Friday, December 17, 2010
I don't remember when my Read It Or Remove It policy started. Was it this year? Last year? Who can say. I can tell you that I have had some excellent luck with this program. Recently there has been
A Very Long Engagement and The Observations, both terrific--and that trend continues!
The latest title in R.I.O.R.I. is sadly out of print but happily fantastic. It's Kalimantaan by C.S. Godshalk. As usual I do remember buying this novel and I remember being eager to read it. Alas...I have no memory of what took it's place in the reading queue. Whatever it was I hope it was worth it because as I've said Kalimantaan really is exceptional.
Kalimantaan is based on the true story of Sir James Brooke. Brooke was an adventurer who two hundred years ago acquired/seized a kingdom, Sarawak, roughly the size of England on the northern coast of Borneo. Borneo is an island in the Pacific that is part of the Malay Archipelago. Brooke and his followers ruled Sarawak for approximately one hundred years. Brooke's exploits have already been fictionalized at least once before that I am aware of in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.
In Kalimantaan, Brooke is Gideon Barr. As the self-styled "Raj of Sarawak", Barr imposes his brand of civilization on the natives whose land he's stolen and any immigrants, missionaries or businessmen who have found their way to his world. His wife, Amelia, views the colonial life and it's contradictions quite differently than her British East India Company admiring husband. In Barr's private country Victorian civilities, self-importance and hypocrisy cover all manner of savagery by the whites and the love of tradition and celebration hide native barbarism. This is an environment that breeds cholera, smallpox and infection as easily as it does tyrants, madness and doom. Godshalk has inhabited Sarawak with varied and fascinating characters. There are not any levels of this society that are not examined and made important to the story.
This is not a novel about pioneers trying to conquer a hostile environment through hard work and sacrifice. Kalimantaan is about colonialism and empire building on a grandiose scale. Damn the locals and full speed ahead. The rewards are great and little is allowed to get in the way of those prizes. Godshalk has triumphed in this magnificent undertaking. There is plot and color to spare. She has woven her many characters complex stories and motives through a long gone world all the while dissecting it's mysteries and cruelties and celebrating it's beauty and culture.