The Sex Lives of Cannibals

by J. Maarten Troost

44 Reviews
A book surrounded by Jurassic Park Lego characters

Review: The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004), by J. Maarten Troost. Arrangement by Francis Tann. December 2020.

Reading time: 3 minutes

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February 17th, 2021 at 1:49pm

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It sounds amazing.

In the mid 1990s, J. Maarten Troost's girlfriend Sylvia is offered a job on the atoll of Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, an island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A journalist and student of international relations without the prospect of anything better to do, Troost tags along.

"Our tickets read Washington - Newark - San Francisco - Honolulu - Johnston Atoll - Majuro - Tarawa"

Sand and sea, as far from Western civilization as one can find oneself. Who wouldn't love that, on some level?

After reading The Sex Lives of Cannibals, I suspect the answer is: many people. While the author demonstrates an affection for his hosts, he's less congenial about the food, vermin, pollution, and constant threats of gastro-intestinal disease. But at least he doesn't have to make career decisions for a while.

Background on this series is here.

The Ominous Voyage

"Our tickets," Troost writes, "read Washington - Newark - San Francisco - Honolulu - Johnston Atoll - Majuro - Tarawa, and...they were one-way tickets, causing the counter person to exclaim, Gosh."

A book surrounded by Jurassic Park Lego characters

The Pacific Ocean has always scared me. The Sex Lives of Cannibals didn't do anything to lessen that fear.

Thus begins the journey, which is lovely until Troost and Sylvia arrive on the Johnston Atoll, "the vilest place on earth," an area controlled by the US military and polluted by nuclear tests and chemical weapons disposal.

Next up is Majuro, the largest city of the Marshall Islands: a sad, ugly, roach-infested nightmare.

Finally, Tawara

And then—home. Troost declares it a beautiful place. His backyard is the ocean.

Wild dogs ravenously eat the contents of discarded diapers which have washed up on the beach.

Reality soon clouds the scenery, however.

Swimming is often interrupted by neighbors pooping off the edge of the reef. Many of the fish are toxic to consume. Wild dogs ravenously eat the contents of discarded diapers which have washed up on the beach. Troost's domestic water must be boiled because gecko lizards and rats live in the storage tank.

Some Sketches

When describing the locals (called I-Kiribati), the author doesn't indulge in simplistic, fawning tropes that smack of noble savages. He's observant, often in a funny, grumpy way, without being mean-spirited or condescending. He reminds me of a less acerbic Chuck Thompson.

A book surrounded by Jurassic Park Lego characters

Troost reminds me of a less acerbic Chuck Thompson.

A book surrounded by Jurassic Park Lego characters

Mike from New Zealand thought Midnight's Children was "baroque drivel."

The Praise

Troost admires the I-Kiribati easygoing, gentle demeanor. He's impressed with their ability to swim with sharks, survive on the open seas, and read winds and tides. He says they sing "like angels."

He acknowledges other talents, too. "Outsiders tend to believe that Samoans are the [ones] to fear. Ask a Pacific Islander, and he will tell you that the meanest, toughest, scariest islander is the drunk I-Kiribati."

The Huh?

The heavenly fighters have a few wrinkles, too.

A local custom designed to maintain equality is called bubuti, where, if you ask a family member for anything of value, they cannot refuse. This has killed entrepreneurship in Kiribati. If you make any money, along comes your least favorite nephew and...bubuti.

The author notes the natives' fondness for the days of British colonialism, explains that if you cut through the yard of an I-Kiribati family, they might kill you (literally), and in a point he wrings to diminishing effect, observes that Tarawans love the Macarena (as do the inhabitants of Maastricht and 26m YouTube visitors in the last year).

There are larger social and economic issues as well.

Alcoholism and domestic violence are common.

The government does little for the people. If one wishes to eat anything other than fish, the remedy is to wait for discontinued and unwanted stock to arrive from Australia. The hospital in Tarawa is an understaffed clinic with no resources. Masking tape covers holes in the rusted fuselages of Air Kiribati's three planes, but not completely: wind blows through the cabin during flights.

Its primary appeal was as ordeal literature: Westerner moves to Pacific island, hijinks ensue.

"At one function," Troost writes, "I asked the minister of health why cigarettes were so cheap in Kiribati. We both had a cigarette in one hand and a Victoria Bitter (beer) in the other. 'Because otherwise, the people can't afford them,' he said, an answer I liked very much."

Gina Says:

  • You told me to slap you if you ever suggest traveling to Kiribati
  • Most of the time, you aren't very complimentary of a travel book; you liked this one
  • I won't be surprised if you read another one of his books

"Baroque Drivel"

We meet a few locals, including Troost's maid and a boat captain, but I didn't finish The Sex Lives of Cannibals with a deep understanding of the I-Kiribati. I don't consider that a failure of the book, though. Its primary appeal was as ordeal literature: Westerner moves to Pacific island, hijinks ensue. That's what I enjoyed most about it.

A book surrounded by Jurassic Park Lego characters

This is not intuitive: Kiribati is pronounced Keer-uh-boss.

Aside from the narrator, the funniest character in the book was Mike, an administrative aide for the New Zealand High Commission. "His world revolved around surfing and books," Troost writes.

[Mike and I] often had deep and lively discussions about the books we read.

"What did you think of Midnight's Children?" he would ask.

"I thought it was pretty good."

"It was baroque drivel," he would inform me. "What about Infinite Jest?"

"I really liked it."

"It was the most profoundly disappointing book I have ever read."

I decided that under no circumstances would I ever let him read a word I had written.

The Return

After Troost realizes he doesn't want to end up like a Westerner named Half-Dead Fred, transfixed by a video game on Mike's computer, he and Sylvia return to Washington.

But travel, as it does, has changed them. They have a difficult time readjusting to America—the stress, the people, the cold. Eventually they move to Vanuatu and then on to Fiji. This time, Troost is better prepared for both life in the Pacific, and sorting out his career.

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