Reality Is Fantasy in 'The Last Wild Men of Borneo'

Carl Hoffman's latest book explores two lives and the surprising way in which they began to interact

Bruno Manser in Sarawak, Malaysia, 1986. (Alberto Venzago/Bruno Manser Fon)
bruno manser

The island of Borneo has long conjured powerful Western fantasies of the exotic—a place of steep mountains, impenetrable forests, and Stone Age tribes. A place where spirits lurk, and where men can simply vanish. It’s proven to be the perfect backdrop on which to project romantic notions about Rousseau’s natural man and the noble savage, as well as an irresistible beacon to those seeking to leave modern life behind.

In The Last Wild Men of Borneo, out March 6, journalist Carl Hoffman recounts the lives of two Westerners who heeded the island’s siren song in the 1970s and 1980s, whose lives were defined by the island, and who in turn helped define the island to the outside world.

The first, Swiss Bruno Manser, lived among the nomadic Penan for the better part of a decade, becoming as close to being a member of the tribe as a white man ever has, eventually organizing them against the logging companies decimating their home forests and becoming an icon of the international conservation movement before disappearing without a trace in 2000. The second, American tribal-art dealer Michael Palmieri, left California on the hippie trail, bouncing from Mexico to India to Nepal to Afghanistan, learning the smuggling and black-market game along the way, before alighting in the paradise of prelapsarian Bali. Once there, he began exploring the most remote parts of Borneo, acquiring pieces of tribal art that now reside in museums and private collections around the world.

Hoffman is himself an accomplished wanderer. His previous book, Savage Harvest, investigated the disappearance of another Westerner gone native (Michael Rockefeller) on an enchanted isle (New Guinea). As such, he brings a level of understanding and empathy, as well as a whole lot of dogged shoe-leather reporting, from commissioning translations of Manser’s journals and letters to spending weeks traversing Borneo with Palmieri and further weeks in the jungle with the Penan themselves. The end result is partly a twin biography of these two men, partly a sociological and historical account of Borneo, and partly a first-rate adventure story. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and the toggling between the men’s stories doesn’t always work seamlessly, but in the end it adds up to a compelling, readable book. (Disclosure: Hoffman and I are professional acquaintances, and I was thanked in the acknowledgements section of Savage Harvest for some limited advice I offered on traveling in the region.)

Initially, Manser and Palmieri appear to be complete opposites. The ascetic Manser, after conscientiously objecting to military service, left his Basel home and spent a dozen years high in the Alps as a shepherd, living in a shack without modern conveniences, sewing his own clothes, and giving himself a full practical education in pastoral self-sufficiency, all while undertaking ever more daring explorations of peaks and caves in the surrounding area and beyond. When Manser saw a picture of a Penan tribesman in a library book, a fuse was lit: here was a people living in harmony with the forest, drawing all they needed from it, fully apart from the materialism of the Western world. In 1984, after inviting himself on a British caving expedition in Borneo, Manser walked off into the jungle to find the Penan and didn’t look back. He learned the language, adopted their manner of dress—loincloth, rattan bracelets, and a curious mullet-style haircut—and became adept at hunting. Before long, he had fully integrated into Penan life.

Manser, Hoffman writes, “had a purity, a recklessness that attracted people,” a gift for inspiring others to join his cause, and he was soon helping organize Penan anti-logging efforts, mostly in the form of human-chain roadblocks across the newly cut dirt roads. The timber interests and their government sponsors were not amused, and he was soon a wanted man with a price on his head. Manser evaded arrest, and gunfire, twice, spending years hidden in the jungle by the Penan, before finally escaping and returning to Switzerland in 1990, where he began rallying greater international attention to the cause of Borneo’s deforestation and set up the Bruno Manser Fund. He became the (white) face of the cause, and as his celebrity grew, there was no shortage of acolytes and profiles. In 1991, Manser was named “Outsider of the Year” by this magazine for his conservation work.

Palmieri, by contrast, was a proto-hippie, a movie-star handsome California surfer who headed south from Mexico in the early years of the Vietnam War to dodge the draft and ended up moving from Paris to Goa to Kathmandu to Kabul, trafficking in various goods along the way. He was a naturally gregarious force of nature and made friends by the dozen wherever he went, among them the Afghan crown prince Shah Mahmood Khan, who, Palmieri claims, engaged him to smuggle the crown jewels out of the country to Europe as the royal family fell out of favor. (In a classic hustle, he preferred to return to Kabul each time overland, driving a newly purchased Mercedes, which the prince helped him sell for a tidy profit on arrival.)

Finally, he arrived in Borneo and began collecting rattan baskets from the Dayak people of the upper Mahakam River and elsewhere. He sold them quickly to the other hippies then beginning to flow into Bali and began returning to Borneo frequently, quickly working his way up to bigger objects and increasingly daring adventures. He soon became a regular presence in the longhouses up and down the region’s rivers, hustling, cajoling, and buying items that were increasingly valuable in the booming market for “primitive art.” Palmieri would become one of the world’s foremost dealers of such art, spending his life in the ethical gray area that such objects often inhabit. As Hoffman writes, “All tribal art is sacred art.”

The lives of Palmieri and Manser intersected just once, in an open-air café in Kuching, Sarawak’s capital city. It was 1999, just a year before Manser disappeared. “There was a guy sitting at one of the tables alone…A little guy with funny glasses,” Palmieri told Hoffman, while sitting with him at the same café. He didn’t know it was Manser until afterward, and though initially he was standoffish, Palmieri broke the ice. “It was nothing, really. We didn’t say anything profound. Just shot the shit. Two travelers out there in the world.” The account has a bit of the pixie dust of many of Palmieri’s tales—could such a meet-cute really have happened?—but then that’s part of the magic of this book: that in the hazy equatorial air of a place peopled by such outsized characters, anything was possible, or at least many things were.

The yin and yang aspect of this pairing is obvious—the idealist and the buccaneer, the monk and the hedonist, the ascetic and the capitalist, one focused on going in, the other on bringing things out. Manser is described early in the book by his best friend as “a collector of experiences” rather than things, and Palmieri was the consummate collector of things. But of course it’s not that simple—nothing in Borneo, it seems, ever is—and the odd coupling is sort of the point: in the end, though they viewed the world through different lenses, a similar impulse drove them both.

“They had sprung from a group, a tribe, that they didn’t feel a part of any longer,” Hoffman writes, and their search for a place where they belonged led them both to the mythical island of Borneo, with all of its spiritual power and complications. (One other thing the two men had in common, and which helps the book immensely, is ego: neither of them was shy about documenting and discussing their exploits.)

At times, as Hoffman bounces back and forth between the two stories, the reader will be left wanting more of one or the other, or perhaps even wishing the entire book was focused on just one of them. But the pairing yields surprises and a number of insights, many sprung from the fact that both Manser and Palmieri arrived in Borneo at what Hoffman rightly calls a “pivotal moment.”

“Modernity was creeping upriver” in the form of Christian missionaries, timber companies, and government officials bringing notions of “progress” that would gradually erode the very things that drew them there. Palmieri was in some ways a harbinger of the future, a realist who brought the market to Borneo’s prehistoric villages and has, despite the ethical murkiness of that market, helped preserve a part of a cultural legacy that might otherwise have been destroyed, burned, and forgotten. These pieces, Hoffman writes, are “physical manifestations of a lost world, a lost way of living.” (The ethics of that market, and the way those objects are viewed by museumgoers in places a world away, are fascinating subjects touched on briefly in the book.)

Manser, for all his organizing and proselytizing and sneaking in and out of Borneo throughout the 1990s, had been unable to stem the tide and grew increasingly despondent. The logging continued, and the Penan were still endangered, and he was still a white outsider. In the period before he disappeared in 2000, his friends tell Hoffman, Manser seemed to have lost all hope, so when he disappeared in the vicinity of a peak called Batu Lawi, in the Kelabit Highlands, those closest to Manser believe it was at least partly intentional. He’d gone too far, become a man with a foot in two worlds but a home in neither. It was six months before an extensive search was mounted, but by then it was too late. No trace of him was ever found. By the time Hoffman comes onto the scene, in 2016, the trail is even colder and cracking the Manser mystery isn’t even a remote possibility.

“The art of life is to grow old but not lose your beliefs as you do. Or, if you lose them, to find new ways to be glad to be alive,” says Georges Ruegg, one of Manser’s closest friends from his shepherding days. “But Bruno lost all his beliefs and he crashed. He couldn’t evolve, and that’s the tragedy.”

Palmieri was better able to roll with the punches. He remains in Bali, still trading in antiquities, still able to summon the old joviality and spin a fantastic story, though some of the magic seems to have gone out of it for him. Bali is choked with tribal-tattooed tourists seeking enlightenment through beachfront yoga, and the mountain jungles of Borneo are now mostly denuded, replanted with hundreds of thousands of acres of palm oil plantations. Hoffman accompanies Palmieri on a buying trip across Borneo, and it is hard not to be struck by the sadness of it all, by the futility of hunting for treasure in a world where it’s all been found, hauled out of the longhouses and the caves and the tombs by Palmieri and the legions of copycats who came in his wake. “We were combing through the wreckage of acculturation,” Hoffman writes of their journey, during which the primary use for Palmieri’s finely tuned eye was in plucking the few real pieces from the sea of increasingly crafty fakes.

But Palmieri is, in a way, as trapped by the parameters of his own outsized life story as Manser was. He, too, straddles a line between worlds. He watches American college football on satellite TV, but he hasn’t been American for a long time. He’s a refugee both geographically and temporally, a man out of step with time. “You could never go back. Not in time, not in culture, not to your old home country where you hadn’t lived for any extended time in 50 years,” Hoffman writes of Palmieri. “But you could enjoy the ride, and I had to admire Michael’s stamina and his passion for life.”

It is in the book’s final section where the stories come together and Hoffman’s strengths really shine. He recounts his walkabout with one of the last Penan families still clinging to the nomadic way of life, moving through some of the same jungles Manser traversed, guided by the descendants of those whom Manser knew. This Penan family is a remnant, most of their fellow tribesmen long settled in longhouses and villages, with Christianity and satellite TV. But here was a glimpse of the forest dynamos Manser had lived among, a glimpse of the living poetry of their daily life, and also its hardships. “The Penan had nothing, but they had everything.” Though they and their territory are diminished, and their walk takes them across logging roads and into cellphone range, and they are confined to ever smaller quadrants of forest, the Penan are not an illusion. The way of life they show Hoffman offers some sense of what’s been lost and of what Manser and Palmieri found all those years ago.

Filed To: Books / Media / Culture / Conservation
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