”There is no place on Earth where color has been rendered with such intense depth, from the first light of dawn illuminating a green coconut frond to the last ray of sunset, when the sky is reddened to biblical proportions. And the blue...have you seen just how blue blue can get in the equatorial Pacific? In comparison, Picasso’s blue period seems decidedly ash-gray.”
That look on Angel Fernandez de Soto for some reason reminds me of Maarten
When Maarten Troost’s girlfriend Sylvia comes home and asks him if he wants to move to a remote Pacific island it took him about three seconds to take stock of his life, and realize this was the best offer he’d ever had. They pack, mostly the wrong things, and before you can say Robinson Crusoe find themselves on the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati.
Now there are few issues you may have with Troost. First this title, though catchy and even giggle worthy, has nothing to do with the book. We do not meet cannibals in this book nor do we learn about cannibals in this book, and even more disappointing we don’t get an “insiders” look at the sex lives of such beastly people. So those of you, hopefully there are not many, who are looking for some information on a lifestyle revolving around the consumption of LONG PIG this is not the book for you. Although I’m sure Troost, his editor, and his publisher may have had a few belly laughs over this bit of tongue in cheek fraud.
Second, for me this concept would have been a bit more impressive if Troost is escaping the rigorous of a working life. If he had been slogging away at some dead end corporate job, like many of the rest of us, and had chucked it all for the back to nature, finding himself, adventure. He is more than a little smug about his life, pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life which is code to me for “I’m living off someone else”. My stiff-neck over this issue dissolved as I found myself chuckling frequently, maybe somewhat maliciously so, over his hapless adventures.
Third towards the end of the book Maarten is hired as a consultant for the World Bank. He is ludicrously overpaid and spends many pages talking about how idiotic these people were for hiring him. (I couldn’t disagree with him.) I could feel that stiff-neck coming back. He bragged about the elevated lifestyle that he and his now wife Sylvia were enjoying while thumbing his nose at his employers for giving it to him. It sounded to me like he could have helped a lot of people in need if he had taken the job more seriously; and maybe he did, and this is all just him building up this persona of himself as a ne’er-do-well.
Maybe I just need my neck rubbed by some lovely polynesian women.
Two Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms by Paul Gauguin.
Troost can wax nostalgic about all the blues and the greens, but there are also absolutely disgusting eyesores in paradise. They take a walk on the small atoll of Majuro which is North of the island of Tarawa.
”There is a filthy fringe of beach that recedes into soppy mud before disappearing into a lifeless lagoon. On the ocean side of the atoll there is a gray and barren reef shelf stained with what from a distance look like large, whitish-brownish polyps that on closer inspection turn out to be used diapers, resting there under the high sun while awaiting an outgoing tide.”
Once Maarten and Sylvia settle into Tarawa there are some fundamental problems that generally people living in civilization don’t have to deal with on a daily basis. The island has been in a drought and it isn’t long before they run out of water. Their main diet is fish, and given the nature of fish to decompose even quicker in this climate, food has to be procured every day. So Maarten instead of lazing around in a hammock all day long finds himself pedaling his bike furiously about the island trying to keep the two of them in food and water. ( I rather enjoyed reading about Maarten having to pull his own weight in this regard.) Fish is supplemented every so often by a ship from Australia offloading all the dented cans and conceptually unappealing food that the population of Australia refused to eat.
It doesn’t take long before those dented cans start to look like gourmet food to Maarten.
They have Peeping Tom issues, some of whom carry rather wicked looking machetes. The lovely; and of course, exotically caucasian visage of Sylvia was of endless fascination to the Kiribati male population. They were quite content to sit outside her window and watch her... read. Flattering, I’m sure, for about thirty seconds, and then progressively creepier as the minutes tick by.
The biggest problem that Maarten faced was one that followed him everywhere...the ceaseless sweating.
”I could either melt into an oozing puddle, drop by drop--a slow, torturous death, for certain--or I could ease my suffering with a swim in the world’s largest backyard pool, thereby risking life and limb to the schools of sharks that were, and I sensed this strongly, circling at reef’s edge, awaiting a meal featuring the other-other white meat.”
Is it wrong to root for the sharks?
Little does Maarten know there are LARGER, more TREACHEROUS things in the water.
”And then I saw what confronted me. It rested directly between myself and shore. It was massive. I had never seen anything like it. I sensed its power. I became very, very frightened.
It was an enormous brown bottom.
The possessor, a giant of a man, was squatting in the shadows, holding on to a ledge of coral rock. He emitted. He emitted some more. He was like a stricken oil tanker, oozing brown sludge. When he was done, he wiped himself with sticks. Not leaves. Sticks. Small branches. Twigs.
And then they were coming my way. Riding the ebbing tide., the sticks homed in on me. I became the North Star for shit-encrusted sticks. Whichever way I moved, and I was moving very quickly these sticks seemed to follow. They were closing in. I began to curse. In Dutch. This only happens when something primal is stirred.
His curse word makes more sense to me if you replace the P with a G, but I’m not a Dutch speaker. Okay so I laughed again the whole time I was typing this quote into this review maybe because I feel our hero, Maarten, could use some “crap” thrown his way.
Troost does give us some background on how the 19th century slave trade impacted the Kiribati. The men were first considered most valuable to work on plantations all over the Pacific, but soon the beautiful young women were sought after even more than the men for purposes that does not require much imagination to figure out. After laws were passed, and were beginning to be enforced the same type of men as the slavers came around inducing men and women to leave the islands for very low pay. This period of time is called the Pacific Labor Trade. Over 70% of the people living on these islands left for what they hoped was a better. Most never returned and not because they found wealth and comfort working for white men.
We meet a cast of colorful characters, of which, my favorite was Half Dead Fred. After living on the island of the Long Knives for nineteen years past the day his visa expired, the government, inexplicably, decides that it is time to enforce his removal from their country. He had numerous wives and a profitable business. The prospect of being dropped back into the middle of American culture is frankly terrifying to him.
”Half-Dead Fred had earned his moniker. He was so wasted in appearance that in comparison a cadaver would seem plump and rosy-cheeked. Tall and gangly with a long salt-and-pepper beard, Half-Dead Fred looked much as I imagined Robinson Crusoe would look had Robinson Crusoe been marooned for a few years longer. He wore a pair of shorts that anywhere else would have long been discarded or put to use as rags.”
Okay, so admittedly, I had issues with Troost. The only reason he bobbed back up on my radar is because he recently released a travel book which has something to do with Robert Louis Stevenson. So far the reviews of Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story are not encouraging. Again the title seems to have little to do with the subject matter of the book. His writing style is engaging and as I mentioned earlier he did make me chuckle more than once. This is a *** star book with a bump to ***½ for entertainment value.