Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
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Buy *Redheads* online Redheads

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Sid Harta Books
252 pages
March 2000
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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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.

Curled Up With a Good BookRedheads 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 with 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.

[Read Dana DeZoysa's continued comments on Redheads and the real-life plight of the rainforests]

© 2002 by Dana DeZoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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