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.
Redheads 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
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.