Imagine this: A small tropical island in the South Pacific where the sun always shines, the lagoon is blue, the waves are perfect for surfing, and the locals are friendly.
Sounds like paradise, right?
But now imagine that the sun is relentless, the lack of rain leads to water shortages, the lagoon is littered with garbage, those perfect waves can easily dash you upon sharp rocks, and the friendly locals defecate everywhere. In public.
Still sound like a paradise?
These are the two sides of the coin J. Maarten Troost faced when he and his fiancée arrived on the island of Tarawa — a small atoll that's part of the nation of Kiribati (or the Gilbert Islands to most of us).
Troost writes about the two years the couple spent “adrift in the equatorial Pacific” in a humorous travel novel called “The Sex Lives of Cannibals.” You’ve probably heard of it; it’s kind of a big deal. And, honestly, I think the attention is well-deserved, even if the title is slightly misleading.
“The Sex Lives of Cannibals” is funny. Sometimes a bit too funny, which makes you wonder how much of Troost’s story actually happened. However, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. A good read is a good read, as long as you’re not taking this book to be the end-all-be-all guide to Kiribati.
Troost doesn’t write to a high-brow audience about the politics or history of Kiribati (though he does touch on them here and there), but instead focuses on the more bizarre aspects of life on an overpopulated island literally in the middle of nowhere. Like the fact that things like safety, health and sanitation aren’t taken very seriously on Tarawa. But you know what is? A governmental dance competition that the whole island spends weeks preparing for.
Troost observes and offers up commentary on life in Tarawa as he sees it. He’s baffled, at first, at the way most islanders (or I-Kiribati as they’re called) live. His expectations of an island paradise are dashed almost immediately when, after jumping into the lagoon upon arrival, he is met with the sight of a very “large-bottomed” woman squatting in the shallows and taking a poo right in his swimming path.
I suppose that would sort of be a wake-up call.
Troost, being one of the only white people (or I-Matang) on the island, obviously sees Tarawa through a different lens. Some of his observations could potentially border on ridicule, and yet they never came off as such to me. He criticizes many things in Kiribati, from the lax government to the bland diet (fish, mostly) to the way Western culture is ruining and further polluting the place. And he does it all with a dash of irreverent humor. But, somehow, he remains respectful of the I-Kiribati throughout, even if he doesn’t completely understand their customs and motives.
Troost did not go Tarawa in order to “fit in” with the natives. He simply tagged along with his fiancée, thinking it might be nice to soak up some sun, catch some surf, and maybe write the next great American novel.
Because Troost traveled with very little motive (or, at least it seems so to readers), his observations and experiences seem more believable somehow. He doesn’t emerge a “changed man” from his time in the South Pacific. Sure, he learns to live without air conditioning and eventually discards all fears of contracting debilitating sicknesses associated with living in squalor, but it seems like, for the most part, he remains very much the same.
I like this. I like that he doesn’t try very hard to assimilate. I like that he sort of remains an “outsider” for most of his time on Tarawa. His outside perspective is interesting, and very, very funny.
Troost also clearly knows how to weave a story. He doesn’t simply say, “Tarawa really is in the middle of nowhere.” Instead, he devotes a chapter to describing how he tried to have the New Yorker delivered to him on the island, and how the poor subscription woman he talked to couldn’t even figure out how to enter his address, since he didn’t really have one.
It’s through anecdotes like these that readers are able to, in fact, learn things about Kiribati without even realizing it. Along with getting a sense of the country’s remoteness, I learned about the Battle of Tarawa that was fought on the atoll during WWII. I learned a bit about British colonization in the South Pacific. I learned about how difficult it is to navigate boats through treacherous reefs and lagoons. And I learned about some of the customs of the I-Kiribati, right along with Troost.
Through all of this, Troost has a very conversational way of writing. A way of writing that can make you forget that you’re reading a novel. And that’s not an easy skill. I took my time reading this book, but easily could have flown through it, because I really liked it.
The only thing I wasn’t crazy about in “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” was the epilogue. It felted rushed and unnecessary (especially considering a sequel now exists), and I would have liked the book to have simply ended with the last line. (Which, in case you’re wondering, is “Do you think they'll have cheeseburgers in Fiji?”)
Overall though, “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” is a good read; probably one of my favorite travel books, actually. It may not lead to deep understanding of a new culture or a desire to visit Kiribati (in fact it probably does the opposite when it comes to the latter), but it certainly is entertaining.
And, sometimes, all we need is a good laugh. And maybe one or two poo stories.