[Marxism] The Real-Life Story of ‘The Last Whalers’ Reads Like a First-Rate Novel
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Tue Jan 15 10:28:32 MST 2019
NY Times, Jan. 15, 2019
The Real-Life Story of ‘The Last Whalers’ Reads Like a First-Rate Novel
By Dwight Garner
The novelist Thomas McGuane moved to Montana many years ago, he has
said, because he didn’t want “writer hands.” He wanted to hunt and fish
and walk outdoors. He wanted to avoid a soft life.
The Last Whalers
Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing
Way of Life
By Doug Bock Clark
Illustrated. 347 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $30.
The journalist Doug Bock Clark, in order to write his immersive, densely
reported and altogether remarkable first book, “The Last Whalers: Three
Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of
Life,” moved about as far from the world’s air-conditioned urban centers
as it is still possible to get.
He spent years with the Lamalerans, a tribe of 1,500 hunter-gatherers
who live on a remote volcanic Indonesian island in the Savu Sea. They
are the world’s last subsistence whalers, and as fishermen they are
fierce. Lamaleran men have been known to stride into the churning waves,
grab tiger sharks by their tails, drag them onto shore and club them to
Like a first-rate novel, too, “The Last Whalers” has an abiding but
unforced theme. It’s about the flood of modernity, in the form of
outboard motors and cellphones and televised soap operas, as seen from
the perspective of a curious but wary society that fears losing itself
in the deluge.
There’s a lot going on in this feat of journalism, but at heart it’s
about a whaling community. Clark does not stint on beautiful, terrible,
blood-streaked accounts of hunting sperm whales.
When whales are sighted by the Lamalerans, a chant rises (“Baleo!
Baleo!”) and is passed from house to house. The men race for their
boats, which traditionally have been wooden ships called téna. They urge
each other to “Row like you want to feed your families!”
Some of these sperm whales are so large they throw battleship wakes. The
tribe’s best harpooners are revered. Sometimes a whale will take as many
as 10 harpoons, and drag boats for miles, before it is subdued. Often
whales will turn and attack; many Lamalerans have died in these struggles.
Clark’s writing is supple but unshowy. Here’s an account of one
harpooner’s encounter with a whale:
“Ignatius’s ship approached near enough to the closest fleeing whale
that he could read the history of the animal’s victories inscribed in
its gray hide — ellipses of Os dimpled across its snout, stamped there
by the suckers of giant squids it devoured a mile below the surface. He
leapt onto the whale’s back with a practiced determination, driving his
harpoon precisely into the soft flesh two feet below the dorsal hump.”
You learn many things while reading “The Last Whalers”: how to make rope
and wooden ships; how to track a whale that has submerged; how pods of
whales form walls with their tails to protect themselves from hunters.
One thing you learn, in squeamish detail, is how to carve up a dead
beached whale. “By the end,” Clark writes, “only the flippers retained
their skin, so that they rested against the flesh like mittened hands
trying to cover a naked torso.”
The piles of whale meat are divided almost equally among the population.
Anthropologists have called Lamaleran culture, Clark writes, “one of the
world’s most cooperative and generous, a necessity when it comes to
coordinating dozens of men to defeat colossal whales and then equitably
share the bounty.”
Modernity, in the form of capitalism and new ways to sell their catch,
threatens this cooperative culture. And what of threatening the whales
themselves? Clark notes that several hundred thousand sperm whales exist
in the wild, and suggests that “the tribe has little impact on the
animal’s global population.”
Writing about Joseph Conrad, George Orwell said that his “most colorful
passages may have dealt with the sea, but he is at his most grown-up
when he touches dry land.” It’s possible to say something similar about
Clark, who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine
and The Atlantic, among other publications.
He closely tracks the lives of many Lamalerans, male and female, young
and old, and he weaves their stories together with a history of the
tribe and its beliefs. He manages to make this tribe’s dilemmas
universal — no small feat.
The book’s central character is probably Jon, an orphan who is taunted
because his absent father was not a Lamaleran. Jon longs to be a
harpooner, but he is too impatient and is cruelly rebuffed by other men.
Feeling estranged from his people, he debates fleeing to Jakarta, where
his girlfriend works as a maid.
Clark’s portrait of Jon, like his portrait of this society in general,
is not fawning. The author notes Jon’s wayward eye, and the way his
girlfriend does not entirely trust him. He writes about his black moods,
and about how he lacks grace as a harpooner.
Jon’s run of bad luck is so allegorically persistent that he can
resemble a youthful version of Santiago, the fisherman in Hemingway’s
“The Old Man and the Sea.” The Lamalerans are a religious and
superstitious people, and fear that unfortunate events are the results
of displeasing their ancestors.
Clark is hardly the first observer to study Lamaleran culture.
Anthropologists and documentary filmmakers and others have been here
before. But he brings empathy and literary skill to bear. This is a
humbly told book, one in which the author’s first-person voice does not
This humility gives the book an organic and resonant propulsion.
Accumulated tensions are only slowly released. Scenes are delivered, not
summaries. This book earns its emotions.
This is not an especially upbeat story. Coarse materialism is coming,
each wave of it pushing the Lamalerans up onto a rockier shore no matter
how much they resist.
The tribe has a saying: “Hope, but not too much,” which underscores
their stoic endurance. You finish “The Last Whalers” with hope for them,
and hope that Clark writes many more books.
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.
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