Thursday, August 21, 2008


>>Now this is a REALLY GOOD BOOK, ladies, the kind you can enjoy whether you are a HUMAN, a FISH, or SOMETHING IN BETWEEN. Of course the gals in that last category get THE MOST FUN OF ALL, feeling as they do the DELICIOUS TICKLE of getting both the DRY and the WET humor, simultaneously.

>>The book is copyrighted 2004 to the author, published by HarperCollins. It was originally published under the title The Last Heathen.

>>This story is the personal travelogue of a journalist, Charles Montgomery, following in the tracks of his great-grandfather, Henry Montgomery, an Anglican missionary who went 100 years ago to TAME THE CANNIBALS in the island chains belonging to the Melanesian group in the South Pacific. What a long, weary, upsetting, enlightening trip this feller had! And WHAT A JOB Squinky, the Pacific Zone Leader, and her operatives had REELING THIS ONE IN.

>>Was he successfully recruited, you ask? Would I SPOIL THE ENDING for you, readers? Come on!

>>I can tell you lots of other things about the book, though. The part of me that STILL IDENTIFIES AS HUMAN gave fervent thanks that I live in the USA. Not many people are thankful lately to live in Detroit, but having read this book, I am even thankful to live in the secret sub-basement of the residence of the beleaguered mayor. The potential risk of a devastating police raid, and the discovery of our operation here, seems so small and unimportant compared to what Charles Montgomery went through in Melanesia.

>>I mean, dig it, this guy had the mother of all lousy trips. He was about as far as a Canadian can get from his home base, for one thing. He had a finite amount of money to work with a HUGE goals. For his mother's sake, he was searching for some trace of his great-grandfather's nobility and integrity, the inspiration that kept him going on what must have been an even more brutal passage, if you consider what missionaries went through 100 years ago. For his own, he was looking for something very elusive indeed: real live heathens in a world where the most remote, inaccessible island still offers a passable Chinese dinner and a $5 coffee topped with whipped cream, American-style.

>>Every boat ride from one island to the next was worst than the last. That part of the book seemed unending. He starts out the action part of the book by recounting, in the tone of a man recalling his recurring nightmare, about "when the vomiting begins." Not just his own, either -- on every trip he was surrounded by wretched landlubbers who had probably never heard of Dramamine, barf buckets sliding to and fro with every heavy swell, trying to sleep in a "first-class cabin" which consists of a square of bare floor in a room shared with 60 strangers, 45 of whom are upchucking at any given moment. At every moment he was in the presence of grinding poverty, wars fought with machine guns, magic and home-made tanks fashioned from old ice-cream trucks, and hundreds of people who communicated with half-understandable pidgin English. THE WHOLE TRIP was like this.

>>Also, the poor man appeared to be surrounded, and courted, not only by OUR operatives...but by missionaries. The effort to convince the cannibals to step into the shining light of Jesus has apparently never ended in Melanesia. And it's not just Anglicans anymore. There are Seventh-Day Adventists out there converting like mad, Catholics marching in formation, probably Lutherans and Baptists and who knows who else. Floating above them all is a strange group, respected by all yet understood by none, called the tasiu. They seem like absolutely decent, good guys, wafting about settling disputes and such with a quick prayer or by running between the battle lines in a shootout. The trouble is that they seem to want to wipe out what on all the islands is called kastom, traditional beliefs in ancestor worship, sorcery, and -- most important for our purposes here -- direct contact with the spirit world through FISH, CROCODILES, SEASHELLS, and SHOREBIRDS. You get the idea.

>>I think this passage explains a great deal of why I think this book is important reading, even for a Midwestern operative working undercover as a diesel mechanic:

"The ghosts of other ancestors inhabited the bodies of sharks, alligators, octopuses, snakes, and birds. With secret knowledge, a man could win the favor of a shark ancestor, and that shark would come when called; it would herd schools of fish into his net. It would also devour his enemies...
"There wasn't just one holy ghost in Melanesia; there were thousands of them." (pg. 12)

>> See the connection? THIS IS EXACTLY HOW WE WANT OUR RECRUITS TO THINK. We must become, in the eyes of these superstitious monkeys, THE SOURCE OF ALL GOOD. The source of the one thing they want: POWER. Melanesia is populated with thousands of people who STILL UNDERSTAND THIS.


>>The MESSAGE OF HOPE in this book is that the islanders AREN'T HAVING IT. Wherever he goes, Montgomery seems to find pockets, or whole islands full, of people who believe what their ancestors believed, who practice what their ancestors practiced. They simply fold the Christian beliefs into their standing belief system, framing Jesus as a powerful ancestor from far away, with not quite as much mojo as the local ones. And yet a lot of these people spend hours every week in church, which the author finds a bit unsatisfactory. LITTLE DOES HE UNDERSTAND ABOUT THE TRUE NATURE OF CONCEALMENT. Do you think we LIKE listening to those boring-ass sermons? Has HE ever tried wearing devotional black, day in and day out, up on Equatorial dry land? Sucks, dude. WE HAVE OUR REASONS, BELIEVE ME. He doesn't seem to really get that these people MEAN it when they patiently explain that they can't show him any real magic, can't tell him everything he wants to know. He wouldn't get it. And they would be giving up some of their power to him for nothing.

>>The other thing Montgomery never seems to really grasp is that if he DID find any old-school cannibals on one of these islands, he'd pretty much be DINNER, wouldn't he? As many times as he ponders and rehashes the dreadful fate of Bishop Patteson, the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, he seems not to fully appreciate this point. As Henry Limpet said, be careful what you wish!

>>The chapter I think you'll enjoy most is 18, starting on page 275, "Under The Langa Langa Lagoon." But this book isn't like an Agatha Christie, that allows you to skip to the last page to get to the good part. Unless you've been reading carefully up to that point, the whole chapter will slide off you, meaningless. And in fact, Montgomery himself makes clear that the full import of these events didn't sink in for him for a long, long time, and HE WAS THERE. I want you all to bear that FIRMLY IN MIND as you read. This book isn't about the destination; it's about how seasick you can get on the journey with ever giving up the goal.

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Blogger Ur-spo said...

wow that does sound like a thumping good read!

11:11 PM  

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