Reviewed by Ed Putka (Malaysia 1969-72)
By the time most people graduate from college, they mostly have an idea of a career. For me, the plan was Peace Corps, a little travel, a little diary, then back home to law school and a career in the law.
Others let the road shape their careers. And so it seems with Paul Sochaczewski, a prolific writer and intrepid adventurer.
After finishing college in 1969, Sochaczewski joined me and 125 other volunteers in Malaysia Group XXIV. Southeast Asia was in full conflict, but our destination, Sarawak, was an exotic and relatively quiet place. Sochaczewski fell for it, becoming immediately fascinated with not only the culture, but the sounds and smells, the spirits and the shamans, the flora and fauna of this lush tropical state.
His new book “Look Here, Sir, What a Curious Bird” reflects his life-long travels and fascination with the region. A follow-up to An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, his 2017 book exploring the Victorian naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, Sochaczewski here gives us a sort of quasi-biography of Wallace’s faithful Malay boy and companion, simply known as “Ali.” In the late 1800s, Wallace became known as one of the world’s pre-eminent collector and cataloguer of beetles, birds and other species in the Malay archipelago.
A post-Peace Corps stint with the World Wildlife Fund piqued Sochaczewski’s interest in Wallace, and it was there, in the explorer’s writings, that he discovered Ali, the loyal teenage sideman.
Although Wallace had other assistants, it is clear from his descriptions that Ali was his number one man. Ali often did the shooting and skinning of the birds and other species collected by Wallace. The famous bird-of paradise, from whence the title of the book derives, was discovered on the island of Bacan, in the present day Mollucas. Wallace tells us:
Just as I got home I overtook Ali returning from shooting with some birds hanging from his belt. He seemed much pleased, and said, “Look here, sir, what a curious bird!” holding out at first what completely puzzled me. I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself when fluttering its wings.
It is the very paucity of historical knowledge of Ali that makes this book the fascination that it is. Traditional biographies are crammed with historical footnotes, cross-references and the benefit of other people’s views of the famous person about whom the biography is being written. There is none of that here. Almost all we know of Ali comes from one source: Wallace alone, in his diaries, letters and conversation with others.
So what does the writer do? Here, Sochaczewski creatively employs interviews, cultural psychology, folklore, imagined conversations, conjecture, ghosts, shamans, mediums, spiritualists and a host of other non-traditional conventions to recreate who Ali was, where he came from and where he ended up. Imagine a biography of Franklin Roosevelt written like that.
And woven through this intriguing narrative is the theme that we all have one or more Alis in our lives: someone who has helped us through the forest and swamps along the way and made it possible for us to achieve who we are, often with little or no thanks. Who are they? the author asks. And when, through our own exploration, we discover them, let us honor them as Ali is here honored.
About the Author
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski’s highly acclaimed nonfiction books of personal travel include the five-volume Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen, Soul of the Tiger (with Jeff McNeely), and Searching for Ganesha. Paul’s handbook for people who want to write their personal stories, Share Your Journey, is based on the personal writing workshops he runs in more than 20 countries. Redheads and EarthLove are his eco-thrillers, set in the rainforest of a mythical sultanate in Borneo.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Paul has been a writing coach, conservationist, and communications advisor to international non-governmental organizations. He lives in Geneva, Switzerland, and has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.
In the Peace Corps (1969 to 1971), he worked as an education advisor in Sarawak, Malaysia. This exposure to Asia informed his writing, and as a result most of his work has a Southeast Asian theme. He was also founding creative director of J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in Indonesia and Singapore.
As head of creative services at WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature, 1981-1994, he created international public awareness campaigns to protect rainforests, wetlands, plants, and biological diversity, and managed the WWF Faith and Environment Network. With a MacArthur Foundation grant, from mid-1992 to mid-1993 he took a leave of absence from WWF to research environmental problems in the Pacific for the Environment Program at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He then worked for ten years as global communications director of the International Osteoporosis Foundation.
About the Reviewer
Reviewer Ed Putka (Malaysia 1969-72) returned to the States, went to law school, then moved to the Pacific Northwest and practiced law for 24 years before being appointed to the bench. He served as a judge for 18 years and is now retired.