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The Boston Phoenix Oedipus in Borneo

Twenty years in the writing, C. S. Godshalk's first novel is a rollicking good yarn.

By Scott Stossel

MAY 4, 1998: 

KALIMANTAAN, by C.S. Godshalk. Henry Holt, 472 pages, $25.

C.S. Godshalk's Kalimantaan is a book whose physical beauty seems to invite disappointment. Here, the publisher would have us think, is a book of richness and sensuality, history and adventure, beauty and tragedy. And here, the jaded reader consequently anticipates, is a book whose insubstantiality has been vainly masked with rococo decoration and extravagant production costs.

Happily, the jaded reader is wrong. Kalimantaan really is full of richness and sensuality, history and adventure, beauty and tragedy; it is easily worthy of its presentation. In fact, Kalimantaan is the rare novel that restores, if only for a few hours, the immersion experience of childhood reading.

Which is not to suggest that there is anything immature about Godshalk's first novel. Nearly 20 years in the writing, Kalimantaan is the story of a private raj established by a young Englishman on the north coast of Borneo. Fueled by powerful Oedipal longings, Gideon Barr sets sail in 1838 on the Carolina Barr (named, of course, for his mother, who died in Borneo when he was a child), with images culled from exotic Southeast Asian travel narratives dancing in his head.

There is something delectably creepy about the whole Freudian enterprise, this "temple of rivers and forts and mines he erected to some vapid corpse." As someone acquainted with Barr observes years after he has established his little kingdom, if his stupid, nondescript mother had so much as feigned affection for him, he would have ended up practicing medicine in Kent. Instead, he embarks on a quixotic imperialist adventure, establishing in the wilds of the Malay Archipelago an outpost of Western civilization whose size ultimately comes to rival England's. If Jay Gatsby has until now been the unquestioned standard by which American literature's great self-creators are measured, he has a rival in Barr. Gatsby made himself a millionaire on the strength of his love for Daisy Buchanan; Barr made himself the ruler of a civilization on the strength of his love for his dead mother.

This is an epic novel, its story unfolding over more than half a century. It begins with tantalizing snippets of Barr's childhood, recounts his arrival in Borneo, and then takes us through decades of building, negotiating, trading, warring, hunting, empire-expanding, loving, and dying as Barr builds his formidable raj. The narrative is, at times, almost biblical in its authorial distance. But Godshalk, who has had two pieces included in Best American Short Stories collections, has a prose style that is alternately lyrical and lapidary -- in a word, beautiful. Sentences of crisp simplicity follow sentences so absurdly long and languorous that they read, out of context, like Victorian relics. But though Kalimantaan does take place during the Victorian era (Barr has an audience with the Queen herself), and though Godshalk's prose does sometimes veer into Trollopian preciousness, the novel's sensibility is quintessentially modernist. Indeed, the specter of Joseph Conrad haunts its pages, not least because the real-life character on which Barr is modeled was also the inspiration for Conrad's Lord Jim.

But for all its Victorian trappings and modernist devices, Kalimantaan is at base a rollicking good yarn with a cinematically exotic cast of characters. There is Gideon Barr, a living paean to Freud, a Bornean Don Quixote; there is Fitzhugh, who is outlandishly fat, foppish, pink, and homosexual, as well as the most effective fort commander in the raj; there is Barr's younger cousin Hogg, a brutal but brilliant troop commander whose apparently pathological viciousness is leavened by his predilection for French poetry and his tender, enduring love for another man's plain-looking wife; there is Kilcane, the older English seaman who becomes Barr's mentor (and maybe lover) and who imparts essential wisdom with a howwible wisp like Elmer Fudd's; there is Cates, the unmarried governess who comes to love her charges as if they were her own children (or does she love them as she would a lover?) and then has them taken away from her; and there are many, many more.

It is through Barr's wife's eyes, however, that we get the most accurate picture of the raj. Advised by Kilcane to get married for status's sake, Barr reluctantly travels back to England to woo a cousin he has never met and ends up marrying her daughter, Melie, whom he brings -- terrified and alone -- back to Borneo. Over the years, she overcomes her initial loneliness and adjusts to colonial life -- only to find herself racked by tragedy and betrayal, buffeted by the harsh vicissitudes of the land her husband has tried to make over in his own image.

The marriage of Gideon and Melie is the central relationship in a novel that is all about relationships waxing and waning, then waxing and waning again. Love and birth are the regenerative forces in a land perennially ravaged by malaria, smallpox, cholera, floods, invasions, and untimely death. Marriages occur at the most insignificant provocation and then grow into profound unions, or occur at moments of great portentousness and then fade into oblivion. Illicit trysts abound. Burning loves roar unrequited. In short, Kalimantaan may be the wisest book about love since Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. Ambitious, beautifully written, with a richly woven tapestry of themes and ideas, it may also be the best historical novel of the past 10 years.

Scott Stossel is executive editor of the American Prospect.

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