Monday, June 28, 2010


by C. S. Godshalk

An interesting project, though not entirely a successful one. It’s late twentieth century writing in the theme and era of colonial adventure fiction, somewhat in the same mold but also working to deconstruct and reverse some main elements. While the main context is driven by an ambitious male imperialist entrepeneur, after historical and literary precedents, most of the story is told from this man’s wife. Such a viewpoint explicitly critiques imperialist violence, racism and exploitation, while also offering subversive readings of sexuality and European power. At the same time, Kalimantaan is less than fully effective as a progressive text, at times reproducing racial generalities and assumptions of a blank , hostile land waiting for colonial possession. As much as it seeks to subvert the colonial narrative, to an extent the questioning message is itself subverted by being required to work within the colonial paradigm. Perhaps the most forcement element is in sexuality, the way colonial narrative tropes are set up and then broken down in a way that actually gives (colonial) women a voice in the sexualized dynamic of exploration, conquest and rule.
Beyond eroticism the novel explores the instrumentality of women to the colonial experience, representing them as omnipresent in the developing infrastructures and wider community. In particular European women that are represented as pivotal for developing European colonialism in Borneo. This depiction involves showing the significance of colonizing women to the development of civilization, noting with the appearance of three Englishwomen in the colony that “the bones of a little society were emerging.” The importance of “civilized” women allow the settlement to be more than a small enclave, giving the origin to a wider network of social life. This tendency becomes more explicit in the reflection of how the colonies become a space to establish matrimony and explicitly further family life. As Godshalk writes: "The flush of marriages continued into summer. It would eventually culminate in a bona fide bride packet and a swelling of the dovecote, a cache of unsolicited females--governesses, nannies, sisters--come out to net husbands farther than the Indian fishing grounds." [Kalimantaan, 231]

In the light of the larger dysfunctionality of marriage as represented in the novel, the pace of marriages and opportunistic sexualities has a somewhat dystopian element. Also important is the way women form the center of the emergent society, and that they are represented as people moving to Borneo for their own distinct ambitions. While those ambitions focus on connecting with men, they nevertheless show a type of mobility and self-direction in formation of female presence in the colonies. Fundamentally this shows women in dependency, but juxtaposed with the expectations less limited than might be assumed. Women also play a role in the next stage of the colony through enabling its physical reproduction: "As the previous year had been the season of brides, the next was of babies, babies everywhere. Life surged forward with new life, indifferently. Breeding, replacing stock, she thought bitterly, her hands folded over her own swelling stomach. It was a rain of infants, a torrent of sweet young flesh, to be flushed out in storm drains, gills flapping in the mud."[ibid, 322]

The motif of disgust reappears in the highly biological metaphor used for the expression of feminine roles in the wider production of the community. The viewpoint provided here, through Amelia’s overview of change in the colony, shows women as instrumental to demographics yet heavily defined by them, physically and socially incumbered by the weight oft he next generation. The wider movement of collective life in the colony, even the consolidation of it as a collective rather than an array of individuals, is bounded in with femininity. At this moment of communal transformation men are featured less directly, and the problematic fatalism of a social order that links women to maternity emerges and is narratively critiqued. What is less prominent in the account is the way this process of babies serves as the reproduction of whiteness and colonial privilege, and the emphasis on life as an indifferent biological process can obscure the artificial process that polices boundaries of demographics. The system of political and social regulation that establishes “naturalized” racial separation for European women could be more thoroughly interrogated. This element marks a recurrent issue with Kalimantaan, the way the account marks a deep ambivalence. It is ambiguous about core concerns of masculinity and thus serves to deflate much of such justification for colonial narratives, but in the process it also excludes enough of the native presence in its imperial description to reproduce a privileged and colonial view in ways that aren’t challenged by the text. Tying femininity so centrally to the larger growth and character of the colonial society of Borneo shows both the greatest effectiveness as well as limitations in Godshalk’s paradigm as subversive to customary colonial adventure narratives.

On the more direct level of storytelling, the character moments are striking and build a good sense of immersion into the full sensory world of key colonial figures. This success at characterization and larger tone is achieved at somewhat of a drawback, however, as it accompanies and reinforces the largely plotless character of the novel, a lack of real urgency or tension in the text. The work still delivers strong insights, but the moment by moment quality of writing isn’t nearly high enough to make the book compelling against the issue of its own inertia.

Worse than: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Better than: King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

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