A problem with modernity is that it seems that every square inch of Earth has already been explored, sanitized, and homogenized.
This is why I appreciate The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost. It is a modern account (2004) of living on one of the most remote islands on Earth – Kiribati.
How it begins
At the age of 26, the author was an over-educated, aimless, post grad. (In many ways he is the archetype of the modern millennial – although solidly a Gen-Xer.) With no job prospects, he took ahold of his girlfriend’s apron strings and followed her to her foreign aid job on the tiny island nation of Kiribati – a spec of land alone in the center of the Pacific Ocean.
The couple romanticized about relaxed island living with beautiful beaches and charming, noble natives. Troost planned to write a novel while surrounded by peace and beauty.
From the second they step off the plane, they begin to discover that Kiribati is no island paradise. The locals are disease ridden, throw trash all over the island, and have goofy and superstitious ways. It is a world of deprivation under brutal heat and scarce resources.
The couple jumped in over their heads, but over time, yield to the brutal conditions and adjust to it as ‘normal.’ They worked out a way to live without complaint – and were reluctant to leave after two years living there.
Hilarious and ferociously honest from start to finish
Troost and his girlfriend are not seasoned travelers. The reader sees the story unfold through the wide eyes of normal people that blindly leapt into an extreme situation. It’s relatable. The author narrates with a sharp wit and brutal honesty.
Some excerpts of interest
The I-Kiribati cover their island in litter. When the author tried to burn some discarded dirty diapers that were polluting the beach, he was stopped due to a ridiculous superstition..
“You must not burn the nappies.”
“Because you will burn the baby’s bum.”
The natives had a positive perspective on European colonialism. Troost honestly reports this despite it being ‘politically incorrect.’
One would think that the I-Kiribati would at least have some very mixed feelings regarding their historical experience with the I-Matang [foreigner] world, but this turns out not to be the case.
When I asked Bwenawa what he thought of about it, he said: “It was very good. They civilized us. Before, we were very savage. And now we are all Christian.”
You never knew for certain whether Bwenawa was just messing with your head, or whether he meant to casually dismiss the entire narrative of colonialism and exploitation that fills Western college textbooks
Fisherman frequently got lost at sea. Despite this, they never try to think ahead and prepare.
They do not carry sails, or oars, or life preservers, or radios, or flares, or spare parts for the engine. They do not even carry fishing rods…
Regarding the natives’ cruelty:
The I-Kiribati do not have soft and mushy feelings for the animal world. Even children, whom one would assume to be the most sympathetic to the plight of small animals, amuse themselves by flinging a kitten or puppy around by its tail until they grow bored, whereupon the animal is tossed into the current of an outgoing tide
Good historical background
More than just a memoir. The author does an excellent job of weaving the history of the islands into his writing. It makes the book more interesting, and this extra effort didn’t go unnoticed by me.
Into this atmosphere of agitated missionaries, unscrupulous traders, and chiefly wars fueled by drink, guns, and delusions, the arrival of the British Empire was not entirely unwelcomed by the I-Kiribati.
In 1892, Capt. E. H. M. Davis of the Royalist arrived on Abemama to plant the Union Jack and declare that henceforth the Gilbert Islands would exist as a protectorate of Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, and Empress of India. He then moved on to every other major island in the group and said likewise.
The I-Kiribati said okeydokey, possibly because Davis immediately banned trade in guns and alcohol, and soon went so far as to banish the more obstreperous missionaries, including Kapu the Lawgiver, two moves that in a very short while returned to the islands a peaceful languidness that they had not seen since the advent of the whalers.
The chiefly wars that had riddled life in the northern Gilbert Islands gave way to Land Commissions and local magistrates. A few of the more murderous I-Matangs [foreigners] who had long stirred trouble on the islands were tried and either expelled or shot. The activities of traders were regulated, and as a result of there now being actual rules, many traders left. The Protestant missionaries were told to lighten up when it came to dancing.
I didn’t like the first third of the book. It’s long-winded and full of “cute” jokes about the author’s fearfulness and ineptitude at every culture shock. His girlfriend offers frequent and not-so-subtle slights to his manhood which he finds funny.
For example, when she told him:
You will not survive two days. Your skin will fry, you will collapse from dehydration, and because you will be the most useless person on the boat, you will be regarded by the others as a potential food source
Or when she said,
You remind me of my ex-boyfriends.
It felt like an “Everybody loves Raymond” episode, which got tiresome.
I ground through, eager to find the “sex lives of cannibals” part. By a certain point, I was half afraid his girlfriend would be the one sexing the cannibal men. I feared the author would be excitedly watching from the bushes.
Spoiler alert – it turns out there is no sex part of the book at all – or cannibals. He only references an island that is famous for blowjobs, but never goes there. The title is shameless “clickbait.”
Troost found his stride and the final two-thirds of the book made the trudging through the first third worth it. The hard reality of life on the island made more of a man out of the author, and it was reflected in the chronology of the writing.
The author deserves the utmost credit for is his intellectual honesty from start to finish. He did not suffer from the self-censorship that we see so often today. He details the native peoples’ natures as well as his own – warts and all. It was an honest and detailed field report from a true, modern adventurer.
I highly recommend this book if the subject matter interests you. If you have a particularly low attention span, skip to about one third in.