Sochaczewski traces the interlinked stories of Urs Gerhardt, a Swiss shepherd and Gilda Korda Brekenridge, a self-serving orangutan researcher. Read more about “Redheads”
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 comes from the coppery-earth color of the hair of the orangutan,
the Southeast Asian jungle primate so like humans its Malay name literally
means "people of the forest." People who live around monkeys don’t get all
wrapped around the axle over creationism.
Redheads is, in a nutshell, 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 novel. 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 go 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 seven-and-a-half hour flight from Seoul to Jakarta on which I read it. I was rewarded by passing directly over the part of Borneo in which the story is set. The reward was literally ashes because I looked down on the octopus of forest roads and clear-cuts, the embrace of whose tentacles inland the story so vividly describes.
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 through shell companies so discreetly they are not seen as the cause (so secretive, in fact, they don’t appear in this novel although they own the shell companies that own the timber companies whose names the novel only lightly shades from the real ones). And, sigh, the coarse, guttural, brutal, weapon-wielding, vacuum-brained camp managers and loggers who are the only known twigs on the human tree to be less attractive than a drill sergeant.
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 apes the American Sign Language used by the deaf. Her success with signage was not matched by diligence with record-keeping, and as the story unfolds one subplot finds her confronting a nosy young thing named B.B. from the International Nature Federation who says things like "we like to think we’re creating a new frontier in conservation fundraising" while simultaneously fending off exploratory ape sniffs at her crotch and Gilda’s efforts to conceal that she has precious little on paper to show for her efforts. B.B.’s with-it wordspinning is honeyed poison to the environmental movement and neither knows it.
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 while he fancies himself in the place of Gilda’s lover Bujang, a native who Gilda wants to marry because she will automatically become a local citizen and can let the INF go hang. She is not a complex personality.
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 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. That’s who.
Mr. Sochaczewski’s book is an eco-thriller of the best kind. In the process of enthralling with a page-turning plot and piquant "often hilarious" character sketches, he unveils the masks of real people with thinly masked motives, and shows those faces to be as stupid and vain as they really are in the jungled politics of deforestation. It is a complicated, messy plot in equally the novel and in real life; in both there are few untainted motives and very little hope. To paint the consequences as they exist today, here is a verbatim quote from an email sent to me from Kuala Lumpur on 21 March 2002:
"As you look out over your garden to enjoy the view, kindly transport yourself to Malaysia to imagine what it would be like here. First, it is hot, as in real hot (even by local reckoning), so you turn on the showers to cool yourself only to find the water coming out in trickles because there is water shortage (officially we are still under a dry spell as the downpours we have had of late have poured over the downstream areas instead of the catchment areas where the dams are). Then as you turn your gaze outside to comfort yourself with the lush scenery, you find the haze is everywhere, making you feel gloomy and morose. Still, I should not complain. Other places are worse off."
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 clear-cuts so politically connected companies can lay claim to and plant another palm-oil plantation. The foliage of the oil palm is so dense very little can grow beneath it, and its productive life is 95 years. Voila, a green desert that yields a cooking oil with one of the highest LDL cholesterol contents.
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 in the morning there would rise a great roar, and down from the forests of the Losing (pron. "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.
To be sure, the press skirted around the subject of who made the real pile off this. The Sultan of Kelantan, like many of Malaysia’s sultans, lives off selling land-use rights to Chinese timber companies. He wanted a Boeing 737 and a new palace. For that a wasteland was made. To be sure the characters involved were not so colorful as those in Paul Sochaczewski’s novel, but the ruin his novel predicts has come true all across the broad quarter-moon from Western Sumatra through Java and up to Borneo and Sulawesi.
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 compare, 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 money to buy seed grain for the next rice planting or a fisher to repair the broken outrigger on his catamaran? The tourist postcards don’t show these things.
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 global closet 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 U SA, 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 who 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, because the bar-code blinkers of the American publishing and bookselling establishments will not.
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 existed 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 started.
Fiction has so many fruits yet unplucked. From New Age thinking come the ideas of the unity of history and that oversouls inhabit ideas. The former holds that history is neither linear nor cyclic but a group of behaviors that flux in and out of social need irrespective of time. Oversouls are behavior forms that envelope idea forms; for example, they are why fundamentalism and saintliness behave the same way in no matter in which ethos they occur. The message of these is to not look backward as we move forward. What does that mean for the most backward-looking institution of humankind, namely religion?
From Islam comes ideas such as: the state’s primary duty is to raise the poor from their poverty while encouraging the wealthy to create more of it; economics and ethics are optimal when at one with each other; the best-yielding business contract links self-interest with social advance; a market economy is a lowest-common-denominator economy but a market society is a courtyard which embraces the four main constituencies of culture: the social, the civil, the devotional, and the economic.
These are but two things I know well. There are myriads I know not, though others do. Mr. Sochaczewski is an entertaining and incisive writer with a point to make. Redheads make it well. I hope he goes on to explore the byways of mind thus far untrod, and of those inform us as well as this.