Cargo Fever, published by Tindal Street Press in 2007, is a philosophical romp that takes as its starting point Indonesian stories of the orang pendek – literally “short man”, a kind of diminutive tropical yeti — to explore the sometimes fuzzy boundaries between gods, human beings, animals, and other kinds of others.
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“Buckingham is a wonderful storyteller and paints a vivid picture of Indonesian life… Another triumph for this small Birmingham publisher.” — Birmingham Post.
About Cargo Fever
Cargo Fever is my first novel. It was closely based on my own experience of living in the Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia, and was published back in 2007 by Tindal Street Press.
Cargo Fever Extract: Pak Amukwasi, the chief of police
Pak Amukwasi, the chief of police, kept a tidy desk. When he arrived in Bantuk from Jakarta to take up his new post three years before, he had been appalled by the state of the offices at the police headquarters. Reports were stacked in every corner, desks were piled so high with papers that there was no room to work at them, and the single filing cabinet had one drawer that continually jammed.
￼The policeman’s ancestral home was the next-door island of Tanimbar, but he had been born and brought up in Jakarta. He had returned to the south-eastern Moluccas three years before, after a dream in which he clearly saw his ancestors squatting in ranks above his head and chattering with the voices of lizards. His own interpretation of the dream was that the ancestors were calling him home. When, in the same week of his dream, a post- ing came up in Kenukecil, so close to his beloved islands of Tanimbar, he made clear his intention to transfer. Pak Amukwasi’s wife, a Jakarta socialite, and his three thoroughly urban children remained in the capital city. They did not want to be consorting, they said, with ignorant farmers.
After his arrival, Pak Amukwasi – proclaiming the dic- tum, much to the annoyance of his new colleagues, that ‘a tidy desk means a tidy mind’ – demanded a paperwork audit. The old filing cabinet was discarded and several more were bought in its place. The piles of reports were dusted off and the spiders that had made comfortable homes for themselves behind them were chased out of the building. The piles of paper were tidied and stacked. Then began the task of working through, deciding what could be discarded – most of it, it turned out – and what could be filed. By the time a month had passed, the offices were immaculate. The new filing cabinets, with their drawers that opened and closed with barely a whisper, positively gleamed with virtuous orderliness. Pak Amukwasi took his place behind his huge desk with its green leather covering with justifiable satisfaction. Modern policing had come to Kenukecil.
Once order had been restored, Pak Amukwasi found that he loved being back in the east. He became a common sight in Bantuk, wearing his large stomach with pride, and styled himself as the genial face of public law and order: approachable, considerate, understanding and firm. Here, after all, was a man who truly, genuinely and authentically believed in the astonishing proposition that the task of the police force was to serve the people.
“Buckingham is a wonderful storyteller and paints a vivid picture of Indonesian life. Without knowing it, the reader is quickly drawn in and learns a lot about the traditional ways of life there… but it is his humour and his lively style that ensure the pages just keep on turning. Another triumph for this small Birmingham publisher.”
“Buckingham’s first novel is an atmospheric caper tale set among the lush islands of Indonesia. Sam Rivers, a gullible expat English teacher, allows his soft heart to draw him into a scheme to sell a captured mythical creature to Australia, even though it endangers his engagement to Jakartan native and former student Fon. Things go wrong from the start as Sam falls ill with a fever, and the Gugu, the mythical Indonesian creature, escapes. The exotic setting and abundance of supernatural elements contrast divinely with the delightful and fully fleshed village characters, from the austere Dutch priest to the elderly witch doctor, who heals Sam of his fever. In an increasingly comic train of events, Sam and his fellows track the creature across the island, following reports of blissfully happy but apparently ravaged young maidens. The supernatural elements, exotic setting, and Sam’s feverish mind all lend a touch of the surreal, leaving the reader wondering at the end if it was all a dream. Great fun for general-fiction readers with a taste for comic adventure.”
Real Travel Magazine
“A gripping and rapid pace from page one; Cargo Fever is both surprising and intriguing… The writing style and diverse characters capture the imagination, making it a challenge for anyone to put down… If not to your usual taste, take a chance on Cargo Fever; it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, light-hearted and unpredictable read.”
“The exotic setting and abundance of supernatural elements contrast divinely with the delightful and fully-fleshed village characters. Great fun for the general-fiction reader with a taste for comic adventure.”
Transition Tradition Blog
“Refreshing in its determination to revive an apparently stagnant literary genre. The sheer ambition of _Cargo Fever_ marks Buckingham out as a name to watch.” Transition Tradition Blog
“Buckingham skilfully weaves together his disparate narrative strands, before bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, resulting in a novel that is gripping, thought provoking and entertaining in equal measure.”
Steve Himmer of Necessary Fiction
“Cargo Fever is certainly a gripping adventure story, but it’s also an intriguing contribution to the the genre of the ape-monster story. Cargo Fever is a thrilling and thoughtful read, perhaps because its author isn’t as dully academic about monster stories as I am, but most likely because it’s a plain old good novel, one that engages ideas without piling them too high or too heavily onto a rollicking plot.”
Raw Edge Magazine
“Buckingham weaves and intricate storyline and tells a good tale. His intimate knowledge of his subject shows through in his light and confident touch.” Raw Edge Magazine
West Midlands Readers’ Network
“What a wonderfully unexpected book! A fantastical story full of comedy and adventure and a story-line that can rightly be described as exotic. Great and serious fun!” West Midlands Readers’ Network
Listen to an extract of Cargo Fever here. The extract comes from the very beginning of the book, where Ibu Nilasera goes into the church to find that something is very, very wrong.
Length: Three Minutes 30 Seconds.
Music: Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin – BWV 1004, recorded in Brooklyn June 26, 2011. Public Domain from freepd.com
Content © Will Buckingham 2012
About the Orang Pendek
As the book was going through the final stages, in Liang Bua cave in Flores, scientists discovered the remains of what they said was a new species of prehistorical human, Homo floresiensis. The claims at the time were debated, but now, several years on, it seems that the evidence is in favour of this claim, and that up to ten thousand years ago, there were “short men” (and short women!) wandering the forests of Indonesia.
Whether any orang pendek survived down to historical times or not, it seems to me not unlikely that the tales from Indonesia reflect, at the very least, folk memories of living side by side other human creatures of a different species.
The island of Kenukecil does not, in fact, exist. It was invented for the purposes of this book. Kenukecil means ‘Little Kenu’, whilst Kenubesar (which you can see on the map below) means ‘Big Kenu’. You will see that there has been some cartographic confusion when it comes to the naming of the two islands.
I imagine Kenukecil as being situated somewhat to the South-west of the Tanimbar Islands in south-east Maluku, Indonesia.
Cargo Fever is set in Maluku, which is in the East of Indonesia. Maluku is a fascinating part of the world. I spent six months in the Tanimbar Islands back in 1994-1995, where I was carrying out research into folk art. You can find a little website with some of the research results up at Tanimbar.org.uk.
Some readers have protested that the novel is fantastical to the point of absurdity. But much of it is drawn directly from life. So, for example, most of the traditional medical procedures are not only authentic, but were practised on me whilst I was in Indonesia. And as for the American anthropologist, Alateheia Groeber, she is an amalgam of two different stories that I heard whilst in Tanimbar. The first was about an American woman with a private plane who came to Tanimbar in pursuit of her husband, who was running away from her. She didn’t find him, so she flew off elsewhere, still in pursuit. The second story was about an anthropologist who was studying the sex lives of savages (so my Tanimbarese friends told me). She came to Tanimbar in search of a ‘savage’ to marry; but finding that the Tanimbarese were far too civilised, she headed off instead to Irian Jaya.
I have no idea if these stories were true or not; but they were relatively unexceptional amongst the many strange tales I heard in the Tanimbar islands.