The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure
Where: The Half King
505 W. 23rd St.
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(In conversation with Joshua Hammer)
“This is the best book about the ‘Western hunger for Eastern solace,’ as Carl Hoffman neatly puts it, you’ll probably ever read. Besides the two remarkable men he portrays, the Swiss purist and the Swashbuckling American dealer in tribal art, there is Hoffman himself, grappling literally and eloquently with his own fantasies about the world being destroyed in Borneo.”
—William Finnegan, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Barbarian Days
“Carl Hoffman’s thrilling THE LAST WILD MEN OF BORNEO explores both the allure and dangers of the world’s most untamed environment. At once a psychological inquiry, a portrait of a disappearing tribal culture, and an on-the-ground adventure story, Hoffman’s narrative is above all a mesmerizing tale of two men who break their bonds with civilization in pursuit of deeper meaning—and the tragedy that befalls one of them.” —Joshua Hammer, author of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
“I finished THE LAST WILD MEN OF BORNEO in one long delicious gulp. It is a tree bristling with goodies: descriptions of the complex forest, the Penan; Hoffman’s treasure hunts; above all, the strange dynamic between Bruno Manser and Michael Palmieri—opposites but also equals—and himself. He earns the right to be among them, a firefly lighting up their cul de sacs to bring back a shimmering cornucopia of adventure, biography, mystery, tragedy.” —Nicholas Shakespeare
The long and persistent Western fantasy of “going native”—of shedding the conventions of “civilization” and seeking life’s meaning among “exotic” indigenous peoples—is at the heart of the intertwined stories that Carl Hoffman unravels in his riveting narrative, THE LAST WILD MEN OF BORNEO: A True Story of Death and Treasure (William Morrow; March 6, 2018; $27.99). In the tradition of his New York Times bestseller, Savage Harvest, Hoffman explores questions about our relationship with tribal peoples and their vanishing cultures as he recreates the fascinating stories of two men, a Swiss environmental warrior—Bruno Manser—and an American art dealer—Michael Palmieri—who sought escape and found personal fulfillment in the wilds of Borneo.
While very different from one another, there are shared impetuses in their individual stories. Manser left his native Switzerland after serving a short prison term for refusing conscription in the military, followed by a stint living as a shepherd high up in the Alps. In 1984, at age thirty, he showed up uninvited for an expedition to the Mulu caves on Borneo. Afterwards, he walked deep into the jungle interior to make contact with the Penan, indigenous nomads who still lived a highly traditional way of life. Overstaying his visa, he lived among the Penan, adopting their dress, their diet, and learning their survival skills and their language. The Western world soon intruded, however, in the guise of multinational logging conglomerates who began their systematic deforestation of the habitat that had sustained the Penan for centuries. Like a modern-day T. E. Lawrence of the jungle, Bruno led the Penan against these corporate and government forces, earning him status as an enemy of the state. He eluded capture twice, escaping both times under gunfire. In 2000, Bruno vanished without a trace, rumors suggesting he was murdered, went mad, or simply disappeared to live in isolation.
Michael Palmieri was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Bruno Manser, although he also escaped military service, during the Vietnam War, by disappearing over the border from California to Mexico. Gregarious and adventure-loving, he wandered the world to the usual “hippie” haunts of the era: India, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he smuggled the crown jewels out to Switzerland for the royal family. When he and his girlfriend discovered Bali, they knew that had found paradise. Michael had become adept at living by his wits, bartering and trading in that more freewheeling age, and he began embarking on dangerous expeditions into the Borneo jungle to acquire art and artifacts from the indigenous Dayaks. He became one of the world’s most successful dealers of Bornean art, purchasing often sacred works, which he sold to the world’s most prestigious museums and wealthy private collectors. The practice, which has grown more controversial with time, left him living in comfort in a tropical paradise. He and Bruno Manser finally crossed paths, the year before the legendary activist disappeared.
“Michael and Bruno were completely different kinds of men,” Hoffman writes. “At least on the surface their stories had nothing to do with each other. Bruno was an idealist, a do-gooder, a refugee from the modern world who despised the cult of Western consumerism and devoted his life to the Penan. Michael was a buccaneer, a man who spent his life buying and selling the Dayak’s art, the physical manifestations of their sacred universe, and in doing so had made himself if not wildly rich, then certainly more than comfortable.” Yet, in parsing their stories, Hoffman comes to realize that these two men were two parts of a whole—Eros and Thanatos, Apollo and Dionysus. Each spent his life in pursuit of the sacred fire of “exotic” indigenous people, hungry to touch a perceived Eden of our past. They were both, in essence, treasure hunters, and the prize wasn’t gold or priceless statues or even really the self-determination of a people, but that persistent Western fantasy: of the power, mojo, juju of native culture.
In THE LAST WILD MEN OF BORNEO, Carl Hoffman blends peerless adventure, sociological narrative, with a touch of true crime and a glimpse inside the high stakes world of the international art trade. Drawing on six months travel to the region, exclusive interviews with Michael Palmieri and with Bruno Manser’s family and colleagues, and on Manser’s surviving letters and journals, he takes readers deep into the lives of these singular men as well as deep into the vestiges of one of the last wild places on the globe.Buy tickets/get more info now