Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Book Review: The Sex Lives Of Cannibals

The Sex Lives Of Cannibals
J. Maarten Troost

The title’s about the only thing about this book that doesn’t work. Sex Lives isn’t a shocking expose of native practices, nor is it an ironic takeoff on those glory years of travel exploitation, the twenties through the sixties. So a cynical marketing ploy on the part of the publisher seems to be what we have left.

Sex Lives succeeds despite its title. Maarten Troost graduated in the nineties without any marketable skills, so he jumped at the chance to follow his girlfriend Sylvia, who’d gotten a job with a humanitarian concern on Tarawa, an island in the South Pacific country Kiribati. For a couple of days I was wondering why on earth I was reading about one of the hottest places in the world in the middle of an unrelenting heat wave in Birmingham until I realized that Tarawa makes Birmingham look like Minneapolis. In the nineties Tarawa was a forlorn, overpopulated, poverty-paralyzed, trash-strewn dump. Most Westerners who came to live there fled after a few months. For diplomats, Tarawa signaled “the end of one’s career,” according to the author.

At first, Maarten and Sylvia were about to throw up their hands too. But they soon realized that accompanying the hardships was incessant drama, unpredictability, excitement, and a refreshing lack of formality. Some particulars: pigs and children always on the airport runway, the Pacific Ocean in your backyard, airplanes riddled with holes (good air conditioning), Russian roulette meals, sharks all over the place, dogs eating dogs. Tarawa might be a dump, but it could be a very interesting one. The odd never seemed to stop happening on Tarawa. When he watched counterfeit VHSs (the only kind available) he couldn’t help but notice the sub-bootleg nature of them: “These movies were typically recorded by a video camera in a movie theatre. Audience members could be seen stretching and heard coughing.” The videocassettes are one of many Tarawa features that make no sense to Troost at first but gradually make at least some sense. Case in point—the bubuti system, whereby one Tarawan can come up to another and ask him to give him anything he owns. Person number two can ask the same. This makes sense on an island where privation has always been the norm. But it does extinguish most ambition. And yet it does make theft very rare because it’s moot. The longer Maarten stays, the more he can understand Tarawan customs (or at least put up with them).

Almost all Tarawans were church-going Christians in the nineties, but the author eventually realized that this is the top layer crowning a complex, ancient animist belief system. This religious mix features, in addition to hymn singing, frequent dancing, honoring the dead, ecstatic trances, and other items that gave the early missionaries the heebie-jeebies and were largely stamped out, only to return when the missionaries left. The locals don’t see this religious mix as the least bit contradictory.

The Brits left Kiribati in 1979, most of their missionaries long before. It’s not an accident they split when the phosphate ran out. Still, the Tarawans look fondly back on the decades of British rule. The lawyers still wear powdered wigs and black robes that billow over their shorts and flip-flops. Kiribati seems to be one of the very few places the British ran well and left little resentment. The British strain is simply one more component of a crazy quilt. Wisely, Troost doesn’t try to solve all the mysteries he encounters here, such as how Tarawan men can drift for thousands of miles with meager provisions, docking on islands in good health. The only clue he is provided with: it’s good to take pig’s blood along in case you get lost at sea. The fact that he doesn’t go to the Kiribati’s Isle of the Dead lets you wonder about it rather than have it explained. Smart, but it’s not as if anyone would take him there and he’d have been violating a major taboo anyway. I don’t see, however, why he couldn’t have walked to Na’a, the haunted and thus peopleless north end of Tarawa. How hard could that have been? The island is only 12 square miles.

Everybody knows everybody’s business on Tarawa, but Maarten draws the line after coming home at night on several occasions and finding couples having sex in his backyard. Like so many things on Tarawa, this isn’t what it seemed. It was these couples’ way of having a little privacy away from home where family and neighbors were always sticking their neck in. It was, paradoxically, a modest solution to a lack of privacy. Unable to do the local thing and turn a blind eye, Troost soon finds, with the help of some locals, a Tarawan way of making the lovers unwelcome so that everybody could save face. But it would take more—much more—to get his neighbors to stop blasting “La Macarena” at unholy volume night and day. There are many things that Troost, after first ascribing them to native stupidity, later chalks up to “an unnerving combination of self-reliance and fatalism.”

Maarten avoids imploding again and again and finally learns to like, if not love, Tarawa. He comes to accept that the locals all along have seen what he calls weird as normal. If you get pushed out of your comfort zone on a regular basis, it’s like push-ups. You just get stronger and you’re dealing with nicer endorphins. For Maarten and Sylvia, it’s finally worth it. I immersed myself in this fascinating train wreck of a country that features water that has the deepest, most arresting colors on the planet, shockingly beautiful beaches, mostly friendly natives, abundant seafood, and a regular de-Romanticizing atmosphere. As you may have guessed, I have no desire to travel to Tarawa. Glad Troost did, though.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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