrived in the Society Islands for the first
time, hoping to scare up some portrait work, a disturbing thing had
happened. One night, while waiting for Paul to return from an
errand in town, his young Tahitian mistress, Teha'amana (sometimes
spelled without the apostrophe, sometimes spelled Tehura, or in
other ways) grew terribly frightened of the night spirits. Since
the time of Bougainville and Cook, Tahitian women had been prized
for their quiet ease, their serenity of soul; but Teha'amana's
serenity had deserted on this night. She was then thirteen or
fourteen, a young girl living with a Frenchman three times her age,
grown fearful, suddenly, in the deep tropical darkness.

It is doubtful that Paul Gauguin, a French artist with little
reputation and less money, newly arrived from Europe --- where he
had left his Danish wife and their five children --- was the ideal
person to allay Teha'amana's terrors; but at least her fear made a
deep impression on him. He painted what amounts to a note about it,
an oil called Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching)
--- now in the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York --- in
which we merely see a scared girl lying facedown on a bed. But
Gauguin soon followed this up with a whole series of variants on
the scene, focusing on Teha'amana's innocence, rather than just her
fear. These studies --- in pen and ink, in pastel, in woodblock, in
transfer drawing, and in oils --- he called Parau na te varua
ino (Words of the Devil)
; he insisted on keeping the title in
Tahitian, to the puzzlement and irritation of the Parisians who
were expected to buy these strange works. In the pastel --- on the
front cover of this book --- Teha'amana, a startled young girl,
realizes she has lost something. Too late, she covers herself. The
sun sets quickly in the tropics; no less quickly, innocence goes.
In the oil, though (on the back cover) --- it is in the National
Gallery, in Washington --- Teha'amana is smiling a mysterious,
Evelike smile; it's the blue devil behind her who is in some sort
of blank-eyed shock --- pussywhipped, it may be. This quiet,
smiling young woman has somehow bested the devil; she will go on to
become the imposing woman in two of Gauguin's greatest portraits:
Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower) and Vahine no to
vi (Woman with a Mango)
; in the latter she is pregnant.
Gauguin, as he is uneasily aware, has taken a child to wife ---
does he have her, or does she have him? When he is not making love
to Teha'amana he is drawing her, sketching her, painting her,
hoping that the mystery of his young Eve will reveal itself to his
eye or submit to his line.

In some of Gaugin's later work his Eves have faces like fish, as if
he is pursuing the problem of innocence back to an earlier life
stage. Does Teha'amana have no knowledge, or does she have too
much? Paul Gauguin was still worrying that question when he died,
much as the aging Yeats worried in "Leda and the Swan":

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Paul Gauguin knew many women, but it is doubtful if any one of them
left as deep a mark on his art as Teha'amana, betrothed to him by
her parents when she was thirteen --- a young girl who lived in


I have come to the same paradise --- Tahiti --- a place whose
beauty neither writers nor painters nor mariners have ever managed
to overstate, in order to think and write about my parents, Hazel
and Jeff McMurtry: there they are, as a young couple, in the
frontispiece of this book. The whole of their forty-three-year
marriage was spent well in-land, in Archer County, Texas. Many
people like Archer County, and a few people love it, but no one
would be likely to think it an earthly paradise.

It is hard to think to Tahiti in any other terms, though I know, of
course, that if I left my well-tended French hotel and wandered
around Papeete long enough I would discover a multitude of social
and political problems --- problems of the sort that are likely to
occur in any colony, however well administered.* In 1987 there was
a strike by sailors and dockworkers that got way out of hand, with
much property loss. The French were forced to send in many soldiers
to settle the Tahitians down.

I did drift around Papeete long enough to discover some slummy
parts; and yet so gracious is the climate, the flowers, the fruits,
the sea that even the slums of Papeete seem mainly to partake of
the gentle seediness common to almost all littorals, even the best
groomed. In a recent book called Roads I put my case for
littorals thus:

One beneficent characteristic of oceans is that they tend to
relax the people who live by them. Worldwide, in my experience,
littorals are apt to have a wait-and-see gentle seediness. Even the
most manicured littorals --- Malibu, Lanai, Cap d'Antibes --- have
a touch of it. The force of huge money may keep the beaches looking
neat for a mile or two, but neatness and the seashore don't really
go together; only one hundred feet or so past the great resorts the
old casual seediness begins. The structures lean a little, and the
people who inhabit them don't worry too much about the dress codes.
The sea, eternal, shelters and soothes them, saves them for a time
from the ambitious strivings that drive people who live far removed
from the ocean.

One thing worth thinking about, while in an earthly paradise such
as Tahiti, is whether there can be gradations within
paradise --- if not, does this lack of grade or lack of contrast
mean that for most humans, paradise really doesn't work?

The boat I am to take, the Aranui, is a freighter which
makes the trip from Papeete to the Marquesas Islands thirteen times
a year. The writer Pail Theroux traveled on it about a decade
before me; there's a fairly neutral mention of it in his book
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific. Paul
Theroux had a rubber boat with him, which he used to make his own
investigations of several island groups.

The Aranui makes delivers at all of the seaside communities
in the six inhabited islands of the Marquesas. It also stops at a
neighboring archipelago, the Tuamotus, where the French have a
nuclear "installation," or testing ground. De Gaulle himself
witnessed the first test, which took place in 1966.

The Aranui is a supply ship, delivering all manner of
staples and bringing back copra, dried coconut meat, a crop
subsidized by the French throughout the several island groups now
known as French Polynesia. "Copra" is a word that once evoked all
that was romantic about the South Seas: coconut palms dropping
their fruit on beaches of brilliant white sand; welcoming young
women such as Teha'amana wandering topless under these same palms;
writers on the order of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, or
Somerset Maugham occasionally dropping in. This, of course, is
romance-for-export: to the islanders copra is just a crop the
French will pay them for, no more romantic than soybeans.

*Scott Malcomson's Tuturani (1990) is the best short
analysis I know of political unrest in French

Excerpted from PARADISE © Copyright 2001 by Larry
McMurtry. Reprinted with permission by Simon and Schuster. All
rights reserved.

by by Larry McMurtry

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743215656
  • ISBN-13: 9780743215657