Pouliuli, a short novel by Albert Wendt, is a tragic story with many complex, interwoven themes. This essay will examine these themes, in detail, and attempt to determine the main arguments that are exposed in this novel. Pouliuli is critical of political maneuvering, and the betrayal of friends, family and community for personal gain. Underlying these themes is the common theme of the dangers of placing self-interest above individual responsibility, and the potential dangers of existentialism. Pouliuli offers insight into both Samoan and white cultures, and a unique insight into the human condition.
Wendt's novel is set in a traditional Samoan community, and draws extensively upon Polynesian culture. Pouliuli is populated by both mythological beings and beings that are very much real, and that exist in the present place and time.
In Pouliuli, the protagonist is a man named Faleasa Osovae. Faleasa Osovae is the seventy-six-year-old chieftain of the Samoan community of Malaelua. All of his life the chieftain has acted properly, been committed to his community and its social mores, and acted in an upstanding manner that befits a chieftain.
One morning, Faleasa awakens and gives into his now completely undeniable and irrepressible desire for solitude and freedom. At heart, Faleasa is haunted by his past, materialism and greed, and his encounters with Western traditions and behaviours.
Faleasa Osovae responds to his internal distress and creates a plan to attain the freedom he so desperately wants in the few remaining years of his life. He tries to achieve this freedom by pretending to maniacally mad, and thereby misleading his community and family (aiga). Malaelua is turned upside down by Faleasa's unexpected and erratic behaviour.
Throughout Wendt's novel, the story of Faleasa Osovae is shadowed by the Malaeluan myth of a lizard, named Pili, who must complete three tasks to become a human. Like Pili, Faleasa, in his growing madness, decides to complete three tasks before he becomes free (96). Faleasa's tasks were to destroy Filemoni, appoint Moaula as the new leader, and remove the council leader, Vaelupa.
Both Faleasa and Pili recruit three friends to help them complete their three tasks; tasks they could not have completed by themselves. Tausamitele, Lelemalosi, and Pouliuli were recruited to help Pili perform his tasks. Faleasa's old friend Laaumatua and his son Moaula helped Faleasa complete his three tasks. Interestingly Faleasa and Pili's friends share several characteristics. Tausamitele and Laaumatua have insatiable appetites, and Lelemalosi and Moaula share strength.
Both the lizard Pili and the chieftain Faleasa must complete a final, arduous task before achieving their final goal of freedom. The lizard Pili must divide his kingdom among his children, while Faleasa needs to remove Malaga as village congress. In the myth, Pili vanishes from Malealua, but does not complete his final tasks. Many people of Malealua claimed that Pili had been swallowed by his friend Pouliuli. Interestingly, at the end of the novel, Faleasa is consumed by madness.
In the end, both the lizard Pili and Faleasa do not attain their goals; both are empty handed. The two characters are consumed by the darkness of Pouliuli. Thus, in Pouliuli, both Pili and Faleasa can be seen as being swallowed up by darkness. A great irony of the story is that Faleasa Osovae, who pretends to be mad to attain his freedom, eventually yields to true madness.
Pili is literally swallowed by his friend Pouliuli, while Faleasa is consumed by, or swallowed up by madness. Pouliuli is defined as "POULIULI, adj. dark (lacking light) ignorant, heathen)" or "POULIULI, n. darkness ignorance, lona pouliuli. see PO; POGISA; MALAMALAMA." (Samoan Dictionary).
Albert Wendt's Pouliuli short novel deals with numerous complex and difficult themes. The next section of this essay will detail these themes, and endeavour to determine the main arguments and theses reveal in Pouliuli.
In Pouliuli, the protagonist Faleasa Osovae, acts to manipulate the political system of his village, Malaelua, for his own personal benefit. Faleasa is then faced with the consequences of own political corruption. Faleasa's tasks were to destroy Filemoni, appoint Moaula as the new leader, and remove the council leader, Vaelupa. In the novel, Faleasa Osovae's loyal son, Moaula, helps Faleasa conceal his political maneuvering. Moaula acts as the new council leader, assisting Faleasa in removing the leader Valelupa.
Faleasa and Moaula act in concert to manipulate the goings on at each council meeting. Faleasa meets with Moaula and gives Moaula specific instructions on meeting with each family leader (matai), and what Moaula should say to each leader. Moaula then advises each matai leader on the action that should be taken at the next council meeting.
The end result of their political maneuvering is that Moaula is eventually appointed as the new leader. Additionally, their maneuvering results in the old council leader, Vaelupa, being removed from the council. Thus, their political actions result in the completion of two of Faleasa's three tasks. Faleasa's final task of was to remove Malaga as village congress.
Interestingly, the political corruption and maneuvering by Faleasa and Moaula result in a largely profitable result for the two. Moaula achieves a position of power, and Faleasa appears much closer to his eventual goal of achieving freedom. At a very superficial level, then, Pouliuli appears to endorse, or at least not condemn, political maneuvering and corruption for political and personal gain.
However, a deeper analysis reveals that Albert Wendt's novel, Pouliuli is critical of Faleasa Osovae's political maneuvering. Certainly, Faleasa's political maneuvering is initially undertaken under Faleasa's false appearance of madness. As the plot in Pouliuli progresses, true madness overtakes Faleasa. It can be argued that Faleasa's willing participation in this political intrigue and corruption helps push him over the edge into the madness and darkness of Pouliuli.
Wendt appears to argue that Faleasa has abandoned his principles and what is best for his village, in order to achieve personal gain in his later years. The abandonment of traditional principles is seen here in the rampant political corruption that eventually consumes Faleasa. Eventually, as this political corruption consumes Faleasa, he is left to tumble uncontrollably into madness.
Certainly, in Pouliuli, both the loyalties of friendship and family are examined and sometimes sorely tested. Faleasa Osovae turns the peaceful village of Malaelua upside down by his erratic and maniacal behaviour. Faleasa misleads his aiga (family) and community by feigning madness.
A long list of family and friends are affected by Faleasa's strange and unexpected behavior. They include Faleasa's true friend Laamumatua, and his disloyal friends Sau, Tupo and Vaelupa. Faleasa also misleads his family including his wife Felefele, his son Elefane, and Elefane's wife Povave. Faleasa's daughters Momoe, Tifaga and Vaipaia are befuddled by his erratic behavior.
Interestingly, Faleasa pits his son Moaula against his disloyal friend Vaelupa, in order to remove Vaelupa from council. In turn, Moaula is placed in council. As I noted in my discussion of Pouliuli's theme of political corruption, Faleasa's willing participation in these actions eventually helps push him over the edge into the madness and darkness of Pouliuli.
It can be argued, however, that Faleasa's lies and mistreatment of his political counterparts are what eventually destroys him. In this way, then, it is not political corruption itself that brings about Faleasa's eventual downfall. In contrast, it is Faleasa's willing and calculating use of his family and friends to bring about his freedom that eventually destroys him. Faleasa coldly and calculatingly uses his friends and family for personal gain, and it is this action that brings about his rapid, and uncontrollable decent into the madness and emptiness of pouliuli.
As noted in my discussion of political corruption in Pouliuli, Wendt appears to argue that Faleasa has abandoned his principles and what is best for his village, in order to achieve personal gain in his later years. The consequence of Faleasa's abandoning traditional principles is seen in the disorientation and distress of his community, family and friends. Eventually, as Faleasa continues to feign madness and mislead his community, he eventually falls headlong into madness for real.
Certainly, one of the greatest themes tackled by Albert Wendt's novel Pouliuli is the concept of individual responsibility. Pouliuli contains a warning about ignoring your personal and individual responsibility to your family, friends and community for personal gain.
At the beginning of Pouliuli, Faleasa awakens, and feels as if all of his life, consumed by his many duties and responsibilities, has been a dream. Faleasa wants to live out his remaining years free from his duties of leader. As noted in the first chapter, "Faleasa had just described to his lifelong friend his plan and his transformation from what he called cannibal meat into a free angel." (16)
To achieve the goal of personal freedom, Faleasa must complete three tasks, that all involve removing himself from his political responsibilities. In this way then, Faleasa must put his self-interest, or need for freedom, above his personal responsibilities to his family and community that he has embraced for his entire life.
As Faleasa chases his dream of personal freedom, and he…