Book Review: ‘The Sex Lives Of Cannibals’

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Still no real job, but I’ve been writing for a website called “NerdBastards.com.” Check me out there. Now…the review!

One would think that “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” was a psychological reference book about the libidinous habits of Hannibal Lector and friends. Actually, it refers to the historical beginnings of the peoples on a remote Pacific island called Tarawa. The ancesters of those native to the atoll apparently lost their men to invading cannibals who went on to procreate with their women through force, creating a non-descript race of islanders. Not exactly what immediately comes to mind upon reading the title of J. Maarten Troost’s first novel, a true story about his two year adventure on a small piece of land in the middle of the an endless bowl of water.

It all begins with Troost’s lethargic approach toward his job. He’s fed up with it. When his girlfriend Silvia is given the opportunity to work in a program designed to benefit the health and environment of the Gilbert Islands, Troost joins the unemployed and goes with her. Thus begins their whirlwind island lifestyle amid searing heat, lackluster living conditions, consistent health problems and just overall doing without. Many of their trials are humiliating, frustrating, inhuman and sad.

Tarawa has no waste disposal system so people relieve themselves in the ocean. Refuse piles up along its narrow roads and beaches, ignored. The author’s cement, vermin-infested dwelling place is considered prime living compared to the thatched homes of the natives. Other countries bully them, depleting their only revenue of tuna by greedily fishing in Tarawa’s coveted waters. They have no working fire trucks, have to use sticks instead of toilet paper and four hours of electricity isn’t only a rare gift, but a pleasant surprise. Dogs are disease-ridden predators that prowl in huge packs, eating their own in sheer desperation. The daily menu is fish, fish and more fish. Boil your water and you might just go a day without parasites polluting your insides. These are the things poor city-dwellers Maarten and Silvia dealt with on a daily basis from the moment they stepped off the rickety plane that had to abort its first landing because pigs were on the runway.

The best way to experience the hardships of others is to walk around in their shoes. Troost did this with reluctant gusto and there’s a feeling of dread in every chapter that most of us can’t identify with. The descriptions are harrowing, from Tarawa’s ridiculous do-nothing government to the I-Kiribati’s (pronounced Kee-ree-bas) unusual preoccupation with the song “Macarena.” The people seem amicable enough, just dealing with the cards fate dealt them in that laid-back island way. Most of them don’t know what it’s like to have a vcr or to use a toilet or have air conditioning. They don’t steal, preferring to rely on the “bubuti” system of just saying, “I bubuti you for your shirt,” or “I bubuti you for bus fare.” It sounds like an agreeable way of life at first, but it’s also a good way to go broke. Luckily(?) most of the people don’t have much anyway.

That’s just one example of Troost’s depiction of his own culture shock after settling in Tarawa. He goes on to show us much, much more. And he does it in a funny, clever prose that sometimes veers off into rambling or preaching. He benefits from his time away from the states, even when he complains of being harassed by drunken villagers. The only real drawback of the piece is the lack of personality or character in his wife-to-be, Silvia. Wasn’t she the reason they were there in the first place? Troost mostly writes about the heinous living conditions and his interactions with the I-Kiribati. Silvia is often ignored and gives very little to the experience. But that can be ovthose people have experienced enough as it is.

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