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“DELIGHTFUL . . . INQUISITIVE AND INTELLIGENT, THIS BOOK WILL TAKE YOU FAR AND OPEN YOUR EYES.”
–The Seattle Times
In a penetrating, brilliantly written book that weaves sociology, history, politics, personality, and ancient and popular culture into one compelling narrative, Thurston Clarke island-hops around the oceans of the world, searching for an explanation for the most enduring geographic love affair of all time–between humankind and ...
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“DELIGHTFUL . . . INQUISITIVE AND INTELLIGENT, THIS BOOK WILL TAKE YOU FAR AND OPEN YOUR EYES.”
–The Seattle Times
In a penetrating, brilliantly written book that weaves sociology, history, politics, personality, and ancient and popular culture into one compelling narrative, Thurston Clarke island-hops around the oceans of the world, searching for an explanation for the most enduring geographic love affair of all time–between humankind and islands. Along the way Clarke visits the remote and silent Mas À Tierra, the island off the coast of Chile that inspired Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe; sleepy, simple Campobello, the Canadian island where Franklin D. Roosevelt spent his boyhood summers; Jura in the Hebrides, where George Orwell wrote 1984. A stunning work of wit, adventure, and incisive exploration, Searching for Paradise brings a unique passion to dazzling life.
“This enchanting hymn to our ceaseless fascination for islands and insularity is brilliant, quite without equal. Thurston Clarke’s wisdom and sensitivity radiate from every page: he fills us with an inexplicable longing for the land and the people glimpsed above the cliff top, and through the grasses beyond the beach.”
Author of The Professor and the Madman
“An intelligent, passionate, absorbing book that manages to pull together the threads of history, myth, travelogue, personal reflection, and social commentary into a delightful narrative.”
–Toronto Globe and Mail
The modern obsession with islands starts with Robinson Crusoe, so I started with his island, Mas a Tierra, the Pacific Islandfour hundred miles off the coast of Chile in the Juan Fernandez archipelago,where a Scottish seaman named Alexander Selkirk was marooned for four and a half years between 1704 and 1709. After his rescue by the privateer Captain Woodes Rogers, Selkirk recounted his story to the journalist Richard Steele. It is believed that Daniel Defoe read both Steele's resulting article and Woodes Rogers's book, A Cruising Voyage round the World, and incorporated Selkirk's experiences into his novel Robinson Crusoe. Some scholars suspect Defoe met and interviewed Selkirk, and when a Selkirk descendant recently sold his birthplace to settle inheritance taxes, she lambasted Defoe as "a man of no scruples" who had stolen and distorted her ancestor's story.
I first encountered Mas a Tierra in Two Years Before the Mast,
Richard Henry Dana's account of his 1834 voyage from Boston to
California. Dana called it a classic island, the most romantic on earth,
and praised its rushing streams, lofty mountains, rich soil, plentiful fruit, and aromatic trees. It had a "peculiar charm," he wrote, perhaps because of its solitary position in the vast expanse of the South
Pacific, and "the associations which everyone has connected with it in their childhood from reading Robinson Crusoe," ones that gave it
"the sacredness of an early home."
To reach this sacred home, which Chile has renamed Isla Robinson
Crusoe, I traveled to Santiago, telephoned the offices of Transportes
Aereos Robinson Crusoe (TARC), and was instructed to be in my hotel lobby at 3:00 P.M. with $420 in cash. The TARC agent was a stone-faced lady in rhinestone glasses who counted my money twice before parting with a ticket. After snapping her purse shut on my dollars she warned that the rains had started early this year and we had already entered the season of autumn storms, when flights could be delayed for days or weeks. But I was just happy to be buying a plane ticket to Isla Crusoe. An island of two hundred people four hundred miles from the Chilean mainland would not have had air service at all without the highly prized lobsters that were shipped to Santiago on return flights.
TARC was one of several small companies using the antique Cerillos airport. When I arrived at midmorning, the tarmac was shrouded in fog and the terminal deserted. A little girl unlocked a kiosk selling newspapers and snacks, then curled up on the counter and fell asleep.
An old crone cleaned the bathrooms, then locked them. A pay telephone rang and rang, echoing through the empty hall.
There were three other passengers. Carlos was a burly young man with a face lost in whiskers and the loping gait of a yeti. He said he had taken a leave of absence from the school where he taught and was going to Isla Crusoe for a week "to forget certain things." But he carried a polar anorak, his luggage exceeded the ten-kilogram allowance,
and I suspected he had suffered some crushing tragedy and planned on marooning himself for much longer.
Irene was a parakeet-sized woman in her sixties who had brought along a friend, the plump and timid Alicia, as her silent caboose.
Thirty years in the Atacama Desert had sun-blasted her face into a dalmatian pattern and left her straw-colored hair brittle and spontaneous-combustion dry. She made a theatrical meal of every sentence and introduced herself by excoriating everything that had ruined Chile:
the corrupt politicians, the McDonald's hamburgers, and owning more things instead of touching more people. Whenever her family or the Atacama became too much, she said, "I threaten to move to this marvelous island and always I imagine living there alone." Her sons had finally given her a ticket and said, "All right, then, go!"
She wore a thin sweater and admitted having left behind her windbreaker. She had it ready to pack, she said, "But then I asked myself, 'Why do I need that thing in paradise?' " She stared at the peeling ceiling and shut her eyes. "It will be how everyone should live. No noise or contamination. The islanders will be gentle people who know how to enjoy life. I may stay forever."
I began describing Selkirk's despair upon first wading ashore.
She looked appalled and threw up a hand. "Stop! Oh, please stop,
dear man. Don't say anything more! If this island is not paradise, I
don't wish to know."
The four of us stood alone in the middle of the empty terminal as speakers played, "Put your hand in the hand of the man. . . ." I remembered the Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None,
in which a mysterious host invites ten strangers to a private island off the south coast of England, then murders them one by one.
TARC's Santiago manager appeared. He swooped his arms and delivered a lecture about the complexities of landing on Isla Crusoe.
The dirt runway was eight hundred meters long and curved upward,
like a ski jump. Beyond it was a cliff. Strong winds were blowing across the airport today, making landing treacherous. We would wait another two hours, until the telephone in the hall rang with the next weather report from Isla Crusoe.
The delay stretched to two days and when we reassembled we had gained another passenger, a young Chilean named Luz with the high cheekbones of an Indian princess. She had graduated from college in the United States and was flying out to visit her mother, a recent divorcee who had moved to Isla Crusoe on an impulse and was supporting herself by teaching the children of the lobster fishermen to speak English. Cerillos airport remained forlorn and foggy. As we climbed aboard, our pilot, a baldy wearing thick spectacles and a filthy cardigan, was kicking the tires. The manager and his wife handed out homemade sandwiches and waved handkerchiefs. I fell asleep and woke two hours later as we descended toward a rugged green island waving a tentacle of brown desert into the ocean. The contrast was stark: a tangle of craggy, thickly forested peaks shooting from a boiling sea to the north, an arid red plateau of rock and dust to the south: King Kong's island married to a finger of Lawrence of
We landed in the desert and taxied past a smashed Cessna to a shack. The wind had blown out every window and piles of scrap metal kept its tin roof from taking flight. A mestizo with shock-treatment eyes pumped our hands as we descended the stairs. "Marcel is our fireman and weatherman," the pilot said. "He tells us if it's safe to land."
Irene pirouetted. "It's wonderful, wonderful!" she shouted. "I'm always saying I'll move here, and now . . ." She took in the peeling shack and the dust devils dancing across the runway. "And now . . . I
guess we'll see."
Marcel roped our luggage onto a Land Rover and we lurched down a crumbling track cut into the caldera of an extinct volcano. A
fishing boat waited at the jetty below. We boarded it and spent almost two hours plowing through a roller-coaster sea, past skyscraper cliffs ending in ridges sharp enough to slice an onion.
The crewmen were mahogany-tanned and loquacious. They said they used these razorback ridges to mark their lobster traps and pointed out a jagged pile of rocks nicknamed, for obvious reasons, "the
Widow-Maker." They claimed it was not really that windy (in New England,
gale force flags would have been flying) and called this cauldron of whitecaps a gentle sea. The new moon often brought a five-day window of calm weather like this. After that, watch out.
They boasted that their island was a United Nations World Biosphere
Reserve because it had so many rare plants. Its lobsters were the sweetest in the world because they came from the lobster latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Its seals were native only to this archipelago and the most beautiful on earth because of their rare mixture of gray and black hairs. And nowhere else could you find Isla
Crusoe's red hummingbirds, or the luma tree, whose hard wood was prized by Chilean policemen for their billy clubs, or the wild cabbage that nourished "Alejandro" Selkirk.
As we rounded the next-to-last headland before the island's only settlement, San Juan Bautista, spotlights of sun fell through the firmament-of-heaven clouds, illuminating a cave with a low stone wall set in its mouth. "Crusoe's cave," the fishermen chorused—
the first evidence I had that on this island Selkirk and Crusoe were interchangeable.
An amphitheater of green mountains rose steeply from the shore and surrounded San Juan's ramshackle warehouses and bungalows.
The highest mountain, the tombstone-shaped El Yunque, was so rugged that less than a dozen people have reached its summit, and so dark and sinister that an indigenous people would have made it the seat of a fearsome god.
Someone had fastened ten richly illustrated boards with poems about Selkirk and Crusoe to pilings lining the town wharf. Before I
could translate them, a jaunty man wearing a country club golf outfit tossed my bag into a wheelbarrow he pushed across the street to his boardinghouse, the Villa Green. "Call me Robinson," he said, explaining it was a popular first name for island boys. There was also a
Hosteria Defoe, and a Posada de Robinson, where I drank a beer,
alone. I drank a second one, also alone, in a three-table bar where a yellowed clipping recounted how the British navy had sunk the German warship Dresden in this harbor during World War I. One survivor had become a castaway, living as a hermit for fifteen years and becoming known as "the German Robinson."
There were more Crusoean echoes in cottages that appeared-duce to ward off scurvy, and the brave trappings of civilization. School-boys wore blazers and ties, like their mainland counterparts, and the bust of the naval hero decorated a plaza where I never saw a single soul walk or sit.
You could hardly blame Isla Crusoe's inhabitants for confusing
Crusoe and Selkirk. The government had renamed Mas a Tierra for the fictional Crusoe, and visitors came with his name rather than
Selkirk's on their lips. When Americans on their way to the California gold fields stopped here in 1849 and 1850, they had been convinced it was the real home of the real Crusoe. One miner called it "the most fascinating spot, to me, on the face of the globe!" He wrote in his diary: "Tomorrow I shall see the enchanted isle! Not the picture of fancy but the real ground . . . perhaps see the cave that Robinson dug,
or the ruins of his little hovel." At the Villa Green, I read a 1928 National
Geographic article titled "A Voyage to the Island Home of
Robinson Crusoe," in which the author waited until the penultimate paragraph to point out that Crusoe was not a real sailor who had been shipwrecked on Mas a Tierra. When excursion steamers from
Valparaiso called during the first half of the century, a man dressed as
Crusoe, complete with parrot, umbrella, and peaked goatskin hat,
and accompanied by a redheaded Friday, had poled out on a raft to meet them. Even in Largo, Selkirk's Scottish hometown, there was a
Crusoe Hotel with a Juan Fernandez Bar and Castaway restaurant,
but nothing named after Selkirk.
I soon adopted the local habit of confusing the two men. When puzzled stares met my request for directions to Selkirk's lookout, I
asked for Crusoe's lookout. I began calling the cave where Selkirk stored his supplies "Robinson's cave," and caught myself wondering if any of the Spanish cannons lying in the grass or mounted along the waterfront dated from Crusoe's time. But I remembered Selkirk when my ankles were brushed by the descendants of the feral cats he had trained to lie at his feet and ward off rats.
San Juan had no venerable government buildings, historic churches,
or large buildings. Everyone looked to the sea for their living, depending on the lobsters that could bring twenty dollars in a Santiago restaurant. A century before, the islanders had simply tossed chunks of goat meat along the shore and attracted swarms of lobsters. The lobsters had since become more scarce and it was agreed that if they ever disappeared, so would San Juan. Meanwhile, it was as silent and lonely as a community of six hundred people could be. Lights twinkled at dusk, but the only people about were children gathered in a bar to watch the owner burn warts off his daughter's knee, and a half dozen adults enjoying a favorite evening ritual, watching the red hummingbirds drink nectar from bell-shaped yellow flowers. When night fell, the streets emptied, except for a boy kicking a soccer ball through the supports of a gong, the island's only fire alarm.
I ate cold lobster, alone, in the Villa Green, surrounded by polished wooden sideboards and wall calendars, and listening to the click of a pendulum clock. I read in the hotel guest book about "life-long ambitions fulfilled," bird-watchers who had "come for the hummingbirds but found so much more," and the joy of the world's most traveled disabled person to find himself, at last, on "the famous island of Robinson Crusoe."
I returned to the wharf with a flashlight to read the poems. One spoke of Selkirk sleeping with Odysseus, another of Crusoe's "island of silence." On my way back to the hotel I bumped into Irene, who was staying at a neighboring boardinghouse. She said, "You know, it is very quiet on this island."