Fatu-Hiva by Thor Heyerdahl
Xopher spotted a copy of this in a used book store, and picked it up upon noticing that it is actually autographed by Thor Heyerdahl himself, 1974! Heyerdahl was the instigator of the famed Kon-Tiki expedition in which he and others successfully navigated a raft from South America to Polynesia, to prove that Polynesia could have been first populated by indigenous Americans.
This book is about events pre-dating Kon-Tiki, when a coming-of-age young Norwegian named Thor decides he’s fed up with civilization – but unlike most teenagers, gathers the wherewithal to do something about it. He convinces his university professors and parents to aid him in a trek to an isolated part of the world where he can live “in nature” in as primitive conditions as possible. Against all odds, he also manages to find a girlfriend eager to go with him! Thus after completing their university studies, newlyweds Thor and Liv set out for the tiny spot on the map which they decided was destined to become their own island paradise; that spot was Fatu-Hiva, an island in the French Marquesas group.
And the craziest thing is, they do find their paradise; it’s just not a permanent situation. They are troubled by mud, mosquitoes, tropical diseases, and other people. But through it all were blissful days upon days where they traipsed through their longed-for garden of Eden.
They seem to find an extended period of peace and nirvana on the far side of the island, living alongside a longtime hermit and his pre-teen adopted daughter, far away from the other islanders, by the shore where the mosquitoes are few. The idyll is eventually destroyed, however… no spoilers, but it seems hell is indeed other people. That, and demon drink.
There are many pages where Thor just goes on about the beauty of nature around them, which can get a bit monotonous. His philosophy tends towards the simplistic – civilization bad, white man bad, state of nature perfect, etc. – especially towards the beginning of the story; and he tries to bend all his observations to his philosophy – diseases come from the white man, diseases would never happen when living correctly in a ‘state of nature’, for example. He seems to mature a bit over his long year on the island, however.
There is little to no sidelong mocking of the natives in this book… individuals and behaviors often get his scorn, but each islander is presented as a full human being, never a caricature. Indeed, Thor conveys his growing realization during the year that the islanders are people exactly like us, with every bit as much intelligence; he observes that we tend to think of illiterate people as childlike, which is a gross injustice and blindness. We are all human beings, doing everything we can put our minds to, given the resources before us.
But while it seemed to me that Thor was generally refreshingly respectful and equitable in his treatment of his fellow islanders, there was one exception where his behavior left me flabbergasted. He and Liv begin a collection of human skulls which they take from areas considered “tabu” by the natives. There are photos of Liv grinning happily while surrounded by human skulls. This seemed horribly disrespectful, not to mention ghoulish.
Liv was an absolute saint, by the way. By all accounts, she had all the eagerness for the adventure as did her husband; the book is by and large written in first person plural, not singular. It is Thor and Liv as a unit who discover, learn, enjoy, suffer together.
There are lots of amazing black-and-white photos throughout the book. I was truly astounded by them, for various reasons. a) Some of the photos have both Thor and Liv in them, in some remote situation – who took the picture?! b) How did they manage, through all their soggy trials and travails, to keep their camera and film with them, and dry enough to be functional? c) What faith did it take to keep taking pictures of things, with no ability – I presume! – to develop the film until if and when you or the camera made it back to civilization? I don’t know, maybe there was a Foto-mat in nearby Tahiti where they were sending things.
I found myself thinking at the book’s beginning, as the adventure first gets underway: but what about modern medicine? What about birth control? How will they keep healthy, and is Liv prepared to birth babies without assistance on an island? They never really address the latter, except one passing remark towards the end that Liv might “at any time” by “blessed” with a baby; so apparently no birth control. As for medicine, illnesses and injuries are dealt with as they came, and both heroes lived to tell their tales.
This book really did make me think about nature, civilization, and the commonness of human ingenuity.