Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fatu-Hiva: A Book Review

Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature
by Thor Heyerdahl
(no book jacket picture because I wasn't able to find one)

I first read Thor Heyerdahl's masterpiece, Kon-Tiki as a teenage from my father's collection and have re-read it numerous times over the years and even picked up a copy for my own collection. In Kon-Tiki, Thor and five other people build a raft out of reeds and drifted west to prove his theory that the Marquesas Islands and Easter Island were originally settled by South American pre-Inca people and not from Asia as was the popular belief. I guess due to my young age, I accepted his writings and didn't question that perhaps he might have written other books. That changed when one day while perusing a box of books at a garage sale, I found and picked a copy of his book Fatu-Hiva for a mere $0.10.

Fatu-Hiva turned out to be a book of Thor's youth when he decided to give up on man and go back to nature by finding a remote tropical island in the 1930's with food and water readily available but no residents. After studying numerous maps and ruling out every single island in the South Pacific, the loosened their restriction of no residents and settle on the island of Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas Island group. Thor and his recently met and wedded bride Liv, waded ashore with the clothes on their back and another set in a suitcase but no other food or provisions. Immediately they were taken aback by the diseases that ran rampant in the village with elephantiasis being one of the most worrisome ones. They decided to build their paradise up the valley from the village and soon the locals had built them a house. Fruit was every where and they proceeded to live out their dreams.

Funny how reality has a way of sneaking back when you don't expect it. The native house that the natives had built for a "small fee" of some of their possessions, turned out to be deliberately build of green material that bugs would soon reduce to dust so that they would need to be hired again to rebuild it instead of the traditional seasoned wood that bugs wouldn't attack. But before their house fell apart, they battled mosquitoes and finally relented buying man made netting, escaped to the mountains for a while to escape angry converted Catholic natives who thought they might be working for the local Protestant missionary, ran out of food during the rainy season and eventually retreated back to a civilized island when they both got infections in their legs that required medicine to save them. The latter event required a journey via an abandoned canoe in the middle of storm that very nearly cost them their lives.

With healed legs and a renewed sense of purpose, they went back to Fatu-Hiva determined to escape their hut near the village (which had been destroyed by insects anyway) and move to a deserted corner of the island inhabited by the last surviving though no longer practicing cannibal and his adopted daughter. There they again attempted to find paradise and did for a short while but even that too didn't last long. Villagers from the other sign soon followed them seeking out money and imported food that they had bought while their legs were healing in order to give as gifts. Soon the villagers had exhausted the food supply, were engaging in nightly orgies under the influence of alcohol brewed from oranges and things started to get dangerous. Thor and Liv once again escaped in the dead of the night to restart again. However during this final attempt, they realized that paradise as they envisioned it no longer existed and that their dream of going back totally native would never happen. They hunkered down in a cave in an uninhabited part of the island and waited until the first schooner stopped by to pick up a cargo of copra from the natives and hitched a ride back to civilization ending their experiment less than a year after they started.

Although not the masterpiece of Kon-Tiki, it was definitely a good read. It would have been better had Thor not devoted so much paper to rehashing his theory of Polynesia being settled by people from South America over and over. It seemed as if every chapter had at least a half dozen pages repeating his thoughts on this subject to the point where I was tempted to start skipping over them. It did get me curious enough to look up Thor on Wikipedia where according to the write-up, his theory has been shone to be false due to modern genetic mapping techniques. That was a little disappointing especially after having read and believed Kon-Tiki for so many years. Also disappointing but not surprising was that Liv and Thor ended up getting divorced and Thor was on his third wife when he died in 2002. Regardless, it has always been a dream of mine to visit the Kon-Tiki museum in Thor's native Norway someday before I die and despite this information, I still plan to do so.


R. Sherman said...

I'm always amused by the "get back to nature" types who persist in believing in some sort of "noble savage" utopia, if only we could toss away all of our modern conveniences. Such Luddism usually doesn't last longer than the first bout with an infection.


Ed said...

R. Sherman - In other words, they want the "noble savage" utopia but not the short life expectancy that came with it. I agree with you completely.

sage said...

Sounds interesting--I'm currently listening to "Getting Stoned with Savages" which is one of the funniest books I've "read" in a long time (and it's always fun to listen to a funny book in the gym). It's about a couple's experience on a South Sea Island.

Vince said...

I read Kon-Tiki when I was very young also. And regardless of the attitude of the Archaeographical community, he made one fundamental point. Ask the locals. For no one had bothered to ask the local community how to move the stones and how to lift them to their platforms. And it changed forever that attitude that had a hierarchy of civilizations that had the Greeks with Palaces -like on Crete or the mount at Hissarlik.

Bye Vince

Ed said...

Sage - I agree with Maartin Troost's book. Perhaps you read my review of it here?

Vince - You make an excellent point!