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Kalimantaan - C. S. Godshalk's First Novel Is An Adventure Story

C. S. Godshalk's first novel is an adventure story in which the excitement is as much mental as physical. In 1838, Gideon Barr sets sails for Borneo, the land he intends to rule. We first see this empire builder through relatives' letters, and he emerges as singularly unbalanced yet singularly driven. He is also, it appears, almost infallible, applying more subtle techniques than the usual smash-and-grab. Gideon is no less forceful in his personal life: he is the sort who will return to England to wed his cousin but bring back her daughter instead--not out of love or attraction, but out of Darwinian common sense.

This flawed hero is only the first in an endless procession of brilliantly drawn men who blend civility with violence, innocence with calm brutality. Some go to Borneo to obliterate their English past; others never had one, having been out to sea at 8 or 9. And the natives are as contradictory as their imperial masters: "Honest, gentle, respectful of even their smallest children, cherishing their lore and tales, and at the same time methodically preparing for their gory celebrations, refining torture, training infants to perform these abominations."

Later come the missionaries and, finally, the Englishwomen, on whom the tropics take a heavy toll. Plotting her return to England with her only surviving child, Gideon's wife writes to her mother: "We have slipped into an unnatural attitude here. We regard the children we lose as necessary casualties, as replaceable." This is a world in which social rounds are riddled with danger, literally.

Visit Pulau Kalimantan - C. S. Godshalk's First Novel Is An Adventure StoryKalimantaan is a huge achievement, ambitious in scope, style, thought, historical imagination, and humor. Here Godshalk describes a group of Dutch colonists: "What breed are they? From what planet?... They are the most inappropriate form of life ever to take up residence in the tropics. Everything about them is wrong, their clothes, their religion, their food. A Dutch meal on the equator--sausage, pickles, schnapps--should kill you outright, yet they pile it in for breakfast. Their women deliver babes through withering heat and monsoon rot like rolls from an oven, and these slough off dengue fever as if it were summer complaint. They will break. But it is usually under some vague malaise of the soul..." Kalimantaan demands your total attention and immersion. Yet Godshalk's tale must be read for its romance, extraordinary populace, and anatomy of colonialism, and if you give in to its lush language, it will offer you an inimitable dose of death and desire, magic and malaria dreams. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

In Kalimantaan (which incidentally means 'Island of raw sago' in the Dayak language) the story is mainly told from the perspective of Amelia, wife of Gideon Barr (the fiction version of James Brooke). After ten years in the wilderness Barr has returned to England to find a bride. The young woman of his choice, Amelia Mumm, accompanies her husband back to Borneo. What follows is the tale of a Victorian woman's experiences in an alien and often frightening environment.

Godshalk is a great stylist, with an astounding command of language. Blending fiction with historical and anthropological facts, she recreates the brooding atmosphere of the island's interior, where these Victorian pioneers were more or less engulfed by the Malay and Dayak culture: mysterious and impenetrable like the forest itself. There is for example a chilling description of a headhunting campaign.

However, although the book depicts a very vivid picture of the situation in Barr's little empire, the plot remains somewhat thin. In this respect it is not always clear how the vast array of characters introduced into the story are supposed to contribute to it. As a result of this multitude of personae the development of their characters leaves something wanting too.

Unfortunately, this is also true for Gideon Barr. It seems as if the author has taken to heart the warning which she lets one of the minor characters in the book give to Barr's cousin and rival, Richard Hogg. In a letter their uncle Jared Heath writes that in the East 'complex souls do not do well' and he himself had 'clung to his two-dimensionality like a raft'.

The most intriguing figure in the book is Richard Hogg, who rules over one of the remoter district's of Barr's realm. He is revered by his tribesmen, who refer to him as 'Tuan Mudah' or heir-apparent, and whom he calls in turn 'my Dyaks'. He is a brooding man, with a dark mindset and as such a 'true denizen of the place'.

The incomplete glossary of Malay and Dayak terms I find somewhat irritating. To add to the flavour the text is spiced up with numerous words from the native languages. However, while some words that might be expected to be more or less commonly known such as adat, imam and kongsi are in the glossary, one looks in vain for angat, langkan, parang and sabut.

Despite these flaws, Kalimantaan is a delightful book. While it may be a bit premature to put the author in the same category of great storytellers such as Kipling, Conrad or Marquez, I look forward to her next one. View Detail