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Saviors
by Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976–78)
Harcourt Brace & Company, $23.00
350 pages

Reviewed by Paula Hirschoff (Kenya 1968–70)

Paul Eggers’ vivid scenes of despair and futility in a muddy Vietnamese refugee camp have renewed relevance today as similar images from southeastern Europe flood the media. Saviors is set on an island called Bidong off the east coast of Malaysia in the late 1970s when boatloads of refugees were attempting to flee across the South China Sea. A large portion of them died at sea, many at the hands of Thai pirates notorious for rape, pillage and murder. Some who survived the attacks later committed suicide in the camps.

The narrative thread
The prologue tells the story of one such suicide victim, Nguoc van Trinh, a refugee whose memorial plank provides the main narrative thread of the story. UN relief workers find large letters spelling Nguoc’s name gouged in one of the planks of their mess hall table. The plank comes to represent the longing of key characters to rise above the pettiness of staff personalities and camp bureaucracy to connect with the refugees. The camp administrator, a timid, ineffectual Malaysian named Gurmit Singh, snatches the plank, ostensibly to investigate the damage, and turns it into an altar in Nguoc’s memory, trimmed with electrical wire, candles and lights. This action evidently helps ease Gurmit's guilt about filing false information on Nguoc’s death report. The Western relief workers are miffed at Gurmit and insist that he return the plank to their mess hall.


RPCVs in Bidong
Into this chaos of clashing cultures and characters come the would-be saviors, two returned Peace Corps Volunteers named Reuben Gill and Bobbie Porkpie Sortini. Their first assignment is to solve the problem of the plank.
     Reuben is huge and frightening with mottled skin, wiry red hair and the reptilian features of hooded narrow eyes. He’s given to displays of outrageous behavior, which have gotten him stuck in an office in UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] headquarters on the mainland although he longs to be on Bidong, where surely life will be like his Peace Corps days as a “jungle junkie.”
     After he creates a scene at a party, the UNHCR country director sends Reuben to Bidong on probation to get him away from influential Malaysians who cannot tolerate his behavior. He and Bobbie, a new UNHCR teacher, hired on the basis of her fine reputation as a PCV in the Philippines, ride over to Bidong together.
     Once on the island they find other relief workers hostile to them and the refugees remote and inaccessible, terrified to talk to staff because it might jeopardize their chances for resettlement in the West. Neither of the RPCVs seems able to make the connections that would give them a sense of “being there” akin to what they had felt as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Plank monument
The plank reenters the story when Bobbie conceives a plan to turn it into a permanent monument to Nguyen set in cement atop a hill. Suddenly she feels connected to Bidong for the first time, and persuades Gurmit and Reuben to join the project. Unfortunately, the plan goes awry. Nguyen’s nephew, who went mad after assisting in his uncle’s suicide, recognizes Nguyen’s name on the plank and throws a fit. Gurmit and Reuben, each struggling to control the situation, fight each other.

Compassion fatigue
Meanwhile, officials in Kuala Lumpur cannot agree about what to do with the refugees. Compassion fatigue is setting in. Both refugees and UNHCR workers occasionally refer to the threat of an invasion by the dreaded Rangers, a Malaysian police force that might be summoned to close down the camp and turn the refugees out to sea. When the Rangers do arrive, the UNHCR country director accompanies them to deliver job termination orders to Reuben, Bobbie and Gurmit because of their roles in the disturbance at the plank ceremony. Such unruly behavior was not well received among UN bureaucrats and the Malaysians who have jurisdiction over the camps.

Final tribute
The three wire themselves together, refusing to leave the refugees in their hour of need. At the end Eggers hints that this dramatic gesture may have played a role in the final decision about the refugee camp. The plank plays a role in several more scenes — the arrival of the Rangers, another suicide on Bidong, and a good bye luncheon back on the mainland where it triggers a final tribute to Nguyen, or perhaps to all the refugees who died trying to reach safety.

Talent for detail
Eggers excels at descriptive detail. Readers will get a sense that they've been on Bidong where the mud oozes up between the slats in the bungalow floors and seeps into the generator, the toothpaste, and even the radiologist's bottle of Johnny Walker. They will feel that they've smelled the massive wall of garbage that rides the waves on the east side of the island. That the author taught English in refugee camps in the Philippines and Malaysia gives credibility to his descriptions.

Characters without sympathy
Despite the descriptive detail, Saviors did not fully engage me, perhaps because the main characters evoke so little sympathy. Reuben is self-absorbed and anti-social; he tortures his scapegoat monkey. We're always viewing Reuben from a distance as he stares into his beer, his face ashen and full of shadow, or as he slumps in a chair, his eyes hooded and blank.
     There is too much bizarre behavior. Gurmit has quick, jerky body movements as if a harness were yanking his limbs. Sally, a UN relief worker, keeps jerking her French braid. I can believe that the Bidong environment nurtures weird behavior patterns, but reading this book becomes too much like being on Bidong. You don't want to be in that stinking place with those miserable people, but your sympathy for the refugees prevents you from leaving.

Worth reading
Despite its flaws, the book is worth reading for people who care about the history of Southeast Asia and the U.S. role in that region, as well as for anyone interested in the interplay of Asian and Western cultures in the confined hothouse atmosphere of a refugee camp. In addition, it might be read as instruction about human behavior in a refugee camp as a new international refugee tragedy unfolds.

Paula Hirschoff is a Washington, DC-based anthropologist
and writer.

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