More about Kalimantaan!

May 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

I take back everything I have said about Kalimantaan! in the first moment of frustration.  I found it impossible not to go back, and ended up reading right through the end, breathlessly.  The vision of 19th century Sarawak is very powerful — convincingly accurate — the smells, the sights, the climatic phenomena, the way the heat feels — I feel transported back to South East Asia and suspect the author must have first hand knowledge of the place.

The story, based on the life of the White Rajah of Sarawak, starts out as a not terribly convincing historical narrative but about halfway through gains psychological depth with the introduction of the main heroine and her internal life (Barr — Rajah Brooke — the male hero who opens the novel is, one feels, a little difficult for the author to grasp, as he would be to the rest of us, I suppose); and as it turns into a poignant tragedy, a richly reflection-provoking narrative.

But the main asset of the book, and the reason to read it, is the style, which seems a little stilted at first, but grows on one:  it is poetic, rhythmic, in parts iambic. (I discovered its delight — with a sudden jolt of recognition — when turning to reading the book right after seeing a Shakespearean play).  Unlike Shakespeare’s, the language of Kalimantaan! is not a natural language, but it is beautiful.

The story-telling technique is intentionally convoluted, shadowy, partly obscured, turning often to long, parallel, metaphorical sentences, requiring close reading to keep track of the the happenings — it is a delightfully pleasing exercise for those who, like me, feel challenged by a little difficulty, who don’t like to be explained everything.

I admire the author for three more things:  having published a reading guide for the novel (unavailable, alas); not being all over internet (in fact, no public information about her seems available); and not turning out a novel every year to follow on her initial success.  If another novel comes from her, it will definitely be worth reading.  (As Pamuk’s is not, alas).

If I have a complaint about the novel is the picture of the Europeans in Sarawak which, being sympathetic, presents even the one vagabond in an agreeable light; while in my personal experience, the region is full of disagreeable human refuse dropped from the first world but lording it over the “dumb natives”.  The unsavory sort were as common in the nineteenth century as they are now:  Conrad calls Almayer and Willems — with evil sarcasm — “these two fine specimen of the superior race”.


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