Everything You Want To Know About Headhunters Before It’s Too Late To Ask

PANJAMON, by Jean Yves Domalain. Translated by Len Ortzen. Rupert Hart-Davis; £1.95.

If you ere fascinated by the idea of twentieth century head-hunting (in Borneo, not Earls Court) this is a book for you. The author is a young zoologist, with a penchant for snakes, who hitch-hiked to Sarawak and became the guest of a Dayak tribe who still take pride in decorating the communal longhouse with captured heads (‘panjamon’ means ‘cutting off heads’).

While enjoying a monumental booze-up on tuak, rice wine, Jean-Yves accidentally asked for the chief’s daughter in marriage, by using a traditional form of words in praising her dancing. He accepted his fate philosophically — the alternative might have been the addition of a white head to the collection — and stayed with the tribe for many months, becoming a proficient hunter, and keeping up his reputation as an accomplished drinker. He also seems to have established some sort of a rapport with his fifteen year old wife.

Incidental experiences included elaborate tattooing using soot from the candle flame and a hardwood needle, and some coolly described initiation rites including a trench full of red ants, and twenty two days surviving alone in the deep jungle. Domalain’s descriptions of the jungles and its animals are clear and interesting, and if he fails to bring the people of the tribe to life in the same way, perhaps that is because of the immense distance between the world of the Dayaks and our own.

On one hunting expedition, he avoids attack by a boar, kills a fine stag with poisoned darts from a blowpipe, and heads for home with the meat. The following quote illustrates the terse, intriguing quality of the best passages. ‘I heard a short growl some distance away, which I could not at first identify … then I saw a boar, much nearer than I had thought … I slipped the blowpipe from my shoulder and, keeping my eye on the boar, I fumbled for a dart. The animal was only thirty feet away. It was a fine target for a blowpipe.

‘Piff!’ In reply came a loud growl. The animal spun round and sighted me at once. In such an event, according to the ‘Hunters Manual’, the thing to do is to put one knee to the ground and point the spear-tipped blowpipe at the charging animal, not forgetting of course, to jump aside at the last moment … I received a violent blow and was sent flying several feet into what is called a bearded palm – a small tree covered with inch-long prickles … However, at that moment I was far less interested in the flora (in spite of the pricks) than in the fauna. Luckily the boar had ‘swallowed’ the spearhead, had run full-tilt into it and was literally impaled on the blowpipe; which did not prevent it from flailing about and kicking up the Devil’s own row. Despite its awful wound, it managed to get to its feet and prepared to charge me again. Just then the end of the blowpipe got caught in the foot of a tree and broke off. The boar fell to the ground and stayed there, blood bubbling from its mouth.’

This and other hunter’s tales enliven the book, which is translated by Len Ortzen, although the occasional pedantic phrase does ring false. Eventually, although accepted by most of the tribe, Jean-Yves makes an enemy of the witch-doctor (almost Rice-Burroughs, this bit, with quarrels oy the river and the attempted poisoning of our hero). He packs his precious notebooks and films, and makes an efficient escape, employing some tricks which should have made his Dayak teachers proud of him, if they survived the man-trap and a snare barbed with poisoned darts, which he set to stop them following him.

‘Panjamon’ is a good read, although perhaps it’s worth going to the library rather than buying it, and I recommend it as a present for any friends with the wanderlust – if head-hunting and live insects for dinner are their trip, they’ll vanish tomorrow, otherwise you should find them more than ready to appreciate home comforts.

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