Cover Story: A brush with Eden

    Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak’s passion for Gauguin drove him to a South Pacific atoll. It might be one of the world’s remotest places but it’s only inches from Eden

    The sea appears to be a gigantic expanse of sapphires edged, on the horizon, with a band of silver. And the beach is made of flakes of mother-of-pearl. I’m transfixed by this priceless coloration when Marlon Brando’s son introduces a hint of complication into the paradisiacal proceedings by asking me if I want the white sauce with my freshly caught lagoon fish, or the red sauce. Tough choice.

    The white sauce looks creamy with garlic. The red one is clearly tomato-based, but I presume those little islands of fiercer red floating in it are fragments of the infamous Tahiti chilli that grows wild on the jungle slopes of hard-to-reach rocky islands in this celebrated archipelago. The Tahiti chilli performs roughly the same function in the South Seas as the snake did in the original paradise. It tempts you, then you regret it. What the hell.

    The lagoon fish was green when it came out of the sapphires half an hour ago, and everyone knows that red and green are complementaries. Besides, you won’t get served sauce by Marlon Brando’s son on a beach on a South Sea atoll too many times in your life, so when the chance pops up to be a contender, risk the risk. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. And ouch.

    Brando’s son looks exactly, scarily, like his dad in On the Waterfront, except much browner. He’s the manager of the only hotel on Tetiaroa, the private atoll owned by Brando that’s half an hour from Tahiti by pop plane (pop, pop, pop it goes as it bounces into takeoff). You can fly over for a day trip. The check-in desk at Tahiti airport welcomes you oleaginously to Marlon Brando’s Private Atoll. With so many picture-perfect white-sand circles to choose from hereabouts, an atoll has to do what it has to do to stand out.

    Brando bought this one in 1965 after filming Mutiny on the Bounty in the area, and falling for a local lovely who danced for him on the set. She’s the mother of the junior Brando serving the sauce. You don’t see her. But junior is everywhere: taking your bags off the little pop plane that’s landed on the sand; catching the fish; fanning the barbecue. Behind the beach where we have our fish picnic, you can see the house that Brando senior built for himself here, and which the jungle is today spookily reclaiming.

    After the murder of his daughter’s boyfriend by his other son, Christian, and then the daughter’s suicide, the trial, and everything, Brando closed this house down and has never returned. These days, Tetiaroa has the melancholy air about it of a party that’s over. I’m glad I went. I was glad to leave. You feel as if you are intruding on someone else’s situation.

    As if to prove what a small place the South Pacific is, I had already bumped into the other son, the one who shot the daughter’s boyfriend, on my previous visit to Tahiti. I was making a film about Gauguin, the most notorious western visitor of all to the South Seas, and as we were watching the sun go down at the spot where Gauguin had built his house on Tahiti, in Punaia, a guy in a baseball hat had strolled by, with a girl. They had clearly been enjoying the sunset as well. Our driver whispered that this was Christian Brando.

    Now, whatever the circumstances were in which Christian Brando shot Dag Drollet, one thing was immediately clear: this guy had exquisite taste in sunsets. Gauguin built his house exactly here so that he could thrill to this particular sunset every day. It is as great a solar departure as the world has to offer. You can see it radiating above the horizon of some of Gauguin’s finest Tahitian paintings. And before I came to Punaia, and stood where he stood, I thought Gauguin had been making it up.

    He wasn’t. The sky turns into lava and everything beneath it begins to glow. The palms, the canoes, the sea, the sand, you.

    EVER SINCE Samuel Wallis landed off Tahiti on HMS Dolphin in 1767, and his men discovered they could swap a single nail here for a night of love with a local, voyaging westerners have found it impossible to avoid paradisiacal comparisons in these parts. Get the South Seas right, and you are in Eden. And just as all Muslims save up to visit Mecca once in their lifetimes, so I recommend that all Christians, practising or lapsed, saintly or sinful, gay or straight, undertake a pilgrimage to Tahiti and her islands at some point in their allotted time in order to glimpse this gorgeous approximation of what it was we were thrown out of.

    My own second arrival had been deliberately timed for Christmas. Gauguin died here just over 100 years ago, and as a wacky Christmas present to myself and my family, I decided that all of us would visit his faraway grave on Christmas Day. I know, I know. These are signs of insania. But making a film about him had affected me much more deeply than I could have imagined, and some of the things I had seen during the shoot were so damned moving and interesting that, as an act of sharing, I needed the rest of my family to view them too. Were we being morbid? Nah. We were being faithful.

    Although Gauguin lived on Tahiti itself for much of the 1890s, in the house with the sunset, he had actually died in 1903 on Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesas Islands, the northernmost islands of French Polynesia. The Marquesas are officially the most remote spot on earth. Set off from here in any direction and before you reach a continent you must complete the longest such journey available on this planet. You want to get away? You come here.