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But the protagonist of Barbara Hodgson's Hippolyte's Island sure likes sailing maps and charts, the older the better. They fascinate him; in fact, all maps fascinate him, to the point that even when he looks up at his cracked and stained ceiling, he thinks of exotic travel. He calls it his ceilingscape, and as more plaster falls onto his soggy old couch, the resulting patch looks to him not like something that needs immediate repair, but an intriguing dried-out lake bed.
His colorful description of the ceilingscape gives the reader an idea of what makes Webb tick: It had already undergone much geological activity. Above stretched a coastline of stains, a three-dimensional terrain of bulges and flakes, charting years of slowly encroaching water damage. Beginning in the east, appropriately at the window, a voyage round this head-over-heels expanse followed a string of long fjords of dampness. Thin tentacles crept out from these inlets, the rivers that seemed to feed them. Continuing to the north, the eye navigated tufty patches of trial paints spackley beige, rippled cream, stalactite eggshell.
This adventurer can stay home only so long before he itches to hit the road again. It's obvious that Webb's adventures are more important to him than the condition of his hearth and home, and when his battered old globe disintegrates into two parts, he suddenly takes new interest in South America, because it ends up in his hands while the northern half of the world falls to the floor. Tracing his fingers down to the empty South Atlantic Ocean between the Falklands and the island of South Georgia, he discovers a group of islands the Auroras that are on all his old maps and gloves but none of the new ones. Because no one has written about them for centuries, this is where Webb decides he will travel next.
Not deterred by his land of seafaring knowledge, our hero signs up for a quick Sailing 101 course at his local junior high school, charms his female sailing instructor, secures a book advance, charters a 30-foot boat, and heads off, forgetting to learn how to launch the thing. He gets seasick, frightened, and disoriented, and nearly drowns when he decides to dive in for a swim. This is no James Bond on water; Webb is like all the rest of us, it turns out. But he finds his lost islands and, thrilled to be the first to rediscover them, names one of them after himself, admitting it's the most conceited thing he's ever done. It's charming to read about a klutz at sea, and so unusual and unexpected that it adds humor to a cleverly written tale. Too bad Hodgson has to resort to the requisite storm at sea toward the end of the trip. She almost made it through a thoroughly original nautical adventure without the blackened sky, killer waves, chilling winds, and other Perfect Storm scenarios. No matter; her colorful vocabulary helps the reader visualize the action.
The second half of the book is devoted to Webb's efforts, once he's safely back on land, to get his skeptical editor to believe the islands really exist. A quirky and subtle love story between the two emerges gradually, continuing through the research and follow-up to Webb's trip, as does a mystery involving human skeletal remains found on the island.
While most of the book is printed in regular type, some of it is placed as if on Webb's personal yellow-lined notebook and graph paper, and it is decorated through-out with beautif
Heavy steps crisscrossed overhead. From his prone position ona saggy old couch, Hippolyte tracked them, watching the ceilingtremble faintly with each footfall. A chunk of plaster fell on his face.He brushed the powder off his skin and grinned. More plaster fell, andthe resulting patch became an intriguing dried-out lake bed. He caughthis breath. Where in the world is that? he mused.
This new feature was emerging in a ceilingscape that had alreadyundergone much geological activity. Above stretched a coastline ofstains, a three-dimensional terrain of bulges and flakes, charting years ofslowly encroaching water damage. Beginning in the East, appropriatelyat the window, a voyage round this head-over-heels expanse followeda string of long fjords of dampness. Thin tentacles crept out from theseinlets, the rivers that seemed to feed them. Continuing to the North,the eye navigated tufty patches of trial paints—spackley beige, rippledcream, stalactite eggshell—pigments applied by a previous owner whohad reasoned that new color might disguise the damage, but who gaveup, preferring, in the end, to suffer a loss rather than expend labor.Over to the West, the journey continued through the remains of theupstair tenant's overflowing bathtub. A spectacular deluge, this eventhad produced craters, cauldrons even, of heaving beams and drywallthat flowed down the wall and into the closet.
The floor had its own geography—a splash of red wine here, adent from the fall of a hammer there, the varnished golden woodrubbed rough and slivery white in paths of hard-booted heels andtoes. Swollen andblackened tidal pools, ditches, and hummocks, legaciesof the already-mentioned bath.
Hippolyte saw in the ceiling and the floor reminders of places heyearned to visit, so over the two years he had owned the apartment hehad added his hand to its evolving contours by vigorously writing innames and filling in missing details. All features were subjected to hislabeling frenzies: a wide split above his head that was reminiscent ofthe Don just before it emptied into the Sea of Azov, green moldcreeping out from the wall that exuded the humid Caspian marshlands,a staggering Gobi Desert where efforts to dry the damp hadresulted in crackling, blistering paint.
The small apartment was not as much of an anomaly in rain-soakedVancouver as one might imagine. Plagued by shoddy buildingpractices, the city was filled to the brim with inhabitants of suchapartments who had no affinities with maps or movement, whodespaired of similar features in their homes. Not so Hippolyte Webb.He had plastered nearly every available square inch of his walls withmaps—maps with corners curling, fragments of maps reconstructedinto mythical landscapes, maps adorned with precious cupids pinkfrom the exertion of harnessing the winds. Of these his favorites werethose with vast territories labeled Terra Incognita, unknown land, atleast unknown at one time.
His apartment—in its own way as lost and forgotten a corner ofthe world as any he could ever hope to find—was perpetually overwhelmedby piles of atlases and gazeteers stacked precariously on thefloor and by others threatening to slide off the warped and groaningshelves too narrow to support their burdens. Perched on the edge ofthe ancient couch that he shared with heaps of yellowed and brittlingnewspapers, Hippolyte was consumed by the forests, deserts, andmountain ranges hidden between the covers of these cherished books,the urge to tear them open and fly directionless through their pagesirresistible. Home barely long enough to change his clothes, here hewas yearning to leave again.
He loved this point in travel, the very beginning, the momentwhen the decision to go hit his heart and his gut, when the whirl oftopography careening through his brain burned his feet, when the finelines of maps tangled themselves around him like a net and drew himup and away, when his mind traveled the world before he even walkedout the door.
But which way should he go? It had gradually dawned on him thatthe world had gone all screwy, and, though he couldn't put his fingeron when it had happened or why, he knew that all of his certainties hadbeen yanked out from under him. It was as if he had awakened from adeep sleep suddenly aware that the seasons had slipped unaccountably,giving way to the winter equinox, the vernal solstice. This was the yearof warm spring rains in December, searing heat in April, falling leavesin June, and Arctic winds in September. Longing to find a land wherethe seasons had revolved to resemble those he remembered, he closedhis eyes, and one by one, plucked the petals off that delicate compassrose, the rose round which navigators glide and sailors whisper. Roundwhich even dolphins hold their breath. West, North, East, the cardinalpetals fell.
There had been a time when he had thought he could go onlyWest. That had all changed overnight, and he remembered exactlywhen; it had been last winter, during a stay in Bukhara. It was hissecond visit to that city, and he had decided to go back simply becausehe couldn't remember a thing about his visit made ten years earlier.On this trip he became disoriented—he blamed the inexplicable,suffocating heat—and found himself standing in front of a familiardoorway. It was a heavy wooden barrier, ornately carved and adornedwith a medieval lock, like any of hundreds of doors in the residentialquarter. Lost in reverie, he raised his arm to pound on it, but the ironfist of recollection stopped him just in time and brought him to hissenses. He remembered that the door gave passage to a house that hehad been forever barred from entering, the house of a woman he hadunwisely fallen in love with. Subsequent westward trips to other destinationsprompted the similar disturbing sensation: that he had gone sofar that he was doing no more than retracing his own steps and wasmistaking old memories for new. And since he was resistant to North'smagnetic pull and was perpetually at cross purposes with East, therewas no alternative; he decided right then and there to turn the worldon its axis and head south to find his bearings.
Accustomed to crossing meridians and marking his existence bydegrees of longitude, Hippolyte was enthralled by turning perpendicularand confronting latitude. This simple 90-degree shift, dismissedwithout thought in the past, was now seductive, tantalizing. Southbeckoned with the promise of places he'd never before heard of, placeswith names resonating isolation, places long ago forgotten. But itcouldn't be just any South. Too many other explorers had alreadybeen, and he had sworn long ago to never give in and follow them.
He stood up suddenly. Newspapers slipped to the floor, joiningothers that had fallen some time previously. Two long steps took himover to the far wall where an old globe hung from the ceiling. Heunhooked it and flung himself back on the couch, unleashing anothercascade of papers. As he wiped its dusty surface with his sleeve, he discoveredthat it had dried out and was threatening to come apart at theequator. Ignoring the damage, he drew a bold, black line straight south,adhering strictly to his chosen direction. From Vancouver, the line madeits way down to San Francisco and out into the Pacific Ocean, where itran its watery course uninterrupted—except for the equatorial split, atwhich point he paused and seriously contemplated the possibilities offalling through—until it hit the polar shores of the Antarctic.
On this particular globe the snowy terrain of the South Pole wascolored an optimistically warm and sunny yellow, though Hippolytedoubted that it would ever be anything other than cold and bleak. Butas formidable and distant as it was, it had attracted more than its shareof men who sought to lose themselves in the process of finding theundiscoverable.
In addition to the Antarctic, there were the Pacific islands oneither side of the line: Tahiti, the Marquesas, and Pitcairn to the west;Easter, Juan Fernández, and the Galápagos to the east, respectivelytempting visions of white sands and palm trees or isolated pockets ofmyth and adventure. But which one of these famous isles hadn'talready been trampled upon or rhapsodized over?
West had been so easy. When he first began traveling sixteen yearsago—he rapidly counted the time on his fingers—West had literallypitched him through Russia, Northern China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan,the Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France, and back home to Canada.Those three years spent circumperambulating the globe at the 49thparallel merely whetted his appetite for travel, but destitution threatenedto stop him in his tracks. Then two employed but restless palswho had money in their bank accounts and were ignited by his storiesproposed launching a travel magazine. The result was 50º North.Because travel was hot yet underexploited, the concept caught fire, andthe three of them reaped a considerable profit when they sold out a fewyears later to a large San Francisco publisher. It was this money that hadsince allowed Hippolyte the luxury of choosing when and where totravel, though he'd lately sunk too much of it into the apartment thatdid little more than serve as storage for his maps and books.
He thought of his life since that first momentous trip. An explorerby instinct and a self-taught natural historian by profession, but by nomeans by discipline, he had worked as a travel consultant, a botanist,and a linguist, but most of all he wrote. From his pen flowed detailand curiosity for a world full of contradiction. He was enticed by theemptiest of lands, the ones that lacked any signs of human presence,and was equally seduced by those so densely packed with life that theywere the very hearts of humanity.
Hippolyte whirled his globe, watching the pinks, greens, yellows,and blues blur into a palate of erratic colonialism. Each spin furtherjeopardized North's increasingly fragile hold on the SouthernHemisphere, which was now hanging by a small paper hinge straddlingSumatra and Borneo. After halting its demented wobbling, hecradled the Antarctic in his left hand and tore at the seam with hisright, liberating both halves from each other. In its newfound freedom,the world offered endless possibilities for a traverse directlysouth. He shifted South America to the west and redrew the line. Itskimmed the Amazon, then sped through the South Atlantic. At 50°South it passed over three barely noticeable dots located midwaybetween the Falklands and the island of South Georgia, then slammedonce more into the Antarctic.
What was South offering him? A hell of a lot of water and ice, forall he could see. At least, West was land, terra firma. He rotated thebottom half again and again, then flipped the globe over so that theSouth Pole was now at the top. This reversed aspect gave the appealingillusion that the area he was considering was somewhat south ofAntarctica. He carefully retraced his second line back towards theequator, pausing at the three unidentified spots. Why not try for a placethat didn't even warrant a label? Why weren't they labeled?
Eager to find out more about them, he tossed aside the mutilatedglobe in favor of a dog-eared school atlas dated 1892. In his possessionsince he found it languishing in a garbage bin some twenty years earlier,the atlas still reeked of decaying vegetables and damp cigarettebutts. Laboriously inscribed on the flyleaf—possibly at the behest ofsome prissy schoolmarm—was "March 12th, 1895, Perfection comesfrom small, daily sacrifices," a sentiment that provoked his impatience.Many of its cheap, thin pages had been torn, then crudely repairedwith strips of Scotch tape that flaunted the fingerprints of whoeverhad tried to mend it. Bits of the tape—no doubt shriveled and desiccatedlong before Hippolyte was born—fell out each time it wasopened. Other pages were forcefully scribbled upon in soft blackpencil: nonsense names like Pindobar, Tunafed, and Bruzistan replacedArabia, the Yukon, and the Urals. Vehement, random lines made bysharp pen nibs plowed haphazardly through the pages yet managed toconvey the idea of the bombing of a crudely drawn Christmas tree ora house or the moon. Whole topographical features had been effacedby the constant pointing and rubbing from the tip of some grubbychild's finger as he was doing whatever it is children do with maps.Hippolyte liked to think that the boy—and it was no doubt a boy,judging from the drawings of things being blown up scatteredthroughout—was trying to get a fix on where he was, as that's whatHippolyte himself had been doing at the age when he too drewpictures of explosions.
Overlying the destruction wreaked by the anonymous child wereHippolyte's own scrawls. He never planned trips with current mapssince their landscapes were stained by huge cities and bisected by toomany roads. Arrows, exclamation marks, circles, dates, mileages, all thespecifics that he needed in order to devise yet another getaway couldbe found on the pages of the atlas. Now turning to South America,he realized that for all these years, his travels had favored the regionsravaged by the child's hand, that they'd both left the SouthernHemisphere unexplored. The map of the South Atlantic was so pristinethat Hippolyte was prepared to regard the flawless page an omen andto get the hell back to familiar territory when he noticed smoothsailing between the Falklands and South Georgia, with not a hint ofthe three islands so enticingly speckled onto his globe.
He opened another atlas, this one from 1924. Again there were notraces of the islands. The maps papering the walls were no help, either;those bearing any semblance of reality were of only northern lands.Hippolyte dragged from behind a bookcase portfolio cases burstingwith loose maps. The first yielded India, China, Russia; another, Africa,the Middle East; another, pre-WWI Europe. Finally he found the foliohe was looking for. It was stuffed full of maps of South America,bought—found?—so long ago he couldn't even remember wherethey came from.
The real treasure here, the 1676 John Speed map of the Americas,lacked even the Falklands. The sight of this map swept Hippolyte up inan obsession of eclipses and heavens, of coastlines rendered deliriousby the imaginative mapmaker, of rivers that had no sources, of islandsthat faded off into infinity. The danger of maps possessed him now; hecaressed the rag paper, thick between his fingers and still bloated withthe earthly colors daubed onto its landforms. Hippolyte recalled buyingthis map in a moment of intoxication with the sheer extravagance of itscreation. Lacking sufficient cash, he'd offered to top off the contents ofhis wallet with his walking boots and watch. He'd left the shop, theprecious map snugly rolled up in its cardboard tube, oblivious to theabsurdity of his stockinged feet.
An 1851 Tallis map of South America, with its delicate coloring andcharming vignettes, showed the Falklands and South Georgia butignored the space in between. It reminded him of another in the series,a map of North Africa, and a wild goose chase that had taken him asfar south as he had ever been. Someone, perhaps the engraver, perhapsthe mapmaker, had marked "P. Hilsborough" onto Morocco's coastline,a short distance south of the city of Agadir. Finding no trace of this featureeither in the country itself or on any other map, he had tried touncover the secret of Hilsborough: had he been a self-aggrandizingapprentice in Tallis's company, or was the name—ludicrous consideringthe country to which it was appended—a means of trying to catchout would-be map plagiarists? His lack of success still rankled. Enoughof this, move on! he cried out, dropping the maps at his feet. The nextsheet, a pre-1850s Black's General Atlas South America map, also failedto provide the necessary detail; however, its corresponding "Chart ofMagnetic Curves" of the world showed three unmarked dots.
"Magnetic Curves" gave him an idea. He turned to the openingpages of the school atlas and its double-page Mercator's projection ofthe world. Here he found not only the presence of the islands but, atlast, their name: Aurora Islands. He'd had no doubt he'd find a name,but it gave him a jolt all the same.
That he'd never heard of them was no surprise; there must behundreds of islands that have slipped from public consciousness. Helooked for them in the index. They weren't listed.
Further sifting through the South America folder produced asmall but exciting Italian map from 1833 with I. dell' Aurora inscribednext to five rather significant islands and an 1877 French map withthree distinct islands labeled Is. de l'Aurore.
In twenty minutes he'd sifted through a total of twenty-five maps:three from the 1800s with the islands named, four from the same timeperiod with the islands located but unidentified, and eighteen, spanningthree centuries, that ignored them completely.
Hippolyte swept more papers off the couch and stretched outagain. Wouldn't it be amazing, he mused, to discover a forgottenisland? Or even better, as it was in this case, a bunch of them. Whenwas the last time an opportunity came along to actually find somethingthat had slipped out of existence?
He gazed at nothing in particular, lost in his imagination, until ahole in his sock caught his eye. The sight of his toe sticking throughthe frayed wool was an unwelcome reminder of the general cloud ofneglect engulfing him. It was always like this, when he was betweentravels, between lovers. He really ought to live with someone, hethought. Then he might feel inclined to spruce himself up and keepthe place tidy.
But the desire to share his life temporarily obscured two small butimportant details, one of which was having enough time for reading.This was never an issue when he and a new inamorata first steppedover the threshold of temporary monogamy. But as weeks dampenednovelty and reestablished habitual customs, he would ease back intohis pages, selfishly ignoring the small voice in the corner when it selfishlytried to recall his focus back to the world of more importantthings like dinner conversation or shopping. Not that some womendidn't share his passion for reading, but they believed there was a timeand a place for it. None of them would consider squandering wholedays and nights on it any more than they would consider sacrificingnightingales on the altar of love.
Besides, he couldn't start a new relationship now when he was onthe verge of departure. This detail was more pressing and instantlyrendered the whole notion inconceivable. He'd tried before, believingthat if he explained the reasons for the transient arrangement then allwould be well, but invariably ended up causing a disproportionateamount of distress. And probably more to the point, he had noprospects; opportunities to meet anyone new were limited severely byhis continual absences. He ran his hand over the stubble on his chin,then pulled his socks off and stuffed them under the couch.
He reached out and sorted through the maps on the floor, grabbingthe three that identified the Auroras. Questions raced through hismind as he studied the aged paper, engraved lines, and elegant lettering.If the Auroras did exist, then why had they been dropped off ofsome maps? If they didn't exist, why were they on these? Who foundthem? Who lost them? What was their modern-day status? For once,he regretted not owning a current atlas.
According to the 1877 map, the Auroras were located at 50º Westand 56° South, exactly halfway between the Falklands and theremoter, more easterly island of South Georgia. The position of thefive islands on the Italian map was vastly different, especially in lightof its larger scale. Here they were placed farther east, between 332° and336° West. West of where? What system of longitude were they using?Which meridian were they measuring from? The scale, too, was meaningless,specifying "Tuscan miles" and "French leagues." Spanishleagues he knew. American and English ones, too. What was the measureof a French league? Did scale even matter on a map of such appallingimprecision and inaccuracy? Inaccurate or not, though, it did displaya great deal of confidence in the Auroras' existence, granting themtremendous space and detail. That sold him; they were definitely worthlooking into more closely.
He sat up and frowned at the rain hitting the window. It wasNovember; why wouldn't it be raining? Except it had been rainingsteadily since August, only now it seemed warmer. He was fed up withthe weather, his restlessness, everything. It was time to leave again. Helooked around the apartment and sensed it had already become a littleemptier, that he'd already stepped partway out the door. Why notdecide right here and now? Go to the Auroras. Find a new direction.
Excerpted from Hippolyte's Island by Barbara Hodgson. Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Hodgson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted April 2, 2014
I loved the charachter of Hippolyte (though I would have liked to know really how it should be pronounced) his enthusiasm, his drive and his sense of adventure. As I read on, I began to wonder if the islands were real. But then I didn't care. Whether real or not, the way Hippolyte's charachter was written caught one up in the same excitement he was experiencing.
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Posted April 5, 2014
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