Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

Like many air travelers, I am aware that airplanes fly aided by capricious fairies and invisible strings. Typically, this causes me some concern.

Onward to the power station, which was a diesel generator in a small tin warehouse capable of meeting the electricity needs of, optimistically, three average Americans, provided that they didn't use a refrigerator and a hair dryer concurrently. We waited patiently for the clerk, who was lying prone atop the counter, to arise from his slumber. He lay there like an offering until a chorus of throat clearing elicited unembarrassed consciousness.

It was in the Marshall Islands where scientists finally discovered what, in fact, constitutes a coral atoll. . . . [Proving Darwin's theory] was incidental, however, to the purpose of the drilling. Enewetak was being canvassed as a sight for testing the hydrogen bomb and the drilling indicated that the atoll was suitable for obliteration. Shortly after dawn on November 1, 1952, a bomb called Mike was detonated, and an island, a home, an ecosystem was blown up, irradiated, and poisoned, leading many to wonder what is the point of having Nevada.

It often happened that we were asked to sing. The I-Kiribati are unself-conscious about singing. This is because they have the voices of angels. When I sing, however, small children begin to cry, dogs whimper, and rats scurry to the water and drown themselves. Sylvia, who is ravishingly beautiful, possesses a formidable intellect, and whose very existence illuminates my life, sings like a distressed cow. Entire villages scatter into the bush when we sing together. I tried to explain this to Tawita, but she was having none of it. "You must sing. Do not be shy."
And so we did . . . .The theater troupe drowned themselves in the lagoon before we could finish. Actually, they didn't do that. Rather, they drowned in tears of laughter. It began with a snicker that turned into a titter which led to guffaws and soon the group was convulsing in hysterical laughter.
"Stop!" Tawita cried. "That was very bad."
"Yes," I said. "We are aware of that."
"You must never sing again," she said.
"That is how we prefer it."

J. Maarten Troost was a 26-year-old, bored and not particularly thrilled with his working life, when his girlfriend, Sylvia, asked him if he'd like to move to a remote equatorial South Pacific atoll named Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati, also known as the Gilbert Islands. One of 33 small tiny islands spread over an ocean expanse the size of the United States, the entire Kiribati landmass is around the size of Baltimore.

On Tarawa, Sylvia would work for the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific (FSP) and Maarten would basically hang out, maybe help out a little, write a novel and sell some articles or edit to make pocket money. The idea of moving to the other side of the planet and leaving everything behind sounded hopelessly romantic and Maarten agreed, assuming he would be moving to an island paradise. Instead, he found himself in a home with dangerous water and sporadic electricity on an atoll where subsistence living meant frequent deprivation, the diet mostly fish. Islanders battled hunger, intestinal parasites, poor health care, a disinterested government bureaucracy, disease, poverty, and almost constant drought.

A swim to cool off in the Pacific on the first day revealed an even worse problem for Maarten: the natives used the reef behind their house to defecate. At low tide, the stench of the polluted ocean was horrific, the heat constantly stifling. There was nowhere to throw out trash, most of which came from outside the island on unreliable boats, so it was tossed in the ocean or piled around the atoll. Sylvia's predecessor in the FSP said, "I just can't take it, anymore." She was ominously thin and pinched. And, yet, the natives of Tarawa were a surprisingly laid-back and happy people.

Maarten and Sylvia settled in and adjusted to the rhythms of the island, learning the local customs and becoming friends with a unique and often hilarious cast of characters. The Sex Lives of Cannibals is Maarten Troost's memoir of their two years on Tarawa, in addition to descriptions of the much-overlooked history of the island (who has heard of the bloody WWII Battle of Tarawa where over 1000 U.S. Marines died?), and the tangled mess of "aid" and abuse from other countries. The book could easily have been a sad and whiny diatribe about the plight of islanders, but Maarten Troost has a terrific sense of humor and a willingness to explore and adapt. And, the result is a delightful, informative read with laugh-out-loud moments.

I acquired a copy of The Sex Lives of Cannibals because of the many positive reviews I'd read and I was not disappointed. Troost balanced the elements well: the stories describing their experiences, the history, the traditions of the people and the contrast between life on an equatorial atoll, where people sleep during the worst heat of the day, with the constant energy, tension and consumption of life in the U.S. A fascinating, eye-opening read. I'm anxiously awaiting a copy of Troost's second book, Getting Stoned with Savages. The one and only disappointment in The Sex Lives of Cannibals: no photographs. Darn. I couldn't find any on the internet, either, although there are a few scattered photos of Troost at writing events.


Coming up: Wahoo! Wednesday (Wow, already?)

Is it still raining? Only occasionally. How's your weather?

Funniest thing the eldest kiddo did over Easter weekend: Loaded up on food and necessities at his father's expense and then left the paper towels in Mom's trunk.

Most recent violation for which the youngster got after-school detention: Sleeping in English. Oops. I have to tell you, I really enjoy it when he gets in trouble for reading his novels and forgetting that he's in school. It's better than punishment for an untucked shirt.

Worst moment, this morning: When the alarm clock went off at 5:00 a.m. (youngster had to get to school early to catch a bus for the music festival), the phone rang, and the overhead lightbulb blew as I staggered to the phone with the alarm blaring in hand. But, you have to admit that it sounds pretty funny in the retelling.

Back later!


  1. What a way to wake up, Bookfool! All you needed was to stub your toe on a boot or step on a hairbrush and it would have been complete. Mornings like that...I just go back to bed. :)

  2. First, I'm tickled that you liked the book, and I think you'll find the 2nd one almost nearly darn close.

    The alarm thing sounds like a nightmare. Definitely something that would happen in my waking hours!


  3. Kookie

    You are so right. I was lucky not to have stepped on anything, the way I was staggering around in the dark. And, oh, I did go back to bed. I checked my email and decided, "To heck with this. I need sleep." When I got up, I replaced that light bulb!!! :)

  4. Anonymous2:17 PM

    It does sound pretty funny, albeit not so much when it happens to you. Hope the rest of the day is better!

    That book sounds great! I now know why my TBR list keeps increasing in leaps and bounds. So many books that sound so good.

  5. Andi,

    Hey, I just wrote to you! Oh, good, I can't wait to get that second book. Debbie from BAW is sending me her copy - we're doing a trade. I've got my fingers crossed that the third is the charm; I can't imagine how the PO managed to lose two of the same book!

    The alarm thing was so awful - I didn't even make it to the phone before the machine picked up. But, it's funny upon reflection. Hubby was giving me a wake-up call; it's kind of hilarious that the alarm just happened to ring at exactly the same moment!!! :)


    Morning's not my thing, anyway, so I'm used to weird things happening when I have to get up at an unusual hour. The rest of the day has been terrific, really. I went back to bed and woke up feeling refreshed.

    I know exactly what you're talking about; the wish lists are getting as out of control as the book piles, thanks to blog reviews. But, I think I'm finding more wonderful books these days. Do you find that's true?

  6. I'm sorry you had such a rude awakening, but I must say you gave me the best laugh of the least something good came out of it :D

  7. Always glad to make you smile, Chris. :)


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