Strange Fruit

A trained anthropologist takes up her first assignment in the Kalimantan jungle.

A Taste For Green Tangerines
Author: Barbara Bisco
Publisher: Black Lotus

The subtitle of this novel should have been enough to alert me: A Romp in the Rainforest. Nobody romps in rainforests, except, of course, loggers, legal and illegal, oil palm-idiot businesses and the like.

Alerted to what? Well, to a pretty tedious story, not well-told.

Bethany Parker, young, a little footloose although she does have a ‘boyfriend’ (why are adults referred to in the western world as ‘boyfriends and girlfriends’?) back home in London, is a trained anthropologist itching for her first assignment and when the chance of one comes up in Borneo (Indonesian, Kalimantan) she jumps at it and gets it.

How is an anthropologist trained, if not on the job, meeting the ‘exotic’ people or tribe of fancy? That this should ordinarily mean in western minds forest-dwelling or island-dwelling people is of course no surprise but anthropology ought to encompass every human group in existence. ‘Exotic’ would then cover everyone from Wall Street bankers to arms manufacturers to, well, spear-chuckers and those who pierce their private parts, which practice does get something of a mention in this novel; it’s the Borneo Dayaks, of course.

Bethany is one of those names that has fairly recently come into fashion in the United Kingdom like Tracy, Mandy and Sharon, so, I guess, that brings it up to date. And Beth is certainly up-to-date, jetting off to some place she has little clue about to pursue an ideal.

To be fair to Barbara Bisco, I recognize the syndrome. I suffered from it myself, way back in late 1979 when I applied for a teaching job in those lonely, lovely islands, the Seychelles and went there to live in a small fishing village called Baie Ste. And where, frankly speaking, I was something of a fish out of water. Some things I enjoyed, yes, the marvelous cuisine (mainly fish, chicken and, at the weekends, pork), the music and the nightly stellar magic of the constellations, but, it was hard work socially…  did not have much in common with people. And quite soon a tropical ennui set in.

Beth Parker soon finds the same, irrespective of her initial idealism. She is pitched up on an eco-tourism project in Central Kalimantan, a project that has brought together project directors, zoologists and others from a number of western countries, all hoping ‘to do good’, which is exactly what I wanted to do all those years ago.

I have not been in Kalimantan for perhaps 10 years so it is difficult for me to say with any degree of precision how much deforestation has gone on since that time but most reports would say a lot. Beth’s destination, as it happens, is both within a remaining expanse of forest and not very distant from logged-out areas…and that does sound believable… anyone who has flown over Riau and Lampung will recognize just how close in flying time thick-canopy forest is to the moonscapes the loggers create.

Pitching up amongst complete strangers on such a project demands a certain degree of personal maturity that a life spent in racy London can hardly prepare you for. As I found in the Seychelles perhaps the most difficult part of all is adjusting to the other expatriates, and worst of all, sometimes, to your fellow-country folk. She finds this out very quickly.

Her job is to bring the local Dayaks, the Maloh (a group I knew nothing of before reading this), onside for the purposes of the project. She arrives with rudimentary Indonesian language skill – this is where ‘rudimentary’ equates to ‘precious little’ – and is sent to a Dayak longhouse community (how many are there left?), where her much-prized British sense of privacy means zero. Her expatriate co-workers all have their own agendas… nothing new there for me! It is all a bit disorientating.

I would have found this easier to read if there was less of the ‘F’ and ‘S’ words usage, not that I am necessarily offended by that but because the whole prose style seems to devolve on that kind of thing. Pity! It’s a nice idea. I have had expatriate friends here down the years doing ‘good work’ in conservation projects, three Brits on tiger protection work in Sumatra and an Aussie on national park management consultancy and I very much admire their idealism… perhaps they will get to the quick of the story sooner than I did.

(pub. Tempo No. 28/X/March 10 – 16, 2010)

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