KALIMANTAAN by C.S. Godshalk


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Brilliantly colored but baggy debut about a 19th-century British adventurer, the eccentric figure who inspired Conrad's Lord Jim, and his kingdom on the north coast of Borneo. The strange tale of Rajah Gideon Bart starts with his mother, who left him in England to be raised by relatives while she went to the Far East, only to die without ever seeing him again. First apprenticing himself there with the East India Company, Barr returned to the region with his own ship, eager to carve out a niche but vague as to how to do it. Sent by the British on a suicide mission into pirate-ruled waters off Borneo, he confounded everyone and established a beachhead after putting down a local insurrection. A mix of shrewd dealing and brute force enabled him to expand his territory rapidly, aided by visits from his friend, the Admiral of the British fleet in the area, and by the permanent presence in inland forts of a motley collection of loners, fellow adventurers each with his own reason for serving in obscure regions. So the Raj was born, and as it matured, the trappings of civilization arrived: gardens, churches, and wives. Rajah Barr took an English gift, a cousin, to wife, even though he had already taken up with the bewitching former spouse of a slain Borneo prince; in spite of the coolness in the marriage, Barr's bride cast her own spell on the natives. Meanwhile, despite outbreaks of cholera and losses to the nearby headhunters not yet ""pacified"" by Barr's ragtag troops, his unlikely kingdom persisted--until the long-suffering Chinese, taxed to the limit for the opium trade, lashed out. An unwieldy catch basin of a novel, desperately in need of firm editing. Even so, Godshalk offers many moments of pure fire and beauty.

Pub Date: April 3rd, 1998
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Henry Holt