An expertly wrought tale of exploration, adventure, and mischief by Hoffman (Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, 2014, etc.), who returns to the South Pacific island of Borneo to tell it.
The “last wild men of Borneo” are not the headhunters or circus freaks of yore but instead two foreigners, one Swiss and one American, who entered into the rainforest and the territory of little-known people and carved out different fortunes for themselves. Bruno Manser arrived in 1983, looking for something outside himself; he had resisted the draft, bounced around among mountains and coastlines, and found his calling fighting the logging companies that were busily clear-cutting the vast old-growth forests of the interior. The companies won, for, as the author writes, “the untouched forests of Borneo are gone.” The question that occupies the author is this: what happened to Manser, who inspired a near-cultlike movement and commanded the loyalty of many admirers in the outside world, “surrounded by sycophants and followers who couldn’t say no to him”? As with his book on Michael Rockefeller, Hoffman is fascinated by the possibilities of someone who simply walked into the jungle and disappeared: did those headhunters get him? Was he murdered by loggers? The other wild man is American art collector Michael Palmieri who, as the anthropologists say, irrevocably changed the culture of the true “wild people” of Borneo by introducing the market to them. For decades, he has bought and sold Dayak and other ethnic art, perhaps against international laws in the trade of cultural goods, even as he has found himself unable to live among his own people. The two stories do not always neatly track, but Hoffman does an excellent job entering the worlds and minds of two men who did not fit in and who carved out their own destinies—if, of course, in other people’s homelands.
At once cautionary and inspiring; adventure travel at its best.