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Book Review – The Last Wild Men of Borneo

I love books that weave a historical drama into a web of events that were occurring in the same timeframe. In his book ‘The Last Wildmen of Borneo’ Carl Hoffman weaves together the stories of two very different modern-day adventurers who venture into the unchartered depths of the jungles of Borneo in the 1970s and 1980s with very different missions.

Bruno Manser, who was born in Switzerland, was an unusual and charismatic character, whose round glasses gave him the appearance of John Lennon. Manser’s life journey was one of extreme isolation and endurance that took him to many places in search of himself. He finally found what he was looking for in the Penan people, who lived a largely untouched lifestyle in the jungles of Borneo. As the logging companies moved in and started to rip out the trees that were an important part of the lives of the Penan people, without compensating them, Manser became an activist, which was completely out of character for someone who just wanted to blend in. His activities fell foul of important politicians who were intrinsically involved in the logging industry, and eventually, he had to flee in fear for his life. But this did not stop his activism. Hoffman, through interviewing friends and family recreates the story of Manser’s journey. He also undertakes a journey into the Bornean jungle to meet the Penan people and get a taste of what Manser would have experienced.

American Michael Palmieri is, in many ways, Bruno’s opposite. He left the United States in the late 1960s to avoid being conscripted into the Vietnam War. His travels then took him through Iran, Pakistan and Nepal, where earned money from smuggling products for various nefarious people. His journey eventually brought him to Bali in Indonesia in the 1970s where he started to trade in antiquities from Borneo from the Dayak tribes. This took him deep into the unexplored parts of the island. He would become one of the world’s most successful tribal-art field collectors, supplying sacred works to prestigious museums and wealthy private collectors. Hoffman travels to Bali and meets up with Palmieri, who is now in his 70s and escorts him on one of his trips to Borneo in search of more treasures.

The paths of Palmieri and Manser crossed only once with an informal, off-chance meeting in a coffee shop in Kuching, Sarawak.

Although on the surface, Palmieri appears to be more of a pirate than a benefactor, Hoffman’s research questions whether each man was a saint or sinner – the answer is unclear.

Title:The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure
Author:Carl Hoffman
Publisher:Mariner Books; 1st edition (March 6, 2018)
Available:Amazon; Barnes & Noble
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