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Heart of Darkness

KALIMANTAAN, by C.S. Godshalk (A Marian Wood Book / Henry Holt; 472 pp., $25)

April 05, 1998|RICHARD EDER

In the 1840s, James Brooke left the service of Britain's East India Company to go it alone. Landing in Sarawak on the north coast of Borneo, he helped the forces of the sultan of Brunei put down a rebellion of the native Dyaks; in return, the sultan granted him suzerainty.

For the next 100 years, the Brooke family, the so-called White Rajahs of Sarawak, ruled under the auspices and with the occasional assistance of the British crown. The Japanese drove them out; after Japan was defeated, the Brooke heir ceded the territory to Britain, which later incorporated it into the new nation of Malaysia.

C.S. Godshalk has spent 10 years traveling, researching, imagining and--to judge by her incantatory writing--dreaming of the life and times of the first White Rajah. The result is "Kalimantaan," a spectacular book and at times a superb one. Ostensibly a novel, it is in some ways more than that and, perhaps for that reason, somewhat less.

Her protagonist, dynamic, unscrupulous and humanly elusive, is given the name of Gideon Barr; the other figures also receive fictional names. Some of them may be entirely made up, but Godshalk seems to work her imagination by rules: Respect the historical accounts as written and invent lavishly and justifiably in all their large gaps and wide variations. Like a bard recounting an epic, she weaves versions together, uses a strong and inflected voice to summon up characters and deeds and speaks out not only to tell a story but to convey a vision.

Although the exploits of Barr stand initially in the foreground, Godshalk's main purpose is not to portray a remarkable--and crippled--figure. Her Barr, bull in a Third World china shop, is never entirely seen. It is the china shop that interests the author and what happens when the bull and his herd erupt in it.

Godshalk is fascinated by, and makes fascinating, the thunderous incongruity of colonial incursion: the whites' illusion of civilization and control, the utterly alien world they sought to master, the atrocious violence they incur and inflict and the disintegration they undergo. In Godshalk's heart of darkness, it is not just the Kurtzes who are undone but the Marlowes as well.

The author presents Barr as a young man obsessed with establishing a realm of his own on the fringes of Empire. Rather shakily, she makes it a mission of filial reclamation: His mother, married to a colonial official, died and was buried in the Kalimantaan region south of Sarawak. Barr keeps writing her letters nonetheless, a device which, like a number of other fictional hares, the author starts and does not pursue.

Her account of how he secures his kingdom is fascinating, meshing brilliantly with a portrait of imperial politics and maneuverings in the Malay Archipelago. Using an inheritance, he fits out an armed sloop and explores the Borneo coast. He gets nowhere until the British naval commander, Homer Kincale--a wonderfully odd and Machiavellian figure--sends him as envoy to a Brunei vice regent in Sarawak.

Barr assists him in putting down the rebellion of tribesmen in the interior; then in a series of chilling, masterfully described maneuvers, he consolidates his power, establishing a network of British district agents to keep order.

It is a divide-and-conquer strategy. The interior of Sarawak is home to fiercely rival headhunting tribes, and Barr ruthlessly uses one against the other. Ruthlessness edges into madness in the person of Hogg, Barr's cousin, who avenges the killing of two other district agents with a two-year genocidal rampage of slaughter and burning aimed, as he explains, at setting a firm example.

Compelling as these sections are--Godshalk evokes poetically and specifically the weather and spirit-haunted landscapes of inland Borneo--her finest writing portrays the precarious European colony in Kuching, Sarawak's ramshackle capital. The straggling collection of ministers, agents and merchants and their families is undermined by its isolation from the alien world inland, by the oppressive heat and by the intolerable lushness of nature. One wife breaks down, taping up her bodily orifices to keep out parasites. Another longs for English spring: "Nothing begins here," she complains of the year-round tropical gorgeousness.

The unnatural condition of the settlement is made more evident by its precariousness. Barr, coldly talented at getting and holding power, is hopeless at finance and commerce. Efforts to exploit Sarawak's mineral and agricultural resources peter out; English investors turn cool. The place faces bankruptcy, its only regular financial resource being the tax paid by the Chinese who run the opium-smuggling trade.

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