Books: Kon-tiki man goes native

GREEN WAS THE EARTH ON THE SEVENTH DAY by Thor Heyerdahl, Little Brown pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
Here is a crusty sandwich of a book, with two different sorts of Heyerdahl propaganda at either end and solid meat in the middle. Right at the beginning the "Kon-Tiki man" - as his friend Christopher Rolling dubbed him - cannot resist proselytising for his favourite theory that Polynesia was colonised from South America. This is an idea that is accepted by no anthropologist of note (but could still be true for all that). And he ends with an unsatisfactory "green" message which, though true and unexceptionable, manages to tell us at once less than we already know and more than we want to hear. Of course the world would be a better place if humans were not driven by greed, profit and the lust for precious resources. But we are dealing, it seems, with irreducible human nature, so that the problem, as in the old fable, is how to bell the cat. Alternatives to capitalism so far have not proved notably successful.

The core of the book deals with the eight months spent by Heyerdahl and his wife Liv in the Marquesas Islands in 1937, when he was 22 and she 20. The Heyerdahls decided to live on Fatu-Hiva, the third ranking of the Marquesas, where the famous Mendana/Quiros trans-Pacific expedition of 1595 (memorably brought to life by Robert Graves in The Isles of Unwisdom) made landfall. Most other celebrated accounts of the Marquesas, including those by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, concentrate either on Nuku-Hiva, where Herman Melville lived among the Typee cannibals, or on Hiva-Oa, where Gauguin put the Atuona valley on canvas.

The Heyerdahls' motive was to find a tropical paradise where they would be cut off from the modern world and its technology, all of which they hated. To finance this utopian adventure they gained the support of wealthy parents, a rich wine merchant and the University of Oslo, though the "research project" was remarkably fuzzy and would not have passed muster with the modern ESRC and its ilk: "I was to visit some isolated Pacific island group and study how the local animals had found their way there."

Predictably enough, they found that the Marquesas were not a paradise, and their own existence there anything but utopian. The locals were riddled by TB, VD and elephantiasis. Keeping themselves apart as far as possible, the Heyerdahls built a bamboo cabin to live in, but they soon became depressed with their dreary vegetarian diet and began to sprout alarming boils and sores. Since the nearest doctor was on Riva-0a, they had to cross the notoriously stormy stretch between the islands in a patched-up lifeboat and nearly perished in high seas. When they returned to Fatu-Hiva after a month's absence, they found that the jungle had entirely reclaimed their bamboo cabin. During their last weeks on Fatu-Hiva they lived like Stone Age people in a cave by the sea, in danger from invading Moray eels.

The Heyerdhals' "idyll" can be gauged from the calendar. They left Oslo on Christmas Day 1936, and were back there at the beginning of March 1938, having taken two months to reach Tahiti from Marseilles and a further month to reach the Marquesas. The project of returning to Nature was a fiasco; as Thor gloomily recorded: "There is nothing for modern man to return to." His one solid achievement was to interview the last surviving Marquesan cannibal, who told him that of all the portions of "long pig" he had eaten, the tastiest was the forearm of a white woman. Yet it was on this eight-month sojourn that Heyerdahl based his entire theory of Pacific migrations, which he put to the test ten years later in the Kon- Tiki expedition.

Unkind critics have claimed that, in his writings, Thor Heyerdahl has inherited Sir Richard Burton's knack of being able to make a book out of something as mundane as mowing a lawn, provided it was done in an exotic location. It is true that there are longueurs in this book, but such a judgement is far too harsh. Heyerdahl's reflections on the Pacific sometimes have a Melvillean quality: "There was something beyond human comprehension about its immeasurable size, since the Amazon, the Nile, the Danube, the Mississippi, the Ganges, all the rivers, floods and sewers in the world could enter into it ceaselessly without the surface level ever changing an inch."

Heyerdahl claims that he was inspired by his compatriots Nansen and Amundsen, but, both in the Pacific passages and his final "green" peroration, Heyerdahl reminds us of another strand in Scandinavian culture: the mysticism of Swedenborg and Kierkegaard. Kon-Tiki man can sometimes be hectoring, didactic and monomaniacal, but if Melville was the Homer of the Pacific and Stevenson its Virgil, Heyerdahl must at least be accounted the ocean's Propertius.