Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Lost On Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial PacificDuring my teenage years, I would never have imagined reading a book titled The Sex Live of Cannibals simply because I couldn't get through the title without tittering like an adolescent schoolgirl. Yes, I am, or rather I was and might still be that immature. But for whatever inexplicable reason, I was recently able to get past that or at least keep on reading through the giggle fit it caused me and finish this book. That probably has something to do with the fact that this is the second book by J. Maarten Troost that I've read. Despite The Sex Lives of Cannibals being the first book Troost managed to get published, I stumbled upon an audio edition of his most recent book, Lost On Planet China, a month sooner. It might also have something to do with the fact that I didn't read them at all, but opted instead to listen to both books in my car while on an endless daily commute to and from work.

Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying NationLost on Planet China is an excellent book. The audio edition offers the reader who hasn't the eyes to spare the chance to experience that excellent book. True, the people at Blackstone Audio made a curious choice of readers choosing Simon Vance, a top-of-the-line performer with a strong English accent despite the author's lacking any such accent. It gives the reader the impression that they are listening to a wandering Brit on a far-flung expedition from his not-so-native home in California, but it does little to detract from the quality of the book. I devoured it in the space of a few days despite all the obstacles that preparing for my wedding caused. I'm getting married soon, on the 21st of this month to be precise. Yet, somehow I managed to fit 11 hours of listening pleasure in between the endless shopping that weddings strangely require. I think it was the one thing that allowed me to maintain some degree of sanity amidst the buying spree. I needed to hear the trials of another man in an equally foreign climate to give me perspective on my own.

Sadly though, when a book is consumed with such ferocious haste, the reader finds himself in need of further nourishment to sustain him through the continuing mayhem. I needed distraction. And so I found myself an audio edition of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, read by the same humorously English Simon Vance. I guess the people at Blackstone just assumed that a man who lived in Holland as well as some of the more interesting parts of Europe for a time would have to be encumbered by some verbal peculiarity. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it and Simon Vance just happens to enjoy reading Troost as much as I enjoy listening to him read it. In any case, The Sex Life of Cannibals turned out to be a beast of entirely different proportions. It was plain to see that from the start. For one thing, this memoir recounts an entirely different Troost, one who is unmarried yet oddly living the married life, unsure of what he wants to do with his life career-wise, and entirely unprepared for any of what he was getting himself into. True, Troost was continually mystified by China too. The lifestyles and customs of the Chinese were perplexing to say the least. But in Cannibals, we get the chance to observe him as he develops coping mechanisms. We witness his gradual acceptance of a life where nothing can be assumed, no part of his past can offer him guidance, and setting dictates choices in every conceivable moment.

I gained an entirely new understanding of the hardships of life in the Pacific. My experience on Pacific islands is limited to the Hawaiian six: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, Lanai, and Molokai; where living in paradise is only unattainable because I couldn't afford it. Compared to life on tiny Tarawa where Troost witnesses firsthand that the postcard appearance of a life in the Pacific is quite unlike anything a person might experience in reality, I have no business offering commentary on the subject. There is a degree of limiting life to its more basic survivalist tendencies that a person might expect to find in a book about someone who survived a plane crash in the remote Himalayas. The chapter on island dogs alone is enough to make any person realize that this is another world onto itself. Savagery doesn't seem like such a far off descriptor for the lifestyle one must embrace, though to call the people of Tarawa savage would be inaccurate. The Kirabati in his book are kind people that I grew to like just from getting to know them secondhand over the course of the story. Some of their customs seem like a bit of a stretch for me, like the system in which anyone can walk up to you, ask you for something that they want or need, and you have to agree to offer it to them right there on the spot. It's pronounced baboosi, though I'm not sure about the correct spelling. While I am a big supporter of sharing, this seems to be a bit over the top. In general, they are just living the life that an atoll dictates to them.

This book was enough to make me know that I never wanted to live on Tarawa or any other part of the Republic of Kiribati. But then again, after reading his China book I was happy to write off China as a place I wanted to keep my distance from as well. Maarten Troost's literary career seems to boil down to a very simple formula. He hunts out an adventure in a bizarre place or the adventure hunts him out somehow instead, he promptly dives in way over his head, he's washed away in a flotilla of harrowing and slightly horrible events, and then writes it all down as accurately as he can recollect with a generous dose of historical insight thrown on to illuminate the whole experience. It does the trick. Despite the fact that I wouldn't want to relive any of his adventures firsthand, I've found myself replaying a chapter a couple of times just to pull everything out. I wouldn't trade places with him though. Not for all the money in the world.

Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and VanuatuA life of adventure is probably not in the cards for me. I am looking forward to Getting Stoned With Savages as soon as I get my hands on a copy. I'll continue to read what J. Maarten Troost writes though, and to paraphrase something I read in another review, a book is all the closer I need to get to a life like his.

No comments:

Post a Comment