Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: Toraja: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia by Nigel Barley

toraja-jpgToraja: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia by Nigel Barley (Monsoon Books; US$ 15.95, Pp 232)
Many interesting books are being published all over the world, but only a handful make it beyond their borders to an internationals audience. Being associated with Kitaab has given me the opportunity to review foreign books which publishers and marketers may feel will not draw a huge audience outside their country of origin. But these books are interesting to readers like me, who are unfamiliar with the subject and setting. In fact, to me at least, this novelty makes the reading experience more exciting.

Toraja is a delightful account of antrhopologist Nigel Barley's sojourn into a remote and little-known region of Indonesia. The name Sulawesi, Indonesia invokes mystery and the lure of the exotic and unknown. This book offers a knowledgeable and entertaining account of an anthropologist’s journey through a remote, largely uncharted region and culture.
The author succeeds in making us laugh page after page with hilarious accounts of his travels rife with the human touch. He also offers enough insights to engage serious readers. The spontaneous flow of humour is sustained throughout the book, with only a few points where it could seem contrived. This is certainly no mean feat.
As author and anthropologist Nigel Barley states in the introduction, this book is far from a bland monograph written by an omniscient scholar. “It deals with first attempts to get to grips with a ‘new’ people – indeed a whole ‘new’ continent. It documents false trails and linguistic incompetences… Above all, it trades not in generalizations, but encounters with individuals.”
Amusing, animated descriptions fill page after page. For example, the author is compelled to stop at a hotel called the Bamboo Den, which also doubles as a language school. “It was a vision of hell. Hot, dirty, full of cockroaches so confident of their tenure that they sat on the walls and sneered at passers-by.”

Nothing, not even fellow anthropologists, escape the author’s witty barbs. Field work satisfies anthropologists because, among other things, “he ceases to belong to the impoverished part of the population and becomes, in relative terms, a man of wealth – the sort of man who can blow seven pence in a gesture of sheer altruism.”
The author’s observations on local culture are just as humorous, while containing a core of serious truth. He and his guide wear t-shirts with silly slogans to a Torajan funeral, not just because these are the only black clothes they have, but also because “Torajan funerals are inherently jolly occasions, at least in the later stages, for grief is long behind them. The body may well have been kept for several years while resources are mobilized and people summoned from abroad.”
Such animated descriptions are alternated with occasional comments on serious issues such as value judgements and ‘cultural prejudices’...

The wonderful thing about this book is that such serious observations are kept brief and do not weigh down the overall ebullience of the narrative. Indeed, some of these serious observations are also presented in an amusing style. “It is always slightly shocking to be in a country where Christianity is regarded as a serious religion and not a mere euphemism for godlessness.”
The author leads us in an unexpected and delightful twist, when he brings Torajans to England to build one of their elaborate rice barns in a museum. The Torajans find England as exotic and outlandish as the author found their land, and much fun happens from culture shocks.

...Overall, this is a thoroughly delightful read about a little-known, remote region of our globe. A section with the author’s own black-and-white photographs supports the text. One only wishes for more photos, and in colour. Also, little errors creep in every now and then, which could have been cleared with more careful editing.
My detailed review of this book is published here in Kitaab


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