Books: Kon-tiki man goes native

GREEN WAS THE EARTH ON THE SEVENTH DAY by Thor Heyerdahl, Little Brown pounds 18.99

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'