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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Barclay weaves worthy tale of endurance

 •  Living among Marshallese yields textured first novel

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

"MELAL: A NOVEL OF THE PACIFIC" by Robert Barclay, UH Press, paper, $14.95

"It is not always so bad to be a Marshallese," remarks a character in Robert Barclay's "Melal." The statement is both jolting and uplifting, given the state of his country and of his own life.

That's how this book is: It shocks you with harsh realities, then encourages you to believe there's nothing that humans can't endure, or transform.

"Melal" takes place during a single, eventful day in the Marshall Islands — Good Friday, 1981 — as Rujen Keju and his sons Jebro and Nuke experience near-disasters that teach them about themselves, and usher them into an altered future.

Keju, who has been busily trying to rate as a good little junior American in the eyes of his employers at the Kwajalein Missile Range sewage plant, suffers a humiliating incident, and has an epiphany that gives him a renewed appreciation for his culture. Jebro and Nuke are nearly lost at sea, but end up besting the Americans who caused the trouble.

Meanwhile, in the spirit world, the trickster god Etao and the dwarf spirit Noniep are tussling with each other over the direction of the universe, and it doesn't look good for mankind.

In a clever turn that provides both comic relief and an ironic commentary on encroaching western materialism, Etao has come back from a long sojourn in America wearing a basketball jersey (Lakers No. 33) and having developed an appreciation for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, three-meat pizza and beer. Noniep, the traditionalist, must try to persuade the sassy-mouthed Etao to give up his extraordinary powers for the greater good; but Etao has other ideas, which turn out to be not so bad after all.

This book is remarkable for a number of reasons.

For those who, like most Americans, know little of the Marshall Island or their history, there is much to learn and much of it disturbing. But Barclay evokes the beauty of the atolls and introduces cheerful, resilient characters amid the bleak waste-strewn landscape, so the book never descends into unrelenting darkness.

Furthermore, he makes clear the wrongs that have been done to the Marshallese people without stridency or self-consciousness. He just lets you see.

Barclay tells a human story about people who are tackling universal problems. Since he never loses sight of this, the far-flung setting is never an impediment to empathetic identification with the characters. Rujen Keju has trouble understanding his son, and resents the fact that the young man seems to be following in the path of his rebellious, difficult grandfather. Jebro, named for the Marshallese king of the stars "who makes all the people happy," is an exceptionally sensitive and capable young man, but he worries about his young brother, and he isn't looking forward to following his father's path into the sewage plant.

Barclay skirts the problems that plague the mystical realism genre by having the spirit world impinge subtly on the real, but leaving the humans in ignorance of this, except in a breath-on-the-back-of-the-neck kind of way. And the spirit tales additionally serve to familiarize us with the Marshallese psyche, which includes some of the same strains of earthiness, humor and bloodthirstiness found in Hawaiian mythology.

In less-skilled hands, this story could easily have been discouraging, false and self-righteous. It is none of these things. It is a fine novel, worthy of the exceptional place in which it is set.