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Omoo is Part II of Melville's adventures in the South Pacific. Typee, his first book, focused on the French Polynesian island of Nuku Hiva (Marquesas Islands). Omoo starts after Melville leaves Nuku Hiva, and centers on his adventures on a whaling ship, the ship's subsequent "soft mutiny" and his imprisonment with a majority of the ship's crew on the island of Tahiti.
Melville writes travel memoirs the same way my father-in-law would tell stories of his youth: built on a solid framework of veracity, but completely filled-out and fattened with fiction. Both my wife's father and Melville, however, were d@mn good storytellers. Early Melville is fun because after reading these books one grasps a firmer hold of the author and the influences that brought on his later, great novels. Here is a man writing a memoir and you see the fiction genius pushing hard against the boundaries of his own narrative.
Melville's prose is straightforward and his narrative is quick. He also approaches the people of the South Pacific with a dignity and reporting that was very very forward thinking for the time. He avoids both the 'savage' and the 'noble savage' world views that so dominated Western thinking at the time. Melville's views of Christian missionaries (although he heavily redacted them before publication) still managed to keep it from being printed in the US.
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Omoo finds the narrator of Typee once again at sea but not much more willing to carry out his responsibilities. He and most of his shipmates reach a point where they simply refuse to work; so they are put ashore on Tahiti where they are loosely held in a compound by the island's consul.
The narrator and a tall companion he calls Doctor Long Ghost eventually make their way from Tahiti to the neighboring island of Imeeo now known as Moorea). They wander around the island, courting the native girls (sometimes being stabbed with a thorn for their troubles), attending feasts, witnessing special dances. Eventually the narrator decides to leave, signing on to a visiting whaler; Long Ghost decides to remain behind.
The book is entertaining: Melville has a wry sense of humor and a humane sensibility. He respects the natives as human beings in a way few other Europeans or Americans do. He accepts them on their own terms. He believes the Christian missionaries who frequently visit the island have done more harm than good: mostly, under their influence, the happy, languid and hospitable life of hunting and gathering is exchanged for uncomfortable clothes and even more uncomfortable ideas. The novel is also surprisingly discreet - surprising at least to me, who grew up with a far more sensual image of Tahiti. Once or twice, the stages of undress in which they find the natives are referred to, but whether any of the various young women the wanderers take up with are more than friends is never really discussed.
Robert Blumenfeld is an excellent narrator, reading most of the book in a cheerful style and providing a variety of voices. If you've read or listened to Typee, you probably should take this one in too. (Arm yourself with a map or two before you go.)
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