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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mount Kinabalu, Love and Ghosts: Book Review

B.T. Newberg's book, Love and The Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu (GoodReads, e-book $8.00) should be required reading for anyone going to Southeast Asia seeking more than a beach vacation or three weeks of drunkenness. Instead, it is for those who come to a different place seeking something other than good times and pretty girls. It is the story of a quest for meaning, and one that stretches further than the individual to the edges of culture and beyond into an exploration of the universal human condition. The journey for the reader is not an arduous one, however, as Newberg's prose have a particular beauty all of their own.

The introduction provides a succinct summary of what one will find within in terms of subject and narrative, but it belies the deeper and moving philosophical and existential considerations that only “being an alien” can provide. Newberg, with the clarity only the perspective of afterthought can give, explores these considerations like few other authors have.
The first piece, a narrative essay called "Why Climb a Mountain?", sets the tone  for the book. It hunts down the motivations underlying the somewhat absurd idea of climbing a mountain. The brush is cleared away to reveal the search for a sense of significance in one's life.

The second piece gives its title to the book as a whole: "Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu." In this six-chapter story of romance and solitude, a young teacher revisits an ex-lover on the island of Borneo, and finds more than he bargained for. When hopes for reunion evaporate, he goes on a journey to find himself in the rotting jungles.  Meanwhile, a mountain said to be a place of ancestral spirits beckons from behind a shroud of clouds.

Finally, the last piece is a story told in letters. "Confessions of a Culture-shocked Alien" reveals the experience of the same young man three years earlier as an exchange student in Penang, where he first meets the ex-lover from the second piece. In a Muslim country as the World Trade Towers fall and his own country retaliates, he confronts a foreign culture as well as an increasingly alien America. The pitfalls and switchbacks of living abroad lead him on a journey of self-discovery.

In the first piece, “Why Climb a Mountain,” we meet our protagonist who surely is Newberg himself. We learn he has come to Borneo from somewhere (Japan, it seems) to reunite with an old flame, only to discover that he is “in love with a woman who was happier than ever and [he] had no place in the picture.” Dejected, his response is to see himself as inconsequential and insignificant and in turn he projects his feelings across humanity. We are tiny, no more than “motes of dust in the wind.” He seeks to flee, to console himself by going into the “rotting jungle,” surrounded by the smell of decay and rot away himself. To pursue such an end he starts off for a remote village even after being warned by his old lover's sisters that the villagers there will poison him. On the way, though, inspiration falls upon him, a way to test his own minuteness against something monumental. He decides to climb and “conquer” Gunung Kinabalu, Mount Kinabalu.

Mount Kinabalu is the one place in Southeast Asia that I have ever been where I've seen natural ice. Kinabalu is the tallest peak in Borneo' and is the tallest mountain in the entire Malay Archipelago. Only in the last of the Himalayas, in Myanmar, will you find a taller mountain in Southeast Asia outside of the single higher peak on vast New Guinea island in the further Pacific.  On my own soul-searching trip, at least indirectly caused by the same loss of love and subsequent soul-searching as Newberg, I too went to the market to find a raincoat and gear. As one moved into the park surrounding the mountain, itself a money-making monopoly of climbing permits and forced accommodations, one feels something unusual for Southeast Asia—cold, as you are already thousands of feet above sea level. And before you, dominating the skyline, is that rocky mountaintop, above the treeline and wrapped in the concealing vapor of clouds. One has only to see it to understand why the locals would, as Newberg writes, believe it to be a “place of ghosts . . . It was where you go after you die.”

Newberg climbs his mountain, and this inaugural essay sets the tone for the two stories that are to follow, presented backwards in time. It is this reverse sequence, seeing the aftermath of what we will learn came before, that provides the reader a critical insight. We can rest assured that Newberg, assuming he is the protagonist of all we read, emerges not with a feeling of insignificance. He does not ultimately condemn us to “rot in the jungle like a fallen coconut.” It isn't, though, because we are not minute. It isn't that we are not more than motes of dust blowing in the wind. Kami masih orang kecil—we are still little people. Instead, Newberg writes,

Mountains outscale us. They tower, they loom, they put us in our place. In their shadow, we feel insignificant. There is a sense of majesty and awe. When we climb mountains, we participate in that awe. It’s not that we become greater than the mountain, but that its greatness becomes part of us.” (my italics)

In Satre's famous essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he reminds us that man is “on the one hand, the [free] individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity.” We cannot escape ourselves as orang kecil, little people, but it is still within our power to climb mountains whether they be in the jungles of Southeast Asia or within our own hearts. This, Newberg writes, is not an insignificant fact.

Newberg's greatest strength is not his skill as an essayist, though, with a penchant for tight prose and more rumination that engagement. It is when we move to “Love and Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu” that we truly find our reward as readers. His prose are eloquent and absolutely unpretentious. It is a rare treat to read something so obviously autobiographic yet so frank and open not only about what is happening around him but also what is happening inside of him in his thoughts and imagination. As a reader one feels almost embarrassed at times, as if one had slipped in and secretly began reading a diary one had found left in open. Newberg identifies himself a a “humanistic pagan” and in fact curates the Web site Perhaps it is a philosophical commitment to naturalism and humanism that motivates him as an author to “lay bare his soul” in a way not often encountered in prose and always obscured by literary pretenses in poetry. I certainly found philosophical parallels with existential humanism, and perhaps his stylistic choices are also motivated by underlying philosophical commitments. Unlike the initial essay, however, the story isn't focused internally and rich descriptions and dialog hang like ornaments, pleasing to the mind's eye, but complimentary—there is no Byzantine excess, and throughout naturalism pervades.

The stories of Love and Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu are like a secret promise. They tell the reader what it can be like to be part of somewhere else, but at the same time, like Newberg, they keep you just on the outside. They echo in many ways that other alien author in the islands, Joseph Conrad, and Outcast of the Islands where, despite Peter Willems' life and marriage “among the natives” they ultimately remain inscrutable to him in a way that they are not for Conrad's other famous protagonist of the archipelago, Lord Jim, who “goes native” absorbing both the language and sensibilities of the culture much to the chagrin of his sponsor, Marlowe.  Both of Conrad's stories are ultimately tragedies; Newberg's is not.

While sophisticated in his understanding, Newberg remains outside the culture his stories are embedded in. In his trying to make small talk with the man he thinks is the boyfriend of his former lover, we get a sense of this outsideness: “On the way I tried to talk to Lanny. We were limited to things like, “I like curry… Do you like curry?”” The linguistic isolation of Lanny, one of the few characters we meet who cannot speak English, provides a trope for Newberg's own isolation—from his lover, who now is a wife and mother, from the culture surrounding him, and even from his own culture, having been transformed into something of an alien even at home because of the cultural accretions from his time abroad. Perhaps this is why we find him coming to Borneo not from the heartland of America but instead on his Christmas break from work in Japan.

This sense of outsideness doesn't detract from his work, however. It just makes it honest, a sense of which never leaves the reader. What we encounter is not the glorification or bastardization of a place, people or experience, but instead what seems to be an authentic retelling, a man's retrospective look at a slice of his life, defined by where he was, and the lessons and changes that time brought. As such, it has the potential to change the reader or at least to prepare the reader for transformation deeper than a Phuket tan.

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Newberg's book is available for purchase exclusively at GoodReads in .pdf and .epub format.


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