The great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) traveled widely in what was then called the East Indies and which we now know as Malaysia and Indonesia. Between 1854 and 1862 he wandered from Sumatra to New Guinea, earning his living as a bird-skin collector. He was also taking notes and keeping journals, and in 1869 he published “The Malay Archipelago,” one of the most delightful of travel accounts.
“Borneo, Celebes, Aru” is a part of that account; the early sightings of such spectacularly pristine flora and fauna — the orchids and the butterflies, the fruit, and the families of orangutans. (Though our pleasure in the latter is considerably challenged by Wallace’s habit of shooting every one of the animals he meets.)
Another part of our pleasure in Wallace’s book lies in the nature of the naturalist himself. Presented with an earthquake he does not run about: “The house began shaking with a very gentle, but rapidly increasing motion. I sat still enjoying the novel sensation for some seconds.” Subjected to the stench of the durian fruit, he digs in and then pronounces that “in fact, to eat durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience.”
He makes sage judgments (“I have never tasted good coffee where people grow it themselves.”) and is carefully balanced in all of his evaluations: “The lyre-tailed drongo-shrike, with brilliant black plumage and milk-white eyes, continually deceives the naturalist by the variety of its unmelodious notes.”
And he is aware of how he appears to others, something that few travelers acknowledge. Taken home by the Dyaks, he eats his evening meal “in the midst of a circle of about a hundred spectators anxiously observing every movement and criticizing every mouthful.”
Later, in the Aru Islands, noting the increasing accumulation of legend and fable, he meditates. “I have no doubt that to the next generation I myself shall be transformed into a magician or a demigod . . . . Future travellers would hardly believe that a poor English naturalist who had resided a few months among them, could have been the original of the supernatural being to whom so many marvels were attributed.”
If we ourselves now have difficulty in reconciling this gentle, literate, self-deprecating stylist with the intrepid killer of every orangutan he ever met, we must remember that a man is not only himself, he is also a representative of his times. Killing animals was what one did. And Wallace was most interested in getting a nice smooth skin and a good clean skeleton back to English collectors.
Also we must remember that in this edition, Wallace is only partially present. “The Malay Archipelago” is (in its only current complete edition, Pereplus, 2000) 518 pages in length — as compared to the 112 pages of this Penguin print-out. Not only is a lot of the story missing but also many characteristics of the man who wrote it.
As our contemporary attention span dwindles away to nothing at all, such practice has become common. Here we have a new series (“Penguin Great Journeys”) in which 20 books — by writers such as Herodotus and Marco Polo as well as some more modern — are cannibalized to make for fast reading. Penguin is not alone in such packaging. Almost all major publishers now present racks of paper-wrapped gobbets such as this. Any idea of the integrity of the original evaporates as soon as you open its convenient pocket-sized pages, and unless you investigate, you would never know that the original actually still exists — Penguin tells you nothing about the Pereplus edition.
Well, says the common-sense reader, at least in this truncated version the general public can learn something about Wallace and maybe get a taste for him and then dig about a bit and get at the real thing. Isn’t this convenient and fast-food edition of Wallace better than nothing?
I don’t know — and that is because I do not know if readers still “dig about,” or that bookstores still exist that carry specialist books on such things as the Malay Peninsula. I do know, however, that the complete Pereplus “Malay Peninsula” is available through Amazon.
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