Hoffman contrasts the Dayak with another indigenous group, the Penan, whose shyness and placidity have often allowed the Dayak to bully them. The Penan fascinated Hoffman’s dual protagonists: the late Bruno Manser, a Swiss adventurer and activist who became one of them; and Michael Palmieri, an American art dealer who coveted their carvings. The two Westerners met only once, but Hoffman tells their life stories in alternating chapters because to him the men embody different aspects of “a long and persistent Western fantasy: of the power, mojo, juju of native culture.”
Also the author of “Savage Harvest,” a gripping account of Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in 1961 while seeking primitive art in New Guinea, Hoffman has traveled extensively in Borneo. He has read Manser’s voluminous journals, interviewed those who knew him and befriended Palmieri. The result is a work of remarkable empathy, not only with the two hard-charging Westerners but also with the indigenous people they cultivated. Among the book’s highlights is Hoffman’s account of a grueling 2016 trek he made with a Penan family who showed him how much athleticism and patience Manser must have drawn upon to go native as thoroughly as he did.
Manser grew up in Basel, where his peculiarities included spending winter nights in a nest of his own making on the balcony outside the family’s apartment. As a young man, he worked as a shepherd in the Swiss Alps, where he got used to solitude, studied nature and polished his climbing skills. One day, while researching nomadism in a library, he stumbled upon a photo of a Penan man captioned “A hunter-gatherer in the forests of Borneo.” It was Manser’s eureka moment.
He made it to Borneo in 1984 by wangling a berth on an expedition to explore the Mulu caves, now one of the island’s tourist attractions. His immersion in all things rain-foresty led him to cozy up to pit vipers, one of which bit and almost killed him. At age 30, he finally made contact with the people he’d been so eager to know.
Manser discovered that, for the Penan, home “wasn’t a house. It wasn’t a village or town. It was the forest as a whole. All of it.” Not long after Manser’s arrival, timber barons swaggered into Borneo, waving around permission slips to log at will. Despite not having been consulted, the Dayak tended to go along. Logging held out the promise of jobs and gadgets, and as Hoffman observes: “Dayaks were no different from any other people. They liked stuff.”
The Penan were different, however. Other than their blowpipes, stuff meant almost nothing to them. (Hoffman’s trip with that Penan family started with them blithely abandoning the hut in which they had been living and carrying their few possessions on their backs.) But not until Manser broached the idea of resistance did the Penan overcome their ingrained passivity. They set up blockades to keep out logging trucks — a campaign that shocked the Malaysian government, which has jurisdiction over the north of Borneo (Sarawak) and was unaccustomed to pushback from illiterate natives. At first the Penan sought compensation, but Manser convinced them that “nothing short of a total ban on logging was the solution.” He was now a wanted man, whose escapes from the government’s dragnets Hoffman narrates with gusto.
Readers familiar with the venality and callousness of recent Malaysian politics will not be surprised to learn that a total ban was out of the question. To the contrary, the rain forests once roamed by the Penan have been reduced to patches, and few if any of the promised roads, schools and other marks of progress have materialized. His failure seemed to have dealt the mercurial Manser a destabilizing blow; he looked back on what Hoffman calls a decade-long “whirlwind of energy that had yielded nothing.” Manser assured his Western friends that he was holding up all right, and when last heard from, in the spring of 2000, he was supposed to be going mountain climbing with his Penan friends. Then he disappeared. Search parties looked all over, but no trace of Manser has ever been found.
Palmieri, a garrulous Californian now in his 70s, loves stuff, too, especially works of art made by the Dayak, the Penan and their forebears. Hoffman portrays Palmieri as a beloved figure in Borneo, but he suffers by comparison with the saintly Manser. Nor do Palmieri’s business practices do him much credit. Another dealer told Hoffman why he refused to emulate Palmieri: “I would be buying the family china, the family heirlooms, and, morally and ethically, I just couldn’t do it.” Palmieri — and Hoffman with him — boasts of the fact that one of his finds now stands in a museum at Yale. But Kuching, the capital of Malaysian Borneo, has been playing host to a world-music festival for two decades. Has it ever occurred to Palmieri that Kuching might also make a good site for a museum of indigenous art, where the Dayak and Penan could join tourists in appreciating their patrimony, and that he could contribute his knowhow — not to mention some of his artifacts and profits — to such a project? If so, Hoffman fails to mention it.
In reading “The Last Wild Men of Borneo,” then, you might find yourself doing as I did: rushing through the chapters on Palmieri to get back to the adventures of Manser. His is quite a story — exciting, funny and tragic — and Hoffman tells it extraordinarily well.
And if Manser died still thinking he’d wasted his years in Borneo, he was wrong. He is survived by the Bruno Manser Fund, which carries on his defense of tropical rain forests and their first people.
The Last Wild Men of Borneo
A True Story
By Carl Hoffman
William Morrow. 347 pp. $27.99