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Books of the Archipelago

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As Aliens continues, Ollie Brock explores a few corners of outsider literature.

Island Literature 1.1

A land in which the shoreline of a whole bay might just suddenly appear, rising five metres out of the water in the space of half an hour, is bound to inspire stories. The Galápagos archipelago is a place where the wild reigns. As each tiny, carefully controlled group of tourists motors quietly away from an island at dusk, it leaves behind hundreds of roaring, barking sea lions, and great piles of iguanas that blanket the volcanic rocks. Out on the water, it is common to see a large flock of Nazca boobies wheeling above the sea, before they spot prey below the surface and fall, all at once, in a sort of terrifying Hitchcockian cascade.

Humans in the Galápagos are constantly reminded that it is they who are the aliens. We are drawn to the place but forever driven away, and the history of human settlement there is largely one of doomed attempts.

In the most famous case, a German dentist called Friedrich Ritter and his lover Dora Strauch divorced their spouses and set sail for the islands in 1929. They were determined to find an island paradise, a place to cut themselves off from society and practise the teachings of Nietzsche. (So fierce was this ambition that they had all their teeth taken out to see if their gums alone would suffice, using false teeth where absolutely necessary. On the journey over, however, they lost one set, and had to share the remaining one from that day on.)

They ate only the fruit and vegetables they grew, and rarely wore clothes. News of their Robinson Crusoe-like existence spread thanks to a number of magazine features, and they were soon joined by a more docile German couple, the Wittmers, as well as an imperious Parisian woman who declared herself the ‘Baroness’ of the island and dragged a train of slavish admirers with her wherever she went. Within a few years these three parties were all but at war with each other, and the affair ended in disaster. At least two people, including the Baroness, were never found; the bodies of two others were recovered, petrified on the beach of a far-flung island, with the carcass of a sea lion nearby. Crazed by thirst, the two men had most likely used an old sailor’s trick and killed the sea lion to drink its blood. The dream was definitely dead, and by the end of the saga there were deaths by disappearance, exposure and poisoning to account for.

One of the most intriguing things about that debate is that it has mostly played itself out in books. John Treherne, a professor of biology at Cambridge University, discovered the story on a research trip to the islands in the 1980s, and constructed his narrative in The Galápagos Affair largely from the diaries kept by its protagonists. It’s been said that the book has done more to make the Galápagos famous than Charles Darwin has. They had also written books of their own, though, and a sort of battle of the memoirs has taken place: Margaret Wittmer’s Floreana gives one account of events, and the papers of G. Allan Hancock, a millionaire who visited the islands and befriended some of the settlers, provides another. The most extreme claims are made in Dora Strauch’s Satan Came to Eden. (‘Satan’, in this case, was the Baroness.)

Each story has sought to set the facts straight, to ascribe blame where it belongs, and Treherne’s book is a sort of synthesis of these efforts; he unveils a grand theory in his closing pages. When I visited, however, a naturalist and native of the islands presented me with his own version, rubbishing all the written attempts to date. The mystery continues.

More details of the story – including a ravaging wild boar that Friedrich Ritter believed to be an incarnation of the Baroness – can be found in Luc Sante’s review of Treherne’s book from when it came out in 1984, and an exchange of letters in response to it, in the New York Review of Books.

What I’m Reading: Aliens in Brazil

What drives us to seek out these imagined paradises? We may have been better off staying put, but that doesn’t stop us going. To judge by the first poem in the ‘Brazil’ section of Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel, the poet went there with ‘immodest demands for a different world,/ and a better life, and complete comprehension/ of both at last’. The evidence seems to say that she found it: the poems in this book, though not much more peopled than her earlier works – and retaining their quiet poise – seem brighter, full of hope for a new homeland. There are still doubts, of course, still ‘questions of travel’:

What childishness is it that while there is a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?

I have come late to Bishop’s work - after reading William Boyd’s biographical essay about her time in Brazil. (I was also encouraged by Nicholson Baker’s wonderful novel The Anthologist, which I wrote about in an earlier post.) Chatto & Windus have a wonderful edition of her complete poems, including carnival sambas and translations of work by Max Jacob and Octavio Paz. (They have also just put out centenary editions of both poems and prose.)

Updike’s novel Brazil was much less affectionate, using the country as a setting that allowed both an examination of flourishing capitalism (Brasília in the 1960s and 1970s) and a primal return to the jungle (a curious magical realist foray in which the main characters encounter a cluster of surviving conquistadors). It seems it’s the writer, not the setting, that counts.

William Boyd guest-edited Granta 100. To read that issue, as well as other articles and stories by William Boyd, subscribe to our archive now. You’ll get the whole of Granta’s past for the price of a single print issue.

Granta 114: Aliens is now on sale. Buy it here.
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Previously on the Granta blog... George Orwell’s diary chronicling his research in Wigan, and Yuka Igarashi on how writers gather material.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Amalia Gladhart

    Fri Mar 25 14:50:22 GMT 2011

    On the topic of "Books of the Archipelago," may I suggest "Beyond the Islands," my translation of Ecuadorian novelist Alicia Yánez Cossío's "Más allá de las islas"? It's just been published by UNO Press (unopress.org). Pirates, tourists, naturalists, a little magic--and a few of the characters Treherne's book portrays.

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  2. Ollie

    Fri Mar 25 14:58:17 GMT 2011

    Thanks Amalia. Does Cossío actually fictionalise those very people for some of her characters? I'd well understand if she did - they're crying out to feature in novels. Forgive a cliche, but Ritter & Strauch are almost so good you couldn't make them up.

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  3. Amalia Gladhart

    Sat Apr 02 16:07:14 BST 2011

    Ritter, Strauch et al don't appear as (live) characters in Yánez Cossío's novel, but one of the characters in Beyond the Islands/Más allá de las islas develops a fascination with the vanished Baroness and has her replicated as a plastic doll. It seems there's always room for fiction to go just a bit further than the far-out reality.

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