Books: An ape or an angel?
Sara Wheeler uncovers the egoist hidden in the ecologist; The Follow by Linda Spalding Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99
Saturday 16 May 1998
Orang-utans were virtually ignored by naturalists until Richard Leakey sent Birute Galdikas to the nature reserve of Tanjung Puting in Indonesian Borneo in 1971. He was the most famous scientist in the world, she one of his students - an anthropologist with a mission to study the tree dweller and so to learn more about the origins of human behaviour. Leakey found women particularly adept at this kind of observation. His other angels - Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey - became international heroines.
When the Indonesian government outlawed the use of orang-utans as pets 20-odd years ago, they asked Galdikas and her husband to rehabilitate the confiscated creatures. The husband eventually left, so did the son, but Galdikas stuck with the work, married a Dayak and had two more children. She still writes, lectures and lobbies hard for the protection of the rainforest.
The "follow" is a form of research in which the subject is observed and recorded from a distance. This is what Galdikas's students do to orang- utans, and what Spalding did to Galdikas. The book tells the story of her pursuit of Galdikas both in North America and on three trips to Borneo.
Spalding discovers that Galdikas is not an angel at all, she is a monster. Every time she appears in person, she is rude, arrogant and dysfunctional. The book is a catalogue of the arguments that storm between her team and other fieldworkers, focused on the question of whether a human should act as surrogate mother to an orang-utan. Spalding says new theories "have put Birute out of business", and she has lost her licence to research.
Spalding's detective work uncovers shocking tales of cover-ups, dodgy practice, intimidation and worse. Galdikas might be deeply unpleasant, but she is interesting. Yet Spalding also interweaves her own voyage of self-discovery with the orang-utan stuff. This is dangerous territory for writers. Emotional raw material has to be processed before it is dished up in a book. I wasn't interested at all in Spalding's account of the breakdown of her marriage; I longed for the narrative to return to the baddies.
Towards the end she runs out of things to say about Galdikas, and describes other experiences in the forest, notably with the Dayak guide. She writes perceptively about the politics of eco-tourism and the ecological repercussions of Indonesia's transmigration policy. In both content and style, however, Spalding is inconsistent. Sometimes she veers right off the rails: "Of course we were limited by language, which has given us great access to other humans except when we don't hold it in common." Not a bad sentence for an orang-utan, perhaps.
Like a lot of the best non-fiction at the moment, The Follow is a hybrid: part biography, part autobiography, part travelogue and part ecological musing. The idea at its heart - of following the follower - is brilliant, but it is imperfectly executed.
Life & Style blogs
Men in crop tops seem to be trending thanks to Kid Cudi, the social media and the catwalk
What is ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge?
Greggs Google fail: bakery chain falls afoul of search engine's algorithms with 'unofficial' logo
Anal sex study reveals climate of 'coercion'
Is this the end of apps? New research says a third of us don't bother to download
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Russell Brand calls for Israel boycott: Comedian urges big businesses that 'facilitate the oppression of people in Gaza' to pull funding
Ukip MEP calls for reintroduction of death penalty on fiftieth anniversary of last deaths
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
- 1 Michael Brown shooting: Police shoot and kill second young black man near Ferguson
- 2 James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
- 3 Why are UK rail fares so expensive?
- 4 Here’s the damning letter Robin Williams wrote to his Mrs Doubtfire co-star's principal after they expelled her
- 5 Cilla Black defends Cliff Richard: 'I am positive that the allegations are without foundation'
£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...
£650 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer ASP.Net, C#.net, WCF, WPF, .N...
£35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Principal Arboricu...
£17000 - £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Trainee Digital Fo...