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09/13/2007 Entry: "The Sex Lives of Cannibals"

THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS. Yep. That got your attention, didn't it? Actually, that's the title of a hoot of a book by J. Maarten Troost, who tells the story of his two rootless years on Tarawa. The book has maybe a tiny bit to do with cannibals, and more to do with sex. But mostly it's a witty tale of cultural adjustment and Xtreme government inefficiency and corruption.

With no career ambitions other than to be a Great Novelist (ha!), Troost fantasized about living "at the end of the world." When his girlfriend's job made it possible in the late 1990s, off they flew ... to a tiny atoll where tribal culture and dubious benefits of civilization mingle in messy discomfort. It's a place where the quest for a single fruit or vegetable can take weeks. (Tarawa is one of the few places on earth with virtually no agricultural production, and imports rely on rusty, unpredictable ships and airplanes held together -- literally -- with masking tape.) A place that was both paradise and sheer hell at once.

It's also, for those who remember history, the site of a bloody World War II battle, whose remnants still litter the landscape.

Troost may not be libertarian in any formal philosophical sense. But oh lord, it's fun to watch him savage a) the abuse of island cultures and environments by superpowers; b) the idiotic inefficiency of global do-gooding organizations (including the UN); and c) the corrupting influence of foreign money on tribal governments (which really don't need much outside corrupting, having plenty of the domestic sort). Here's a sample of Troostian prose:

There was, it seemed to me, considerable dissonance between the health concerns of westerners and the realities of the Pacific. Diarrhea and acute respiratory infections, for instance, killed nearly 10 percent of children under the age of five. But glamorous people don't die of dirrhea. Elizabeth Taylor doesn't hold fund-raisers for people with the runs. And so the money goes to AIDS, and not childhood dirrhea. So be it. If donors want to give money to fight AIDS rather than dirrheaa or malaria, by far the greatest killers in the developing world, I certainly won't emit a peep of protest. I thought that the wisest thing one could do to prevent AIDS in Kiribati [the nation in which Tarawa is one island] would be to take one banana and one condom to the Marine Training School, where I-Kiribati men are taught how to crew freighters, and explain that when in port you really shouldn't visit prostitutes, but if you must, use a condom because otherwise you will die. Here's a condom. Here's a banana. Here's how it works. Total cost of program? Approximately $1. Lives saved? Innumerable.

Foreign aid donors think differently, however. Instead of pursuing a simple prevention program, three-quarters of the country's doctors and most of the senior nurses were sent to Perth, Australia, where they attended a five-week-long conference on AIDS counseling -- not prevention, not treatment, but counseling. Total cost? $100,000. Lives saved? None. I could only imagine a doctor talking to an I-Kiribati woman infected with AIDS by a husband returning from his tour at sea. How's your self-esteem?

Troost speculates on whether a jar of mayonnaise tastes awful because it's turned from the oppressive equatorial heat and is filled with deadly organisms -- or whether it's merely so dreadful because it's Australian. He tells of an almost-newsless life in which expats hungrily trade thirty-year-old copies of National Geographic for last year's copies of People and how he became desperate to flesh out rumors involving a mysteriously stained blue dress and a cigar, having no idea what the dress was stained with or just what exactly President Clinton did with that cigar. He writes of body surfing in waves that could crush a man to death against a coral reef. He writes about learning to live with man-eating insects, intestinal parasites, and sharks. He writes again and again about bad government (speaking of sharks) and how those with less government fare better. He makes everything funny -- even his chapter on the sad lives of Tarawa's dogs, which otherwise I couldn't have gotten through.

If you're an island junkie or just in the mood to laugh at government, for a change, instead of grinding your teeth about it, this is one damnfine summer read.

Troost has also written Getting Stoned with Savages, about his later experiences in the more "civilized" realms of Fiji and Vanuatu. Off to the library's computer for that one right now ...

Posted by Claire @ 11:32 AM CST

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