Q. & A.: Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Two Adventurers on Very Different Missions to Borneo


What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

Both Bruno and Michael are the absolute opposite of 9-to-5 kind of people. When you think about growing older and getting stuck in these troughs of life from which you can’t escape, you don’t think of someone like Bruno or Michael. But both, in their extraordinary lives, got a little stuck on tracks from which they couldn’t escape.

Photo

Carl Hoffman

Credit
Richard Kerris

Bruno’s story is tragic. What’s a guy to do who just wants to live with hunter-gatherers in the jungle when there are no more hunter-gatherers to live with? He couldn’t go back home and live in Switzerland. Michael is very American in so many ways. He lives in Bali and has satellite TV and loves football. But he can’t go home either, and he lives in this weird netherworld.

Michael isn’t super-reflective about his own life, and in some ways he’s the more successful of the two; I don’t mean monetarily, but just in navigating life. But he’s in his 70s, and I think he’s looking at life and wondering what he did and what he achieved, like we all do.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

My sympathies changed as I wrote the book. Bruno is this Jesus-like figure. He moved people because he was so authentic, dedicated, single-minded and pure. But that purity was also a selfish purity. He alienated the people closest to him. When you’re pure and there’s no compromise, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to turn if things don’t work. Despite all his incredible work — and it was selfless, the miles traveled and the hunger strikes — he failed in saving any of the forest and he ended up dead. As sad as the Penan situation is now, there are Penan who are becoming educated, who want more modern lives and yet retain an essence of their Penan-ness. But that was unacceptable to Bruno.

Michael was the buccaneer going out into the world for pure adventure, but he ended up mostly content. Who is the better person? In the end, I feel an incredible admiration for Bruno, but I also think he was kind of nuts. A main theme of the book is that the saint-like figure is maybe not that saintly; and the person who on the surface is more of a sinner isn’t really at all, and that life is complicated.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

My parents. My mother loved fiction and my father loved old-school journalism. They wanted to be writers, but they couldn’t. I mean, they could write a nice letter, but my dad tried a couple of times to write a book and he couldn’t finish anything. There was a seed planted for me: I got all that love of writing and literature from them, but I also wanted to leap beyond them and show them that it could be done.

Persuade someone to read “The Last Wild Men of Borneo” in 50 words or less.

It’s a wild ride. On the one hand, it’s this rip-roaring tale of arrests and smuggling, but it also explores stereotypes of how we view indigenous people. It leaves you with some heavy thoughts and questions that will shake up your world.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Review: ‘Transmissions’ Evokes a Climate (Poetic, With a Chance of Ballet)


Kirstein’s taste, often controversial — he was strongly opposed to both Manet and Matisse — is a common factor in much of this show. He championed Tchelitchew as well as Nadelman; he had caught the final seasons of the Diaghilev company in Europe and, four years later, brought Balanchine (Diaghilev’s last choreographer) to America. High among the realist artists he praised was his brother-in-law, the painter Paul Cadmus. Paintings by Cadmus and by PaJaMa (a collective name for Cadmus, Cadmus’s lover Jared French and French’s wife, Margaret French) hang on the “Transmissions” walls. One of the people shown is the dancer José Martinez, Kirstein’s lover.

Although Kirstein made ballet the central part of his vast operation, Nadelman and the photographer Walker Evans (also represented here) were two of the many artists he admired who had no connection to ballet. “Transmissions,” like Kirstein, does not stay in one box. Other photographers here, often depicting dance as Evans did not, are Carl Van Vechten and George Platt Lynes.

The display of Lynes (1907-55) pictures is where the exhibition most evidently connects ballet to overtly gay art. (The images shown here come from the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, which houses his originals.) Lynes made many intensely poetic studio images of dancers and choreography. They impressed Balanchine in particular with their sense of light, darkness and drama. No less poetically, he was also a pioneer of homosexual photography. His work certainly anticipated that of Robert Mapplethorpe; its imagery and contrasts are often more touching.

Photo

A Carl Van Vechten photograph from the series projected on the wall in “Transmissions.”

Credit
Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

If you want to see how gay photography can be admirable art and memorable pornography at the same time, start here. One photo shows a nude man whose anus is the focal point; another, not shocking but striking, is a full frontal nude view of the dancer Nicholas Magallanes. Two 1934 Lynes pictures show three male dancers from the all-black cast of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” recumbent on the floor, calmly nude, intimately juxtaposed. In one picture, they’re grouped with their choreographer, Frederick Ashton, kneeling, elegantly attired in suit and tie.

Van Vechten, a complex figure who touched several arts and aspects of society, had been intelligently passionate about ballet since before World War I. His photographs, most dating from the 1940s and ’50s, are full of information — but some tip matters decidedly over into the tastelessly tasteful, ego-flaunting, offbeat area known as camp. Although he took pictures in color, they’ve been almost invariably published in his inferior black-and-white reproductions. In “Transmissions,” however, a series of some 800 of his originals are projected on a large screen.

In several cases, the color makes them far more peculiar. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin — British ballet stars central to this era of dance in America — are shown in a wide range of roles. Seen in close-up, they often look precious, combining lurid hues and aesthetic flamboyance. Dolin is also seen in a number of nude poses, far from full frontal, but startlingly self-dramatizing. This man was famous as one of ballet’s princes? You’d never guess from the poses he strikes when naked here. Van Vechten’s photos are fascinating but quaint: They often accentuate ballet’s glamorous triviality rather than its more profound capacity for drama.

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