[Marxism] The Real-Life Story of ‘The Last Whalers’ Reads Like a First-Rate Novel

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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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