A Swiss expat named Bruno Manser entered the jungles of Borneo in 1984 hoping to wipe away any vestiges of modern life. For a while, he did just that.
Another expat, an American named Michael Palmieri, ventured into the same territory, starting in the 1970s, hoping to bring back art and artifacts of a vanishing native culture.
These yin-yang adventurers crossed paths on at least one occasion – a happenstance meeting at a Chinese food court in Kuching, the capital of the state of Sarawak in Borneo.
“He and I were different, but after just a minute of talking we both recognized a similar impulse,” Palmieri said years later, during a trip to some of those past haunts with author Carl Hoffman. “We were both obsessed. I wanted to be a Victorian pirate, the Rajah of Borneo. And he wanted to be one of them, a Penan (tribe member).”
Palmieri realized who Manser was moments after they parted without introduction, as he later recounted to Hoffman.
A year after that meeting with Palmieri, Manser disappeared in the Borneo jungles, never to be seen or heard from again. Palmieri, an aging art buccaneer and former Vietnam draft dodger, remains very much alive today, now in his 70s. (Manser, faced with the Swiss military draft, refused to serve and instead went to jail for four months in the mid-'70s.)
For the past 40 years, Palmieri has called Bali home, his base for a seemingly endless series of art expeditions to Borneo and beyond. On those expeditions – filled with bugs, heat, storms, and innumerable potential perils – Palmieri developed a keen eye for meaningful native art while painstakingly building trust with the Dayak tribes in particular.
Hoffman made a miraculous find of his own when he stumbled into Palmieri, who just happened to be the perfect guide for a nonfiction writer obsessed with Borneo and the strange odyssey of Bruno Manser. The combination of author, guide and subject pays off handsomely in Last Wild Men of Borneo, a real-life adventure tale sure to delight fans of David Grann (“The Lost City of Z”) and Jon Krakauer (“Into Thin Air,” “Into the Wild”).
Manser spent years as a child hurling himself into nearby woods as refuge from a cramped family apartment in Basel, eventually leading to 10 years as a no-frills shepherd and adventurer in the Alps as a young adult. That, in turn, left him fixated on the idea of going to Borneo and living like a native Penan tribesman.
Remarkably, he pulled it off, initially embarking on a near-suicidal jungle path before eventually wandering into a band of Penan and, through sheer will and stubbornness, winning them over. Manser was fearless, climbing and wandering through remote areas where a single slip or fall could have left him helpless.
In 1989, a pit viper bit Manser. Lacking medicine or access to professional treatment, he wound up sequestered in a makeshift dwelling in the middle of nowhere. The bite left Manser unable to walk for months and, at one point, reduced him to using a fishhook in an attempt to remove festering infection from his leg. (You’ll be shocked to learn his home remedy failed; Hoffman includes diary excerpts from Manser describing the ordeal – excerpts grisly enough to make Tom Hanks’ self-dentistry in “Cast Away” seem like a sitcom.)
Over a six-year period, Manser corresponded from remote Borneo with letters to a handful of friends and relatives in Switzerland but otherwise shunned contemporary life. He adapted to and adopted Penan customs, wearing a loincloth, learning to hunt, and pursuing a nomadic life in the rainforests. Throughout the book, Hoffman alternates between Manser’s immersion in Penan life and Palmieri’s winding path to prodigious collector and seller of Dayak carvings, sculptures, and other artifacts, many of which Palmieri barters for and brings back out of the jungle and sells to museums and private buyers.
Hoffman avoids stereotyping, pointing out that while Manser and Palmieri both, to varying degrees, pursued the clichéd notion of a purer, more spiritual life through Eastern culture, neither the tribesmen nor the expat interlopers truly stepped out of the present. The author offers a very good reason why this didn’t occur: It’s impossible. A nomadic tribe or tribes in Borneo in the late-20th century may have lived differently than urban or suburban contemporaries, but, even so, their knowledge of the technology-driven society beyond (no matter how vague) and their interactions with people such as Manser, Palmieri, not to mention decades of encounters with colonialists and government officials, guaranteed the Penan and Dayaks couldn’t live exactly as their ancestors did. The world always changes and no one can escape that constant.
Or, as Hoffman writes of Manser: “He was a brother, someone they trusted – after all, they called him Penan Man. But he wasn’t one of them; he was a white man, a westerner, and as such represented an outside power and affluence out of the Penan people’s reach and from which he could never escape, that he could never wash off no matter what rivers he bathed in or how he cut his hair or how well he hunted.”
Manser became an ambitious motivator and strategist behind Penan protest campaigns to stop or at least slow rapidly encroaching deforestation. That activism spurred media and government scrutiny, setting Manser on the run from authorities who wanted to arrest him. These controversies turned him into an international celebrity in environmental circles. After coming out of the jungle – for a while, anyway – Manser traveled extensively and promoted preservation in Borneo while meeting admirers such as Al Gore. In 1991, Outside magazine named Manser its Outsider of the Year.
As for stopping the logging that wiped out much of the Penan homeland, that campaign, despite Manser’s persistence and help from many allies, turned out as one would expect.
A year after his disappearance in 2000, the Asian edition of Time magazine put Manser on the cover. Above a photo of Manser staring straight ahead with grim determination, large letters spelled out one word: VANISHED.
Hoffman’s fascination and enthusiasm are readily apparent on every page. Combined with diligent research and a refreshing less-is-more narrative – the book goes in-depth but is devoid of notebook-dumping – “Last Wild Men of Borneo” deserves a wide audience. After turning the last page, this reader considers that all but inevitable.