Carl Hoffman is a travel writer who has recently turned his attention to New Guinea, where he produces grisly stories of cannibalism, murder, and The Smell Of Men. Jared Diamond is a scientist with decades of experience visiting New Guinea whose books attempt to humanize the people who live there. As an expert on Papua New Guinea, I was really surprised to find that I was much more impressed with Hoffman’s understanding of Melanesia and its people than I was Diamond’s. So how could I like a cannibalism-obsessed journalist more than a scientist who admired Papua New Guinean’s parenting skills?
To be sure, neither Hoffman nor Diamond are Michael French Smith, whose readable, thoughtful, and informed A Faraway, Familiar Place is the best book written for a lay audience about Papua New Guinea today. Unlike Smith, neither author has a Ph.D. in anthropology and decades of close connection with a single community in PNG. But Hoffman gets things right that Diamond doesn’t.
First, Hoffman gets his facts straight and Diamond doesn’t. As someone with little experience in Papua New Guinea and West Papua (the two political units that share the island of New Guinea), Hoffman is keenly aware of the need to get his facts straight. As a journalist, he assumes his work will come under scrutiny and has a professional commitment to empirical rigor. Diamond, on the other hand, is almost too anthropological in his reliance on anecdote and assumption that the people he describes will never read what he writes. Does Hoffman make mistakes? Yes, a few. But Diamond’s writings on death and revenge have holes big enough that you could drive a truck through them. Hoffman is a careful professional. And where human reportage is concerned, Diamond is an amateur.
Hoffman’s work is shocking in its willingness to confront the most un-PC aspects of life in New Guinea. You only need to go about 20 pages into Savage Harvest to find a vivid description of people killing and butchering Michael Rockefeller. Most anthropologist and Pacific Islanders will be so turned off by these representations of Melanesians that they will just close the book and walk a way. But Hoffman’s willingness to deal with these aspects of Melanesian culture actually make him more careful about what he is saying rather than less — he clearly knows he needs to tread carefully in this minefield. I am sure many anthropologists will disagree with me when I say that Hoffman is relatively successful in doing this. But most will agree he’s better at it than Diamond, even though Diamond often deals with topics that are not spectacular and stereotypical.
What makes Hoffman’s work more appealing than Diamond’s is Hoffman’s empathy and ability to learn from others. The final third of Savage Harvest describes his time living in West Papua. As he gets to know people — if only briefly — you can clearly see him leaving behind the stereotypes he came there with. Hoffman’s own journey, as naggingly incomplete as it seems to an anthropologist, demonstrates a thoughtful and introspective personality. Diamond, on the other hand, seems genuinely changes by his time in New Guinea, but seems too used to studying birds to really get people. As someone who has conducted fieldwork in a dangerous area of Papua New Guinea, I felt for both of these authors — but felt more for Hoffman.
Anthropologists will find Hoffman’s writings difficult to stomach, given our predispositions. But they are worth reading and assigning in class — especially as a first book about the Pacific, to pique interest for a deeper and more nuanced account of life there. Jared Diamond? Not so much.