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Kalimantaan: A Novel
ISBN 0805055347 / 9780805055344 / 0-8050-5534-7
Publisher Holt Paperbacks
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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 highly 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 since childhood. 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.
Kalimantaan is a huge achievement, ambitious in scope, style, thought, historical imagination, and humour. 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 a 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. [via]