Existential Romps with Short Men

It’s now five years since my first novel, Cargo Fever, was published; and—now that my second novel has emerged out into the world—I can perhaps confess that the earlier book is one towards which I harbour both a kind of affection and also a kind of ambivalence. Affection, because I still love the characters, the setting, the strangeness of it all; and ambivalence, because I am still not sure how the book managed to find itself marketed, mistakenly I think, as an adventure yarn à la Wilbur Smith, when I’d always intended it to be more of an existential romp. But there is no shelf in the bookstore marked ‘existential romps’ (although if there were, the world, I feel, would be a better place), and so it has continued to sit on the shelves a little uneasily.

But what—you might ask—is an existential romp? The romp part is straightforward enough: what I am still very fond of about the book is its friskiness and exuberance. Cargo Fever was about a series of encounters with a badly-behaved (but, I still maintain, essentially benign) orang pendek, or ‘short man’, the forest-dwelling almost-human creature famous from Indonesian legend; and there is perhaps a thread of connection between the diminutive anti-hero of the book (who is only barely glimpsed throughout) and those creatures of Greek legend, the trickster satyrs who spent their days romping in the most shameless fashion on the hillsides, far from the gaze of towns and cities. The existential part is perhaps harder to discern, but when I started out on the book, I was intrigued by questions about the limits of what it is to be human. The Indonesian characters in the book are surrounded by almost-human and not-quite human beings: animals, gods, spirits, Westerners, ancestors; and I was intrigued by how my characters might—as the scholars would perhaps say—negotiate these boundaries. But ‘existential’ is such a heavy, leaden term and, being convinced that heaviness is an aesthetic choice rather than anything else, I wanted to play around with these questions in a much lighter fashion. As a satyr might, rather than as a scholar might.

Anyway, I was reminded of all of these questions and thoughts a couple of months ago, when I unexpectedly ran into Homo floresiensis in the Stockholm museum of Natural History, whilst I was over in Sweden in the summer. Homo floresiensis is the real-life counterpart of my orang pendek, one of the most astonishing scientific discoveries of the past decade. It was only when I was putting together the final draft of Cargo Fever back in 2004, in a cave at Liang Bua in Flores, Indonesia, they discovered the remains of what seemed, back then, to be a species of the genus Homo uncannily similar to the creatures of Indonesian legend.

The finds in Liang Bua have led to several years of debate. Now that the arguments have gone to and fro enough to wear themselves out, the scientific consensus now seems to be that, up to at least twelve thousand years ago in Indonesia, there was indeed another species of human in the forests of Indonesia, one that was uncannily like the creatures talked about in these legends. Here’s an image (click for full size) of me communing with the reconstruction of the orang pendek in Stockholm (where, to an averagely tall and averagely short British male, the locals seem almost like another species themselves, orang tinggi perhaps…).

Communing with Homo floresiensis

Communing with Homo floresiensis in Stockholm. Photo, Elee Kirk.

There was something that I found strangely moving about coming face to face with my first orang pendek over there in Stockholm — sorry, I should say my first Homo floresiensis: a sense of kinship, a sense that my own categories were being called into question. We often see ‘human’ as something that is neatly and tidily bounded, as something that is set apart from other categories. But here, as everywhere, the boundaries are really less clear than we would like to imagine.

I continue to be intrigued by those legends from Indonesia. Now we know with at least some certainty that Homo floresiensis lived in parts of Indonesia, I wonder when the last of these our cousins died out. Twelve thousand years ago? Or more recently, perhaps? How long might small communities have held on? And even if we are talking about ten thousand years or more (five hundred generations, perhaps—not so much, when you think about it), how long might stories endure, passed down from generation to generation, stories that bear the memory of other beings who are, we might claim, not quite human, but at the same time, not quite other to us. And I still wonder what it might do to our philosophies (not to mention our theologies!) and our ideas of what it might be to be human, if we were really to think through the implications of our being only one branch of a broader family. Cargo Fever began with a quote from Saint Augustine’s City of God: ‘There are accounts in pagan history of certain monstrous races of men… These accounts may be completely worthless. But if such peoples exist, then either they are not human; or, if human, they are descended from Adam.’ Now that we know that such peoples indeed existed (not to mention all of our other, better known, cousins), the question of what we do with this knowledge is still one that many philosophers have perhaps not sufficiently got to grips with.

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