GOWANUS Spring 2002
A Review by Dana De Zoysa
by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Sid Harta Publishers
Hartwell, Victoria, Australia
In the hands of a good author, a novel about ideals gone awry is usually a fascinating read, because we see so much of what we like and dislike within our own society splayed across the words and characters of others. Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is such an author and his book Redheads is such a novel. The title of this particular novel comes from the coppery-earth color of the hair of the orangutan, the Southeast Asian jungle primate so like humans that its Malay name literally means “people of the forest.” People who live around monkeys don’t get all wrapped around the axle of creationism.
Redheads is a fast, rollicking read about a complex subject in which a bad problem is made worse by short-sighted self-interest (oxymoron, yes, but it never hurts to reinforce the truth) that add up to few answers and little hope. The subject is the destruction of the Southeast Asian primordial jungle habitat to feed the pulp mills and construction sites of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China, and most of all Japan. Insert Brazil, British Colombia, or the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and you have the makings of essentially the same story. Unbeknownst to many who haven’t lined up on a globe the Tongass forest of Alaska with the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, Japan is smack in the middle. Conveniently so, from the Ministry of Technology and Industry’s point of view, because Japan is the most prodigious waster of timber in the world; just visit a construction site and gaze upon cubic yard after cubic yard of plywood and timbers going up in flames after having been used just once to line a concrete pour. In a bitter twist on the market economy ideal, it is more efficient to buy and burn than to wash and reuse.
Redheads pace is so brisk it easily
fought off drowsiness on the
Redheads is about environmental activism. Virtually nobody looks good except the natives in the jungles who have accommodated to nature by trying to improve on neither it nor themselves. Plus a single Westerner—based on an actual person—who has lived so long with them he is in effect part of the junglescape, long since removed from the Western Intellectual Tradition. Fiction takes a few liberties with this fellow, casting him as an earnest but flawed hero fated for tragic demise. The real-life counterpart left his wife, his child, and the tribe to their fate as he went back to comfy Switzerland to make himself famous with an account of life with the natives.
Everyone else in the novel—as indeed in
the real world of deforested Asia—sees nature as a vanity or income enhancer.
The predictable hacks of humanity are there: the landed sultans so intent
on building mini-Brunei palaces for themselves (making sure to lengthen
the runway for the new Boeing 737) they sell the forests and animals with
the same impunity that feudal landlords sold serfs; the secretive patriarchs
of Chinese family-owned conglomerates who take their greatest pride in
causing things to be done
That’s on the baddies side. The good folks
are masks over personality types commonly found in the environmental and
other change-the-world movements who, good as their intentions may be,
convert ideals to personal agendas the same way the greedy land-strippers
do but without being so candid about it. There is Doctor Gilda, who arrived
a decade ago with a grant to teach great
Sex, ever the plot-thickener, turns the
diverse subplots involving Gilda into something of a compote with too many
gratuitous references to Gilda’s hydraulic libido which do little to advance
the plot or shed light on her psyche. However, they do explain why she
continues to get one-year visas from the Yale-educated, Glenfiddich-sipping
Minister of the Environment whose idea of an environment is looking down
on a jungle from a first-class 747 seat on his way to an international
conference. More solitary in his sexual pursuits is Gerry, one of those
lost waifs in the Ph.D.-candidate world whose research is taking longer
than he’d like and indeed may never get done. One reason is his frequent
retreats from Gilda’s ape-research camp to Nirvana, a hideaway near a waterfall
where he can bathe, smoke dope, and look at girlie magazines
In Nirvana Gerry meets Urs, the Swiss idealist who has lived with the simple Penan peoples for so long he is now one of them. Timber cutters are bulldozing their way into the ancestral Penan burial grounds, and Urs decides this must stop. Armed with only poison-dart blowguns, his little group eventually stymies a massive array of enemies—heedless timber company owners, corrupt government officials, the ancient landed aristocracy, even the environmentalists, who are miffed because they’re not the center of the action.
Who wins? I looked down from my airliner window upon vast swatches of ripped brown earth. Hundreds of miles of it.
Mr. Sochaczewski’s book is an eco-thriller
of the best kind. In the process of enthralling with a page-turning plot
“As you look out over your garden to enjoy
the view, kindly transport
It is hard to imagine what “worse” might
be, save perhaps for the Aral Sea. The “haze” that forms a dome over the
Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Java is smoke from burning forests. Some
is set alight by slash-and-burn farmers so poor they must survive on half
an acre or so of millet for at most three years before the soil depletes
and they must find another half acre and burn that. Most, though, comes
from timber companies burning slashings from their
Hints of ecological disaster have been looming above Asia for years. The land around Nong Khai in Thailand is barren, mostly untilled, unbearably hot. Just across the Mekong in Laos the land is covered with fertile jungle. About ten years ago politically blessed timber companies arrived and felled the Thai forests. That done, they moved on, and are now felling what little forest Cambodia still has, leaving the farmers behind, like those of Nong Khai, to poke sticks into the dead earth and wonder what they can do with the rest of their lives. To make ends meet they sell their spare daughters into the brothel trade, which is run, invisibly, by military officers.
Seven years ago I was in Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, one of the old British hill stations, to which they repaired during the hot season. Night after night at around 3:00 in the morning there would rise a great roar, and down from the forests of the Losing (pronounced “Loh-sing”) Highlands in nearby Kelantan province came truck after truck hauling giant logs, so large only two or three could be chained to the stakebeds. Not a few trucks, not a few dozen, but several hours of them—I would stop counting at a hundred and still they came. Why at that hour? Because they left the Losing Highlands around ten at night in order to arrive and vanish behind the corrugated sheetmetal fences of coastal plywood makers and pulp chipping mills before the morning motorists could see them. Some years later there was a brief flurry of articles in the Malaysian press that the Losing Highlands was now a wasteland and no one seemed to know where the timber went or who took it away.
It is interesting to compare what the Malays and Chinese are doing to these forests with what British and Dutch did with the forests of India, Sri Lanka, and part of Malaya. They cut down vast stretches of silkwood, satinwood, ironwood, mahogany, ebony, teak—a litany of the world’s most gorgeous woods—but they planted tea and rubber plantations in their stead. Today these are major segments of their national export economies.
The Malay sultans, by comparison, have done absolutely nothing to turn their lands to productive use. The Chinese towkays (very wealthy men) have planted palm-oil plantations on the less hilly bits near roads. But for the most part they choose to cut and move on, in the most short-sighted and destructive business model the world has ever known.
And for what?
It would be convenient at this point to
wring one’s hands and write another check to an ad-splashing environmentalist
group or go paint signs for the anti-globalization cause. Not so fast.
It is rapidly becoming evident that bitching about symptoms is fixing no
causes. Lamenting Borneo’s lost forests does not address the fact that
sixty percent of Indonesia’s labor force is unemployed. Dithering over
the influx of pre-teens into brothels does not address the fact that local
moneylenders charge upward of 40 percent per month, and how else can an
impoverished paddy owner scrape together enough
Time-honed social mechanisms are breaking down not because of land grabbing or the market mechanism or globalization, but because a mix of population and prosperity has given exploiters a powerful tool with which to divide and conquer to their advantage. There are glimpses of hope at the local level with ideas like the mini-loans of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh; a group in India teaching mothers how to buy their daughters out of debt bondage; and a trend in India of rural Indian women having fewer babies. But these are glimmers in a glooming sky of intellectual property rights falling increasingly to the advantage of remote corporate entities responsible only to even more remote moneyed interests. Non-governmental organizations preoccupied with grabbing and holding turf end up focusing on the means to the neglect of the ends. Most of all, those who complain loudest also tend to innovate the least.
For some time the 800-lb gorilla in the room has been that the Western Intellectual Tradition has slipped over the line dividing purpose and narcissism. Howsoever the American politicians phrase their ideals, their realities are grabbing, carving, weaponry, coercion, and hypocrisy. Once a wellspring of original thinking, the Western academic community increasingly flounders in incestuousness—a recent book by a famous university press whose subtitle was grandly stated as “Global Ethics in a New Century” contained fourteen essays by professors from obscure campuses in England, Wales, the USA, and Canada, but not a single contribution from the Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, business, investment, environmental, or scientific communities. Americans are unaware that the most significant threat to their hegemony over the next twenty-five years is not brewing in the Middle East or the Southern Tier countries, but in the heads of young Asians.
Except for the last sentence above, we all know all this. Why paste it on the end of a review of a book whose purpose was not intended to address these things?
Because writers like Paul Sochaczewski
are what we need most right now. Not academics. Not literary-circle darlings.
Not trendgrabbing scribblers. Not opportunists who will write anything
so long as a film option is likely to come out of it. Mr. Sochaczewski
has the talent to create a plausible story based on realities only locals
know, characters who move the plot along, and a point of view forged from
the pain of innocents. One prays that publishers like Sid Harta in Australia
continue to support him and writers like him,
Can we ask them, though, to raise the bar higher than storytelling? For two centuries novels about ideas set the standards for fiction we all hearken to today. Authors were promulgated because publishers felt they and writers had a duty to society. Now most publishers feel their duty is to shareholders, and a good deal of the fiction they support is TV printed on paper. It so happens that most of today’s truly original thinking is outside the media mainstream. If ever there was a time to think in 50- to 100-year spans instead of till the next quarterly financial report, this is the time; and if ever there was an occasion to address the future we face using fiction to shape it, September 11 was the day it arrived.
About the Publisher
Sid Harta Publishers is an Australian house that specializes in books by Australian authors, or books set in or near Australia.
(Dana De Zoysa has a passion
for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer’s
paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at DanaDeZoysa@aol.com.)